A new child-rearing movement believes parents should never coerce their kids
Four years ago, I subscribed to an e-mail list for “attachment-style” parents. With my new baby son warming my lap, I devoured discussions about gentle discipline, sleeping with the baby, choosing a sling, and breast-feeding past a year. We were all united in the belief that there existed a superior way to raise children, and by examining other cultures we could throw off our Western thinking and discover it. We also believed that our children had an intrinsic wisdom and as parents we must be protectors of their inalienable human rights.
One day a mom posted a message saying that she was having trouble getting her toddler son to take his daily, life-saving medicine. The parents felt they had no choice but to hold him down and make him swallow it. She was looking for ways to make this less traumatic for her son. Most of the suggestions were what one might expect, like hiding the medicine in food or bribing the baby with candy. Then a woman named Sarah Lawrence posted something entirely different. She accused the mother of abusing her child by forcing him to do something he didn't want to do. “If you were my mother,” she finished, “I would kick you with a hobnailed boot!”
The list exploded. Though at first the uproar centered around Lawrence's tone, the argument eventually shifted to whether children should have to do whatever they're told to do. Is it better to raise children without coercion? Could using coercion in any form—no matter how lovingly presented—be damaging to children?
As it turned out, Sarah Lawrence and her allies weren’t merely like-minded individuals who happened to find themselves in the same chat room. They were, in fact, proponents of a radical parenting movement known as Taking Children Seriously (TCS). Founded in England by Lawrence, who now goes by the name Sarah Fitz-Claridge, a writer, lecturer, and former editor of a homeschooling magazine, TCS is her attempt to extend her libertarian political philosophy into the realm of child rearing. Just as libertarianism is based in the idea that the state should not interfere with the freedom of its citizens (except to protect the rights of others), so TCS believes that parents shouldn't curtail the freedom of their children.
Fitz-Claridge defines TCS this way: “Its most distinctive feature is the idea that it is possible and desirable to bring up children entirely without doing things to them against their will, or making them do things against their will, and that they are entitled to the same rights, respect, and control over their lives as adults.”
Along with TCS co-founders David Deutsch, an Oxford University physicist, and author Kolya Wolf, Fitz-Claridge is a follower of the 20th-century European philosopher Karl Popper. Borrowing his arguments on how we actually acquire knowledge, Fitz-Claridge and others believe that children must be allowed to make their own conjectures about the world, then see for themselves if their theories hold up against experience. In their view, to “coerce” children disrupts this crucial process by forcing them to act in accordance with their parent's perceived truth as opposed to their own. Only if children are allowed to refute or verify their own ideas are they free to learn.
“When we talk about the harmful effects of coercing children, we are at heart talking about the harmful effects of coercing human beings,” says Annette Abma, a Toronto author and mother of two children who runs two online discussion lists about noncoercive parenting. In Abma’s view, a child under coercion is no longer rational because she is living by one theory while a conflicting theory is still active in her mind. “She is, in essence, contradicting herself. Because of our innate rationality, however, we find this state of mind extremely uncomfortable and will strive to right the wrong by making sense of it.”
Some TCS parents cite the work of Alice Miller, a Swiss psychoanalyst who has written many books about children, including For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence (Noonday Press). Miller argues that when harm is done to a child by a loved one, the child will try to make sense of this harm by making it right in her own mind. If the child believes “My father hit me for my own good,” then she herself may grow up and hit her own children for their “own good,” furthering the abuse cycle. Extending this thesis, TCS advocates say that coerced children grow up to be coercing parents who believe it is their duty to thwart a child's natural desires and inclinations.
Taking children seriously means breaking this cycle by insisting on absolutely no coercion no matter what the circumstances. Parents can share their “theories” about the consequences of a child’s action. But because, in their view, no one is infallible, they insist that a parent's theories are not necessarily more right than the child’s.
This way of thinking doesn’t come naturally for most of us. It takes a seasoned TCS parent to explain it well. Abma uses the example of a 4-year-old named Jane who won't brush her teeth because she finds it painful. But Jane’s mother believes that if Jane doesn't brush, she'll get cavities. Even though Jane's mother explains this to her, Jane does not yet have the knowledge or experience to understand this theory's validity, Abma says. So Jane, being a rational human being, will strive to make sense of this conflict (the pain of brushing versus her mother’s insistence that she do so) in an attempt to escape the coercive state of mind.
She may decide that toothbrushing has to hurt to work, or that her own feelings don’t matter, or that she must always listen to someone older when it comes to her body, or that her mother isn’t trustworthy.
Had I been Jane’s mother, I might have tripped out to buy a fancy electric toothbrush with an appealing cartoon character on the end of it, but I would still have insisted on nightly tooth brushing. They may be Jane’s teeth, but they’re my dental bills. Besides, I get embarrassed when my child goes to preschool with fuzzy teeth and smelly breath. Exactly, say the TCSers: I’m making it about me, not about my son. A parent’s duty, they say, is to help children achieve their own desires, not the parent’s.
“If Jane's mother took Jane seriously and looked into why she doesn’t want to brush her teeth or sought alternative ways of preventing cavities, then Jane’s rational process of conjecture and refutation could continue unimpeded,” Abma says. “Jane’s confidence in her own innate rationality would be supported and encouraged by something as simple as getting a softer toothbrush.”
