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Taking Children Seriously (TCS) is a philosophy of parenting and education. But it's bad to label it. It isn't one set of opinions that you may or may not agree with. It isn't meant to be a particular school of thought or camp. Other parenting labels advocate specific actions and are tied to those actions. Attachment Parenting wants more parent/child touching, co-sleeping, babies in slings, and things like that. It's a set of ideas you might agree with, and might disagree with. Homeschooling is about taking kids out of school. If your kids go to school you aren't a homeschooler, even if it is morally right that your kids go to school -- perhaps because they want to for a good, thought out reason.

TCS isn't about doing a specific thing and if it's right to do something else you must give up on TCS. It's a different sort of thing. TCS is a set of ideas about what *is* right. If we were to change our mind about what was right, we'd also change our mind about what TCS is. That means it can't turn out to be wrong, at least in the long run, because it will change. No valid criticism of TCS can stay true over time because TCS will change so that is no longer a valid criticism of it.

This all sounds a bit unfair. Like TCS is cheating because it wants to win no matter what. And that gets back to the original point: labeling it is misleading. No one thinks it is unfair that our best ideas of parenting should be continually updated. The only thing that's unfair is calling the best ideas TCS, saying we invented it (or that Sarah did), and trying to take credit for "TCS" even as it changes.

But, there really is a distinct set of good ideas about parenting, which are unpopular or unknown in general, and which are advocated by the TCS movement. The present state of those ideas certainly has flaws and will be superseded. But, at present, it is important, and it's hard to refer to otherwise.

Anyway, this is all about terminology, and a bit dull. The important thing is: what *are* the best ideas of parenting and education that we know of? And we might also wonder why they aren't very popular, and what is the history of the presently dominant parenting ideas, and other fun things like that.

First I want to say that some good parenting ideas are popular. I respect the progress that has been made. We take for granted, today, in the USA, that we should buy things that our children want, and help them to learn, and help them to be happy, and help them to become independent. Each of those has some limits placed on it, but still those are great things. Think of what are goals are *not*. We do not spend all our time teaching conformity and obedience (although parents do expect a certain amount of obedience and discipline, and often encourage conformity, sometimes unintentionally). We do not approve of forcing children to work for our benefit (chores being only a minor exception). We do not, generally, decide what our child should (must) be, and his place in life, independent of his wishes, and force it upon him. We do not foist arranged marriages on our children. We don't mutilate female genitalia.

One thing that is helpful to know about these new and (I claim) better parenting ideas is that many are not full descriptions of how to live. And this also relates back to, above, why TCS does not prescribe particular behaviors and link itself to them. TCS is more about suggested policies of behavior, and it is up to you to decide which particular actions are appropriate within the bounds of the general policies which are right. And it also has many criticisms of present day behaviors, often with no particular alternative given. If this sounds a bit unhelpful, don't worry. There is ample advice about how to think such that you come up with great ideas, and there are explanations of why no alternatives to many parenting practices are needed.

Thanks for bearing with me so long. One of the problems is it is difficult to figure out where to start. There is a big picture, but when you talk about it then it sounds a bit like boasting. But if you talk about the fine details it may not be clear why they are important.

So, let's consider punishment, aka "discipline". Parents generally make some rules, set some limits, some boundaries. And they make requests to their children, and expect certain attitudes like politeness and a degree of obedience. Sometimes this is hidden. Parents often will tell a child it is bad to do a certain thing, and that he must do something else. They expect obedience and become very frustrated if child does not comply. It seems to them child is being intentionally wicked and is a trouble maker. It is good to have reasons for parental commands, such as an appeal to morality, but that doesn't make them any less of commands.

There are two major issues here so let's try to separate them. One is the obedience itself. It's the idea of parental authority -- a legitimate right to command the ignorant child. The other issue is what do parents do if their child is disobedient. They discipline or punish him. Sometimes they plead, or try to make him feel guilty, or other unpleasant things. Those things are designed to control the behavior of the child just as much as a punishment is.

So, authority. Why should a parent have authority? Well, maybe because he knows more. Compared to a young child, a parent is an expert at most stuff. There is really a big difference. Another possible justification is that the parent is bigger and stronger -- he can use force. This is not a good reason, but it's worth mentioning and rejecting because the idea comes up sometimes. Consider a time out. The justification might be that the parent is smarter, wiser, and therefore correct and the child needs to learn to do the thing the parent knows is right. But whatever we might think of that, the form a time out takes is forcing a child to sit in his room or in the corner. So the form of the authority -- force -- does not match the claimed justification very well. If the thing that sets parent and child apart is intelligence then why is the parent using force instead of his mind? Why doesn't he best the disobedience child with rhetoric? With criticism of child's actions? With powerful, undeniable good reasons? People will say it is because the child does not listen. But first, punishing child is a very poor way to make them listen. It turns them against you because it hurts them, which is its purpose. And second, children do listen sometimes, especially when they think you're being helpful. If you're so much smarter and wiser, and especially if you have great knowledge of the issue child is being punished regarding, then that is all the more reason you should be able to talk so child will want to listen, because you have such good things to say.

Authority is never a valid way to argue, you know. Just because I have this fancy blog doesn't make me right. People with college degrees make mistakes. Kings too. Priests too. Experts of all sorts are wrong sometimes. We all know this. If you say you're right because you have authority, so listen to me, you're just being a jerk. You can't say that to people. What you need to do is give a reason you are right -- and one the other person can understand. If you can't give one they can understand -- maybe you say it's too complicated -- then why would they listen to you? A real expert would be so good at his field he could give a summary. It might be missing a lot of details, but it's something.

