Memes I

Some children are *impossible*. Some parents fight with their own children. Some girls are stunningly hot. Some guys are no less attractive, even if less effort has gone into describing it. Some people have midlife crises -- all of a sudden -- when the problem was visible for many years. Others waste their lives on trivialities and never notice. Some people go to great lengths to please others and be socially acceptable. Those same people exert effort to hurt anyone who doesn't do likewise.

These seemingly disparate situations all have a common thread. I now wish to introduce a matter of some consequence. First we will consider the effects, and afterwards I will explain how it happens. So bear with me if at first some notions strain your credulity.

Imagine that all the sins and vices of humanity are not natural, innate, inherent, God-given, or genetic. Consider that they are ideas, passed on through the generations, just like the knowledge to build fire or speak a language. This is not a very popular proposition, because it plants responsibility for the failures of humanity squarely on people and their mistakes. But that is no reason to think it untrue, and it is deeply optimistic because it insists that we are not stuck with our problems forever.

For an idea that isn't naturally reoccurring to survive very long, it must be able to get from older people to younger people. The best known and most effective means of transferring knowledge to the next generation has always been the teachings of a parent to his child. It is rare that any source rivals the influence with a child that his parents have, especially for very young children whose minds are most malleable. So if we consider that sins are ideas, and we further suppose that children do not invent all their sins anew, the most likely source of vice is from their parents.

It may seem a strange concept that parents would teach vices to their most loved ones, who they would do anything to protect. Surely no parent wants to hurt his child, or worse, doom him to a life struggling against vice and immorality. But what happens is not always what is intended to happen. It is well know that everyone has flaws, and that must include parents, no matter how virtuous their desires. Why should not their flaws make them do wrong unto their children?

Here I will ask you to again imagine a fact that seems foreign to the reality you know. We normally think of flaws in simple terms. A person might be a poor judge of romantic partners, or investment opportunities, or quality appliances. A person might have an angry streak and hurt his loved ones, or a cruel streak and hurt acquaintances, or be gullible or miserly or stupid. But where do such characteristics come from, if they are not inherent traits of humanity? They are not well liked like math, and no parent gives lessons to teach his child to be angry. So imagine that a part of the flaw was that the person behaved in such a way that he *did* teach the flaw to his children. Consider what reality would be like if this were true:

The shortcomings of humanity are now comprehensible, explicable phenomena, and we can do something about them. If defects in children are the result of parental behavior, then they can be prevented if parents behave differently. If our neighbors deficiencies are just ideas, we can reason with them. Most importantly, those parts of our own character that we find most distasteful are not outside our power to change. This view, while superficially it seems to cruelly blame people for qualities they'd do anything to give up, in actuality is a message of hope and optimism that we can all change for the better.

To see how it may be plausible that what you have imagined is accurate, let us turn our attention now to a concept that is already well accepted: the meme. A meme is an idea that, in the right circumstances, causes behavior in people so that the meme is copied into other people's minds essentially intact. Earlier we imagined flaws that caused themselves to be copied into the minds of children. If flaws are ideas, memes are a good fit.

Memes function according to the principle of evolution. Evolution simultaneously accounts for how the complexity of memes came to exist and gives us logic to see what sort of memes would come to exist. Complexity comes from competition over many generations. Over time, changes that make a meme more competitive will be favored. It is an easy proposition that improvements that help memes spread effectively would increase complexity. Think of a serious, involved debate like over abortion. Both sides have complex positions, and if you removed most of the complexity from either side it would become unconvincing.

What do memes compete over? Being passed on to younger people. Only a limited (large, but limited) amount of information is passed on. The logic of memes says that only the most competitive ones will survive, so we should expect all memes to have some characteristics to ensure they are passed on to more and more (younger) people (or to be new and on their way out).