But what if Jane still doesn’t want to brush her teeth? TCS parents argue that a “common preference” can always be found that will allow both parties to be happy. Common preferences are not the same as compromises, which demand sacrifice on the part of both parties; they’re solutions that are better than the original plans and thus a source of happiness for all involved. Getting to them takes patience, creativity, and basic trust. It also demands that parents give up their “entrenched theories”—that junk food and television are evil, for instance. In the case of Jane and the toothbrushing, a common preference might be that she chew special teeth-cleaning gum, or gargle with mouthwash, or gnaw on the roots that some cultures without toothbrushes have used to clean teeth.
Parenting philosophies evolve, much as cultures do. Aristotle believed that children are basically like animals; they must be trained to see that certain behaviors are good for them. In early America, Puritans regarded children as inherently sinful. Being a good parent back then meant trying to break a child’s will in order to create a person who would be humble before God. In 18th-century France, Jean-Jacques Rousseau parted with the traditional Christian view of children as morally corrupt by advocating education that grants freedom to the child, even freedom from obedience. Children learn best, he believed, when they follow their own natural interests and abilities.
In a way, TCS is little more than Rousseau's approach taken to its logical extreme. Children are not only inherently good, they are inherently rational. In place of the “I'm the mommy, that's why” school of parenting, many modern parents believe that, whenever possible, a child should be helped to understand the reasons behind the rules. TCS takes this one step further. You may explain your theory of how the world works to your child, but you then must trust his or her own rational capacity to make a choice of how to behave.
The idea that children are headed for disaster if they are not carefully coerced is “hogwash,” writes Fitz-Claridge. “Noncoerced children do not have tantrums; they do not discount the wishes of their parents; they do not steal, lie, commit suicide, intentionally destroy other people's property, go out alone at 3 a.m. to play in the park, or drink bleach.” TCS followers paint a picture of children (and families) who are truly free to be themselves, children who are able to create their own happiness unhindered by the expectations and demands of others. Such children, they say, are compassionate and respectful of the rights of others because their own autonomy has never been questioned.
When I force my son to go to bed, TCS parents equate that with rape or beating. That’s too far-fetched for me. But while I reject their belief that no coercion is best, I will acknowledge that less coercion is better. By exploring their philosophy and questioning my own firm beliefs about my parenting role, I have discovered opportunities in raising my son where before I saw problems, and for this I am grateful.
The problem for those of us outside TCS theory is that it is only a theory, as the adherents freely admit; there is no proof that it works. Even if the idea of using human beings to prove a parenting hypothesis was feasible, there are no adults raised on TCS philosophy to whom we can look. The first TCS children raised from infancy without coercion are just now heading into their teens, I am told. It will be interesting, one day, to hear their thoughts about their upbringing.
Dawn Friedman lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband and 6-year-old son, Noah. Excerpted from the thoughtful and provocative parenting magazine Brain, Child (Winter 2003). Subscriptions: $18 (4 issues) from Box 714, Lexington, VA 24450.
Dawn Friedman's article in Brain, Child inspired more letters to the editor than any other article the magazine had ever published. Here are two of them.
I, for one, get chills thinking about the selfish youngsters about to be unleashed on the world by practitioners of this kind of nonparenting.
Maybe if adults lived in a world where we got to do everything we wanted, this kind of approach would make sense. I have enough faith in children to believe that they will still be wonderfully creative and outstanding thinkers, even while learning to fulfill their obligations to take care of themselves and others.
I see a couple of major problems with TCS reasoning. First, the assumption that a child’s ego and sense of self are so fragile that “coercion” will do some kind of psychological damage. Anyone with an 18-month-old knows that their own sense of self is completely intact; getting them to realize that there are other “selves” out there in the world that need to be respected is the challenge. Which brings me to the second problem. “Respecting” a child by kowtowing to his every whim will hardly induce the child to respect the person who is doing the kowtowing. Yet TCS supposes that this is what will happen.
Don't you think it would be scary for a 5-year-old to believe her parents didn't have any answers? Or worse, has the answers and won't share them?!
Carol Price Spurling, Moscow, Idaho
Dear TCS Mommy:
When you call to tell me that you won't be coming over to play as we had planned because your son has rationally explained that he “doesn't want to,” and I have to throw out the pot of freshly brewed coffee, freeze the cake I baked, and explain to my sobbing daughter that not only is her friend not coming over to play, but it's too late to try to call other friends and invite them over, I want to know how you can justify placing one person’s need to be taken seriously (your child’s) over others’ need (mine, and my child’s).
When your son is in a public place, out of your immediate care, and surrounded by 10 or even 20 other children, all trying to listen to the librarian's story, or learn third-grade fractions, or practice the backstroke, and your son “doesn't want to” sit down, or complete the worksheet, or do two laps, and my child cannot see the book’s illustrations, or get extra help on the equation that’s difficult, or swim her laps because the librarian or teacher is desperately trying to find a creative, non-coercive way to appeal to your child, how is my child being taken seriously?
If you raise your child to believe he or she is the center of a universe that will move and bend and change to meet his every need, then where do you think my child is located?
A Very Serious Mommy
Lisa Rubenstein, Silver Spring, Maryland