This is important stuff. If your car mechanic says "I'm a mechanic and I know best" you wouldn't trust him. You don't to find a better mechanic who will treat you like a thinking person and explain his recommendation, and then let you make the final decision if you want the expensive stuff he suggests.

If your college professor makes a claim about a philosopher that you don't agree with, and he says he's right because he's the professor, that's a bad teacher. You shouldn't listen to him. Do your own research and make up your own mind. A good professor with a good point would convince you he was right.

There's one exception. Parents don't have to give reasons. "Because I said so." is an approved sentence. It was even featured in marketing by Apple Computer, which demonstrates that it doesn't offend a significant amount of people. There's a movie by the name now, too.
Because You Said So
More flexible parental controls in Leopard mean you can place restrictions on use of the Internet. You can, say, specify a time of day and duration for your child to play World of Warcraft.
This isn't just rejoicing in taking choices away from children and putting them in the hands of their parents. It isn't just about having power over your child's life. It's also about *not having a reason*. You don't have to give reasons, you just set it up and that's it. You said that's how it will be, so that's how it will be.

That's authority. It's bad. What we should aim for is a life governed by reason. Part of living according to reason -- according to thinking about what is best and why and trying to find the truth of things -- is having reasons for things! And discussing them. If someone disagrees, even a child, you can't just assume you are right. You need to hear their reason and think about it. Maybe it's valid. Maybe not. If you can say why it's wrong that's fine. But then you've given a reason. And if you can't, that doesn't mean you're wrong, but you shouldn't be certain who's right if you can't say what's wrong with the alternative.

Children know a lot less. That doesn't mean they are always wrong though. The times they speak up about something are usually the times they know the most about something! It's not what they know on average that's important but what they know about the specific thing at issue. Say the issue is when they play World of Warcraft. That's actually something they would know a lot about. They know their own schedule pretty well. They know how tired they are and whether they want to go to sleep yet. A parent can have a different opinion about one of these things -- and be right -- but it's no where near guaranteed. If you just block all World of Warcraft after 10pm that's not a very good policy. It's going to make a mistake. One saturday night child is going to be playing with a group of 39 other people completing a major quest and he'll be wide awake, and he'll have no important things to do the next morning, and he'll want to play longer and not abandon those real live people he's playing with. And then the apple software is going to kick him off the internet whether it's right or wrong, and it's not going to give any reason.

Sometimes children think they know enough to have an opinion when they really don't. But that's not so hard to deal with. If you help them figure out how to tell if they know enough -- and how to learn enough -- to have good opinions that is genuinely useful advice and there's every reason they will want to know that and listen (unless they think it's a mean trick to control them more, of course). But besides that, the argument can still proceed rationally even if they are mistaken about how much they know. It's really not a problem. If they don't know enough just ask them some questions about their position and they won't have the answers because they don't know. Problem solved. They'll see their ignorance when they can't answer.

A lot of times children don't want to do as they are told because they think they won't like it. That, again, is absolutely no time for a parent to put his foot down or rely on authority. If child thinks he won't like something out of ignorance just tell him a little about it focussing on the fun and enjoyable parts.

You might think all this explaining things to children is a waste of time. Well, not a total waste because it's educational. But how important is it, really? What if you're tired and don't feel like it right now? If you know you're right, what does it matter if you don't give your child a lesson about the reasons every time?

The answer in very short is that you might be mistaken. Don't take it personally. Everyone is mistaken sometimes. But it's more than that. The process of giving reasons is actually a part of how we can avoid mistakes. The more you know, and the more right you are, the easier it is to give reasons. But the less you know, and if you are wrong, then it's much harder to give reasons or arguments or to persuade anyone. So the times when you most feel like giving reasons is too much trouble are actually hints that those are the times you are most likely to be wrong or at least not to have thought it out carefully.

So part of the concept of authority is obedience. That's what the child is supposed to do. The authority gives a command, and the child obeys. Obedience is kinda mindless. It's not about considering if the command is a good idea. It's just about doing it. That's not a good habit to be in. It won't serve you well in life. And even if it would, is that really the kind of life you want for your children? We rightly value lives of thinking and reason where we make a lot of our own decisions and we can pursue happiness according to our own values. The idea with children is they can do that when they are older. But isn't it strange to live one way and then suddenly change later? If thinking is so great why not start young? Very talented people usually do. It's kind of well known that young kids sometimes learn really fast. Other times people say young kids don't have fully developed brains. But that's a load of crap. English is very complex and they figured that out.

Thinking isn't important just to get in the habit. You learn more when you think things out. And that dispels ignorance. And ignorance is the justification for authority over kids in the first place. By expecting obedience you take away opportunities for them to grow up, essentially. Even making mistakes is important to people's learning process. Most mistakes have no serious lasting harm so don't worry about it so much. Say child stays up late *and it was a mistake*. Who cares? Next time it will be even easier to persuade him to go to bed -- if he doesn't want that on his own! -- because of the bad experience. Being able to try out your own ideas is important. Discussion is great but sometimes people find this or that thing hard to understand just from words and it'd help to experience it.

Obedience also is about not questioning or criticizing authority. But questions are a great thing. They help people to learn and understand better. People don't ask enough questions. And criticism is good too. It's a chance for you to learn your mistake. Or if you think the criticism is wrong it's a chance for you to point out a mistake in the criticism and then the criticizer can learn. In general, criticism helps find good ideas because they stand up to it best. And it helps get rid of bad ones because they can't stand up to it very well. With no criticism you can't really tell the difference between good and bad ideas because you aren't looking to see what's wrong with any of the ideas.

As a reminder, the other major issue we were keeping separate earlier was about what you do to a disobedient child -- how you exercise and enforce your authority. I'm stopping here. I might write about that tomorrow.

Elliot Temple on July 12, 2007


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