How do memes compete? What makes a good one that will survive? It takes knowledge. This can either be knowledge of how to survive directly, or it can be knowledge of reality that people find valuable. This suggests (following David Deutsch) two distinct categories of memes: static and dynamic. The names will make sense shortly. Static memes embody knowledge of how to survive: they have knowledge of how to cause people to spread them. They contain mechanisms to cause human behavior, and function in any environment where people don't know how to resist those mechanisms. Dynamic memes have knowledge about reality, like an explanation of how to fix cars, or a theory of gravity. They function in any environment with people who value good ideas and actively seek them out.

Static and dynamic memes have different methods of ensuring continued survival, and that's where their names come from. Static memes, in essence, work to create a world of stasis. If nothing changes, they live forever. Dynamic memes are so named because they always change. They survive only as long as they remain the best ideas we have, but they are only replaced by better ideas, so the tradition of dynamic memes lives on.

Static memes might sound like a dark fantasy. Ideas that control people and suppress creative thought? However, their logic can and would work if the right ideas existed. So the only issue of their reality is in whether they were ever invented. Designing an idea capable of controlling human behavior and suppressing creativity would be virtually impossible. No one has the necessary knowledge and understanding of human behavior. However, static memes could have begun extremely ineffectively, and evolved to become more effective. At first, one might control human behavior in only a few rare cases, and only be able to suppress a few specific sorts of thoughts. But new variants that were a little more powerful -- that controlled people a little better -- would be selected for. Other qualities that would be selected for include being harder to notice having the meme, being harder (more complex or more painful) to get rid of the meme, and being better at causing people to copy the meme to children.

Returning to our initial queries, the common theme is that static memes offer an explanation of each situation. The child is impossible because his parents are hurting him which makes him irrational which makes him more accepting of static memes that don't make sense. People being attractive makes not enacting the romantic ritual painful and makes choosing mates an irrational process thus ensuring less competent parenting. People waste their lives because they are living statically. And social norms are a method by which static memes suppress new ideas.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (23)

On Banishing Iniquity From Children

School is thought to be a wonderful place, a veritable paradise for those of pure heart. Any child who truly wants to learn will find himself presented with eminently valuable opportunities. The children who do not thrive are losers who rebel against learning and thought. The virtuous children may suffer some at the hands of bullies, but it is a small price to pay for the growth available.

Childhood is thought to be a whirlwind of fun, personal development, and curiosity. Children have so many great activities to participate in, so many chances to bloom and build character, so much help and guidance, and such rich lives. And they have plenty of time to relax and enjoy it because they don't have to work and are free of responsibilities and burdens. It is a great blessing, and life is never the same again after work begins, and especially not after having children. Sometimes lazy children are tempted by sins like excessive television or marathon video game sessions, but as long as their parents do their duty, there is no danger. Being negligent would be a great disservice to those children.

Teachers are thought to be saints, famous for inspiring the best in children. They are kind and motivated. A few are lazy, and that is unfortunate and regrettable, but on balance unimportant. Teachers offer personal advice and help as appropriate, and always have something interesting or important to teach. Any child who has faith and puts his life in their hands will be well served and, when he enters adulthood on his own, will be well prepared to flourish.

The Bible teaches us that to spare the rod is to spoil the child, and promises that everyone will live happily ever after once vice is beaten out of children. Even the non-religious among us see that that is exactly right. Schools never discipline children of good character. But to leave a lazy, uncurious child to his own devices would be utterly irresponsible.

Parents take the Bible's teachings to heart, too. They love their children, and try to help them as much as they can in good conscience. But when their children refuse to listen to reason and persist in immoral actions, they must, for their own good, be saved from themselves and disciplined. Today parents have found new and more humane ways of disciplining children that don't even really hurt, like time outs and letting babies cry themselves to sleep and natural consequences.

The general model is the parent helping the child see the truths (including moral truths) that the parent knows. It is thought that the parent knows best, and that parents should take appropriate steps to make sure child understands. The parent should be as nice as humanly possible, but failing to impart critical moral knowledge, by any means necessary, would be gross negligence. No where does this formula give attention to the possibility of parental error. It is thus a recipe for entrenching mistakes forever.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Feeling Bad

Feeling bad has two distinct meanings. The first meaning we will call "coercion" and the second "inner conflict". Coercion is bad, inner conflict is good. Coercion is when you are hurt, when everything goes wrong. Inner conflict is when you wrestle with moral dilemmas and hard problems. Having conflicting theories is the same as having problems, and problems are not bad. The growth of knowledge can be seen as progress from problems to new and better problems; that's just as accurate a description as progress from solutions to more solutions. Hard problems have two different meanings. Hard problems can be problems that hurt, or just problems that are not simple, take a while to solve, matter, you might never solve. Problems hurt when you are unable to think about them in a rational way that makes progress. This feels frustrating. Not solving a problem does not inherently cause frustration. Having good problems to think about is fun; life would be boring without them. What's bad is when it hurts. We shouldn't shy away from problems for fear of being hurt. Being scared of problems is one of the mechanisms that makes them hurt.

Normally we engage in an intricate process of scheduling our thoughts, and choices, and problems, and criticism, and creativity. We constantly find short term solutions and juggle a variety of pressing issues. This is a good and necessary part of life. Coercion is when we drop the juggling pins and they fall on our head and give us brain damage. Inner conflict is just when there are a lot of pins that stay in the air a long time. There's nothing virtuous or admirable about coercion. But there is no mechanical way to avoid it. Coercion is not predictable and only happens as a result of failures of creativity. It only seems predictable when someone actively tries to hurt us, and has evolved traditions aiding them in hurting us. But in our own intellectual life, as long as we have some sense of what areas we are extraordinarily irrational about, there is little to fear. That doesn't mean coercion won't happen, it just means there is no specific thing to avoid that will help. Coercion is not caused by struggling with the conflicting theories that TV is worthwhile and a waste of time. It's caused by being unable to decide, for no good reason, whether to, as a temporary measure, watch TV today, or not. Coercion is not caused by being told that you should not hit your sister. That's just a good idea. It's caused by your parent trying to stop you from doing something you think is important to do, and you being unable to see why, and your parent not being helpful or comforting, and you believing your parent won't explain to your satisfaction later, and you being unable to see how to not mind, and you being unable to decide to think about it later in 5 seconds or 30 seconds or 5 minutes or 30 minutes or a day or a week, and you not being able to distract yourself and the issue is painful. Coercion is disasters of scheduling where problem solving goes awry and you hurt yourself. Avoiding problems does not help avoid coercion at all. It helps avoid learning. Not learning causes coercion, because it's harder to be happy when you have a bad life.

Not knowing the answer, all by itself, is not scary. Wondering what is right to do, and feeling conflicted, should not be scary. Do your best, and do it in such a way that if you're wrong you'll learn better. What more could anyone ask of you? And do one thing at a time, if that helps. Delay delay delay deciding while you do other things. Few problems need to be solved at the first moment they are thought of. Do them when it's best to. Be optimistic. You can and will make progress. There's nothing to fear. Just keep trying and you will, at the least, learn about what doesn't work. There is no reason this should hurt.

Parents should not be particularly scared of accidentally coercing their children. Innocent mistakes are as likely to cause coercion as random bad luck. That is to say, they will never cause coercion if people are rational about the subject in question. What parents should avoid is intentionally doing things designed to thwart, hurt, or oppose their children. This especially means all forms of disciplining children. If children do bad things, take their side and help them learn better. Anything that is truly good they will want for themselves. True morality doesn't hurt us, it helps us. It is not criticism, or being contradicted, that hurts anyone, so don't fear to do those. Instead focus on solving chronic problems and avoiding acting irrationally without thinking.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (8)

Positive Interpretations

Finding positive interpretations is a critical part of being optimistic. In our relationships with friends and family, positive interpretations are nearly always true because the people close to us don't want to do bad things to us, or at all. Misunderstandings and miscommunication are common occurrences, so it's wise not to jump to negative conclusions just because something seems bad.

Positive interpretations can be self-fulfilling prophecies, just as negative interpretations can be. Suppose someone asks a question, and he could mean a stupid question, or an interesting one. If we answer the interesting one, it may lead him to be interested in that and see the issue in the proper way, even if he didn't already. And we will be saying something more interesting and therefore better. Assuming the person means the stupid question, or even asking if he does, shows we think he is or may be stupid, and encourages him to see himself that way.

Positive interpretations help make life safer. For example, a child in need of advice, and partially confused about a moral issue, will want to be able to ask his parent questions and make mistakes about that issue without his parent deciding he is wicked. Rather, the parent should stick to the positive interpretation that the child is learning, and is not bad, and will be fine, and wants to be good. And most of the things the child says that seem bad won't be. Some will be glossing over an issue while focussing on a different one. Some will be harmless confusion about an unrelated topic. Some the child will be right about. Some, while the content is bad, won't indicate any defect in the child himself who's just curious about a bad thing.

Another issue is that being wrong about positive interpretations is less costly than being wrong about negative interpretations. That is why criminals only go to jail if there is no reasonable doubt: if there is any reasonable positive interpretation of events in which the man is not guilty, the risk of making a tragic mistake is too high. Similarly, to treat someone too well is nothing to be ashamed of, and no great harm will come of it. But to treat someone, especially your friend or child, too badly is a mistake you will regret.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (6)

Binary Choices

A binary choice is a choice with two options. Most binary choices aren't. For example "boxers or briefs?" is presented as having two options, but in fact there are others, such as going commando or wearing long underwear.

There are a lot of binary choices out there, like disciplining your children or spoiling them. Being permissive or harsh. Being left or right wing. Believing certainty, or that we don't know anything. Believing in God, or not. A child sharing his toy, or being selfish. A mother making her child share, or permitting him to act badly.

Each of the above examples isn't really a binary choice. There are all sorts of alternative options. For example one can be neither permissive and negligent, nor harsh in a variety of ways. One way would be to be helpful. This avoids "letting" kids do whatever bad things they want by helping them find out what is good to do. It also avoids being harsh by helping the child to get things he wants instead of thwarting him.

Common preference finding and non-coercion don't function in a world of binary choices. They involve creating new choices just as much as finding ways to like things other than our initial preference. Frequently, none of our initial solutions are good enough, and we need to think of new options.

If your child doesn't like something, do not tell him these are the possibilities, and that's the way it is, and he can have whichever color toy he wants as long as it's red or black. Buy some pink paint. If he doesn't like the options that seem to be available, it's time to brainstorm. Be optimistic.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (2)

A Few Thoughts About Education

We must bear in mind that the truth is never clear. If it was, no one would ever disagree with us.

We must bear in mind that the more ignorant a person is of a subject, the more receptive he will be to our advice. Every time a person asks a question he has recognised his own ignorance, so it is a commonplace occurrence for a person to know he doesn't know everything.

We must bear in mind that pessimism and defeatism never solve problems, so it is better to be optimistic about whether a person can or will be persuaded of a good idea.

We must not be scared to disagree. People disagree all the time. But this does not make them hurt each other. It is not necessary to force agreement from a child, or worry overly about what he believes. That is his choice.

We should keep a sense of perspective. The worst that could happen is frequently better than the price of intervening.

We must stop thinking of all situations as the parent choosing what will happen. That is the model of a benevolent dictator. And one of the flaws is the enormous pressure and responsibility it puts on the *parent*.



Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)


If your child doesn't want to look for solutions, this does not mean your child doesn't want to solve problems. Really. Your child isn't insane and *would* prefer if things were better. What's going on is that previous time spent "problem solving" was unpleasant and was itself a problem. Perhaps because it seemed boring and fruitless. Or because it involved the child being pressured to make compromises or sacrifices (same thing), or lectured, or asked questions he didn't want to answer. Or maybe "problem solving" previously interrupted other things like video games.

True morality isn't unpleasant or burdensome. Moral knowledge is knowledge of how to make choices. It's a tool that has information about how to get what we want, and what we should want. It's not arbitrary or artificially limiting. If something is a bad idea, true moral knowledge on the subject will include reasons why it's a bad idea and explanations of what will actually work well. And they will be persuasive. If they aren't persuasive, that indicates a *lack of* moral knowledge. If the "moral" alternative proposed doesn't sound nice, that indicates a *lack of* moral knowledge (either the proposal is wrong, or the explanation for it isn't good enough).

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Being Sympathetic To Children

I'm going to tell a short story about what it's like to be young. It's about food, but it could just as well be about homework or cleaning or all sorts of other things. Then I'm going to make some suggestions about how to talk to young people in a sympathetic way by keeping the perspective in the story in mind.

Suppose your parents are constantly pressuring you: you must eat more beef and lettuce, and less lamb and carrots. It's for your health. And will make you skinny. But dammit you like lamb with carrots and you're tired of beef. And lettuce tastes like dirt. You'd get annoyed with them and you'd pick up they have no real arguments/reasons behind their crap. Well, you might pick that up. But it's hard. Parents bluff. A strong willed independent person will pick it up and ignore them. But that's rare, especially in young people. Not that most people are docile. Many will be unsure and conflicted. Many will sometimes ignore parents but sometimes think they might know something or have a point.

Parents would have hard time doing this alone. If TV was constantly explaining how good for you carrots are, it'd never work. Parents are thus known to complain incessantly about influences (ie sources of information that might reveal their bluffs and lies). But on a lot of issues, the TV isn't going to help much. There are other sources of information as well. Teachers, friends, books, magazines, internet

Overall a young person gets a lot of pressure on the side of your parents. Random adults he meets for dinner will make comments in support of the same bluffs his own parents made. His own friends will face similar lies from their parents, and also be unsure. And the strong independent friends will seem reckless and not good role models.

So, what he really really needs is not one more person saying that maybe his parents are right about carrots. It is someone encouraging him to make up his own mind

Conventional wisdom is true sometimes. So let's pretend you agree with the conventional wisdom about a particular issue. It doesn't matter very much which one. You still face the issue of how to communicate this while remaining sympathetic. Even if the parents are correct now and then, that doesn't mean you should be on their side. So what can you say?

Here's my suggestion:

Before you can rightly say the same thing his parents said you need to comment about how much you agree with him that they are nasty bastards and he shouldn't listen to them. They lie. Then say if they are right it's only by pure luck. Then add stuff about how he should make his own choices and only take your advice if you are persuasive. Then add stuff about how this is not a matter of life and death and he can always change his mind later and this whole issue really shouldn't be a very big deal. *Then* say you happen to think carrots are bad, and give real reasons. (Only do this if he has not heard your set of reasons before. If he is familiar with them, do not repeat, just refer to them and ask what he thinks is wrong with those reasons)

One flaw with the above is that you can't actually tell many children that their parents are nasty bastards. They rightly don't want to fight with their parents. So if you say that, they may be alienated from you. So a real statement often has the even harder task of simultaneously distancing from the parents and being sympathetic to them.

So one possible approach is to say (it really really depends on the person, and your relationship with him):

I saw you arguing with your parents about food again yesterday. Your parents mean well, but they care about you so much that they are over-zealous and over-protective. They are biased and it effects their judgment. So as much as they are trying to help, if your wellbeing is involved ... Their advice is probably perfectly safe but not necessarily the most rational. There are sometimes other choices that'd be good too. So you shouldn't feel compelled to do everything they say. You know that already. That's why you want to eat lamb and carrots, and be a chess player not a lawyer. And I agree with you about chess: being a lawyer is definitely not for everyone and you should try doing something you like. But I wanted to let you know that I actually avoid eating carrots myself (but lamb I do eat now and then). I have a book with me if you're curious about my reasons. It is about zen philosophy and explains why we shouldn't eat carrots. So if you want you can read it and make up your own mind. It's not too big a deal either way, but I thought you'd like to know there are serious reasons people don't eat carrots.

So note some of the key elements:

- Agrees with parent's conclusion (no carrots) without endorsing parents
- Shows seriousness of thinking child should make his own choices by endorsing him in a different disagreement with his parents
- Not hateful towards parents but also says they may be wrong
- Not trying to pressure child, only trying to genuinely offer helpful information
- Has reasons for position and offers them to child so he can evaluate them himself

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)

If People Like It, It *Must* Be Bad

200 years ago, William Godwin wrote an essay telling parents that they should not restrict which books their children can read. For example, they shouldn't ban their daughters from reading any novels.

Why did parents hate books? Because their kids might get ideas, or be influenced. Kids are gullible, you know? But far too stubborn and resistant to new ideas for parents to control or advise them.

Now that there is an even larger threat than books (TV), parents have given up on keeping kids away from books, and actually encourage it so as to distract them from the TV. Television is a medium capable of expressing text just like a book, but also capable of conveying pictures and sounds, so it's quite a bit more powerful than books. And people like TV better, and want to spend a lot of time using it. When people really like something, that's called addiction, and it must be stopped.

I'm not joking. There's even "email addiction", and it's just like cocaine.

Here's Godwin's book, which is out of copyright and free.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

How To Ask Questions

Caeli: Hi!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: I was told that I should ask you about parenting, but I'm not sure why.
Elliot: OK, go ahead. Perhaps you'll learn why, after you ask.
Caeli: What do you think of parents, today?
Elliot: I am not impressed.
Caeli: Why not?
Elliot: They use false epistemology, they don't think about and address the primary issues they are responsible for addressing, they don't notice when they act cruelly, or worse sometimes they do notice and continue anyway, they...
Caeli: Let's stop there for now. What are the primary issues that a parent needs to consider?
Elliot: He needs to think about what role he should play in his child's life, and what his responsibilities are, and he needs to consider whether conventional parenting practices make sense before adopting them.
Caeli: What are his responsibilities?
Elliot: A parent should help his child become independent. This has various aspects. He needs to give material support, and he needs to help the child find interests, and he needs to help the child to learn a variety of things.
Caeli: What sort of things are important for children to learn?
Elliot: Morality is near the top. That means knowledge of what a good life is, and how to make good choices. Then there's various things loosely called philosophy: how to ask questions, how to approach learning about something new, how to think of good ideas, how to solve problems, how to be optimistic, how to treat other people well, how to treat one's self well, how to decide which ideas to believe or not, how to explain reality. But let us never forget that the goal is not to force a child to learn what the parent deems important, it is to help the child learn things he is interested in. The things I've mentioned are things I think pretty much everyone would like to know and find helpful. There will also be other things. They may include how to play chess, or build lego castles, or beat a video game, but they may not.
Caeli: What if my child doesn't care for most of the things you mentioned? I don't remember meeting any children who asked me about any of those.
Elliot: Did you offer them?
Caeli: No, I guess not.
Elliot: Most people you meet already have ideas about what all the things I mentioned are. About whether they are fun, hard, useful, and what the answers are. And most people you meet have already learned that most people give bad advice about those things. So I don't think you can expect someone to just start asking you about them.
Caeli: Still, what if my child isn't interested in them?
Elliot: Well, first of all, is there a problem? If he knows other things and is doing well, maybe you shouldn't worry. And maybe he knows more about them than you've realised. So, consider what the topics have to offer, and then offer those things.
Caeli: And if he says no?
Elliot: There will be a reason. He may not tell it to you; he may not know what the reason is, explicitly. But you can try to figure it out.
Caeli: I don't know how to.
Elliot: Aha! I think you're demonstrating two things here. The first is that philosophy is very useful: your lack of knowledge of it is an obstacle to being a good parent. And second, perhaps the reason you find it difficult to imagine persuading your child that you have valuable philosophy to offer, is that in some areas, you don't.
Caeli: Am I a bad person?
Elliot: No, I didn't mean it that way. Ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of. Especially because good philosophy is hard to come by. Most people don't know any, explicitly.
Caeli: What's explicitly?
Elliot: It means in a language, like English. It's like conscious thoughts. If you can put an idea into words, it's explicit, but if you can't, it isn't.
Caeli: Alright, continue.
Elliot: A bad person is someone who chooses bad things for his life, or who values bad things.
Caeli: Isn't it important to actively choose good things for my life?
Elliot: Yes, but did you ever turn down a chance to learn philosophy that looked promising?
Caeli: No, I guess not. But wouldn't it be better if I knew more, now?
Elliot: It would undoubtedly be nice if you did. But if there was no way available to you to do better, surely you've done nothing wrong. Also, bear in mind that if you did know more, you could still say, "Wouldn't it be nice if I knew more?". You can say that no matter how much you know. It's just the human condition.
Caeli: What if there was a way I could have known more already, but I didn't notice it?
Elliot: I'm sure there were ways, if you knew how to find them. But you didn't, and I don't see how anyone could fault you for that. What you're really getting at is that it's possible to do better than we actually do. And that is great thing. It means improvement is possible.
Caeli: Is it bad to not improve really fast?
Elliot: It's important to try to improve, and to care about improving. It's also important not to beat yourself up over any mistakes you might make. That won't help anything. I like you now; you ask good questions.
Caeli: Thanks, I feel better. Shall we get back to parenting?
Elliot: OK.
Caeli: So one thing a parent should do is help his child learn about life and philosophy and his interests. But you said not to force him to learn these things. Can you expand?
Elliot: The way conventional parenting works is that the parent feels a huge responsibility towards his child. There is this person, and he's vulnerable, and the parent doesn't want him to be hurt. And he could grow up to be a criminal, and the parent doesn't want that. And he could just grow up to be boring, and have a mediocre life, and the parent doesn't want that either. The parent wants to protect him, and guide him to good things.
Caeli: That sounds good to me.
Elliot: Well, the motives are good. But that doesn't mean the results will be.
Caeli: Go on.
Elliot: Parents are so keen to prevent mistakes, that when they disagree with their child, they force the child to do it their way. And they make rules, again to prevent the child from doing anything the parent thinks would be a mistake.
Caeli: Do you think children are usually right?
Elliot: No, of course not. Children have a lot of ignorance. But they aren't always wrong, especially when the issue is their own life.
Caeli: If parents are right most of the time, would it maybe be best to just always do what the parent suggests? It'd work pretty well, most of the time.
Elliot: I don't think it would. But the best way to discuss this may be to look at the alternative, which is clearly better.
Caeli: OK, what is it?
Elliot: Most of the time, parent and child will agree. The parent will say he knows best, and suggest something, and the child will have no idea what's best, so he'll take his parents advice, willingly. That's the common case. So without any mention of using force, we already have a good thing happening most of the time.
Caeli: OK, so I guess the important case must be when they disagree.
Elliot: That's right. When they disagree, what the child is saying is, "I do know something about this topic. I have some knowledge, and I think it's enough knowledge to make a decision, and this is what I want to do."
Caeli: Isn't the child probably wrong?
Elliot: I can't evaluate the probability. But it isn't important. What's important is that we don't dismiss the child out of hand. There's no good reason to, and it messes up the times the child is right. And it teaches the wrong lessons about how to think.
Caeli: What do you mean?
Elliot: It's important to think for yourself, and to learn about how good your ideas are. That way you can learn to create better ideas by avoiding mistakes you've made in the past.
Caeli: So, if the parent doesn't discuss a child's ideas, he won't find out which ones are good and which are bad?
Elliot: Right. So, when there is a disagreement, the first thing that should be tried is to consider the disagreement and try to persuade each other.
Caeli: What if they don't want to?
Elliot: If things are going well, they will want to. I think it'd be best to first consider the case where life goes smoothly, to see how things should work. Then, if you still have questions about alternative lifestyles, or how to get to the right lifestyle from a flawed one, we can address them. Does that sound good?
Caeli: Yeah, that makes sense. OK, so they are trying to persuade each other...
Elliot: Right. Now the most common thing will be that the parent persuades the child. The reason is that although both could be wrong about the subject itself, the child has less knowledge about how much knowledge he needs to venture an opinion. And he has less knowledge about what subjects might be related and important. There are a lot more ways the child is likely to go wrong.
Caeli: OK, so what's the point?
Elliot: Well, the most common case is that the child agrees immediately. In a disagreement, the most common case is that the child had a parochial misconception and is easily persuaded. But after that, the other case is that they still disagree, and then they are on even ground. There is no way to tell, automatically, who is right. We can't just assume the parent is.
Caeli: Are you sure it's even? I think a lot of parents misjudge how much they know about their child's life and interests.
Elliot: That's a very good point. Most disputes are about the child's life, so the child is in a better position to know about it.
Caeli: So what should happen if the parent and child can't agree?
Elliot: Well, first off, they can agree. It's possible. There's no powerful force stopping them.
Caeli: No? But people find it hard to agree.
Elliot: Well, communication is a very hard problem. That covers a ton of cases. And then there's the issue that maybe to come to agree they need to think of some new idea to help reconcile their positions. They can do that, and nothing is stopping them, but maybe they won't.
Caeli: OK, so they can agree. But let's say they don't. Then what.
Elliot: Well, the child's life is the child's life. Why shouldn't he make his own choices?
Caeli: He doesn't know what's best for himself.
Elliot: Well, remember we are only discussing the cases where first the parent's initial idea didn't win the child over, and then when they talked about it, the parent wasn't able to think of anything very persuasive. Or cases where the child has a really powerful idea of his own. So in these cases, either the parent hasn't been able to show that he knows what's best, or the child has an especially good idea. So this is the time it's least possible to say that children don't know what's best for themselves, because we are only discussing the few times when maybe they do.
Caeli: I'm not sure about that, but let's go on and maybe it will make more sense. Why should a child make his own choices, exactly?
Elliot: Because he's a person. A human being. One of the things we value in our culture is freedom. Everyone gets his own life, and his own property, and makes his own decisions about what to do with them. That's a great thing, and we should apply it to everyone.
Caeli: I think I'm losing track of the point. Can you summarise?
Elliot: You asked about parenting. One of the issues parents face is helping their children learn important things about life, to prepare them for independence. Parents commonly make rules, and insist on their way by force, but they shouldn't. It's better to persuade children, and in the rare cases where the parent can't figure out how to do that, he has just demonstrated his own ignorance of either the subject or the child, and either way he's now in the one situation where he'd want to use force, but also the one situation where he has lost all justification to use it.
Caeli: I'm getting tired, do you mind if we continue tomorrow? I promise I'll reread what you said. There's so many things I wanted to ask that we didn't get to. Like what is parochial, and how do you know about all this stuff, and what if the parent says persuasive things but the child won't listen.
Elliot: I don't mind taking a break. I'm glad you seem excited by this.
Caeli: By the way, why is the title "How To Ask Questions"? It was all about parenting.
Elliot: The topic was parenting. But the Caeli character asked a question for most of her lines. So this conversation serves as a good example of how to ask questions.
Caeli: Oh, that's great. I'm proud.
Elliot: You should be. Goodnight.
Caeli: Bye!

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)