TCS Basics 1

A kid wants to do X. His parent thinks X is bad.

Conventional parenting then asks: "how do we make the kid not do X?" Everything it does is an answer to this question. First you tell the kid why X is bad. This isn't an open ended discussion. You are trying to persuade him, but not thinking "maybe he's right" whenever he says stuff.

If you tell the kid why you think X is bad, and he still thinks X is good, then he "doesn't listen" and it's time for more drastic measures. That's because the issue is how to make the kid not do X, and explanations are deemed ineffective, so we move on to other ways to achieve the same goal. So next parents manipulate. They say X makes them feel bad, or they say it will make the neighbors feel bad, or they lie about how it breaks a law or angers God, or they never remind the kid to do X and always remind him of Y, or they try to make him feel guilty about doing X, or whenever he is about to do X they order him to do a chore.

If that doesn't work, they threaten the kid, and start moving on to punishments and getting angry. That usually works because kids would usually rather give up X than have their parents openly trying to hurt them. If that doesn't work, they deem him a "bad egg" and make his life hell all the time or get him diagnosed with a mental illness and drug him, or send him to a reform school to get rid of him.

TCS has a different approach. It starts with an entirely different question, which is: is X good or bad? Then everything it does is about how to find the truth of the matter, without assuming what's true from the start.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

TCS Basics 2

Suppose a parent thinks pizza is so unhealthy it should never be eaten, and tofu is so healthy it should be eaten very frequently by all people.

What a lot of parents would do is buy tofu but not pizza. They control all the money, so that's easy. They make tofu really convenient becasue there is always plenty around, and pizza really inconvenient because there is never any around. Requests for money to eat at a tofu restaurant are always granted. Requests for money to eat at a pizza restaurant always get replies about money not growing on trees. (BTW, apples grow on trees, and apples are worth money. So that saying is kinda silly.)

In the kid's life, tofu and pizza aren't fighting a fair competition for a place in his diet. Suppose the rational way to decide what to eat involves considering the price, convenience, nutrition, and flavor of foods. Of course there are other factors, but those are good enough. The parents make pizza less convenient and tofu more convenient. So they tip the scales. Whatever the rational evaluations of the foods are, they've distorted it. If tofu would normally win 40 to 25, now it wins 50 to 15. So the kid gets the wrong idea of the real value of the foods. The parent is spreading irrationality. The parents don't care about the truth as long as they get their way.

A good way to think of it is that the parent could do the same thing, except in favor of pizza and against tofu. It's totally arbitrary. Whenever the parent could reverse what he's favoring and disfavoring, then it's clear that the parent's policy doesn't depend at all on what the truth is. Maybe he's using reason, but maybe he's using whim. If it's whim, how's he going to find out? His policy doesn't have a mechanism to correct that error.

This is an example of how parents try to make their kid do what they consider best, instead of trying to find out what really is best. They can do it with anything that costs money.

Another resource parents control is transportation. They can hesitate more and smile less when asked for transportation to one place, and behave in the opposite way for another place. That is a way of distorting the value of the places to their children that bypasses reason and disregards truth.

Another resource parents control is what they will help with. Parents know parenting is a lot of work. Good parents are prepared to do it. They change diapers, cook meals, wash clothes, clean messes, patiently answer some questions, read books aloud, and so on. But what if their kid wants help, which is his right, doing something they don't approve of? Then conventional parents resist and try to impose their values on their kid. They deny him the help that is his right, and which they would give if he were doing something they approved of. And often they lie about it. When the child wants one thing they say it's too much work and they are tired, but then if he asks for help finding books about tofu recipes suddenly they aren't so tired anymore and are ready to be very helpful.

Manipulation of these sorts is designed to control the child and make him behave in the ways the parent considers best, both when the child agrees that's best, and also when he doesn't. TCS instead is concerned with figuring out what's best, especially when there is a disagreement, and finding an answer that doesn't distress anyone or cause suffering.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)

TCS Basics 3

A lot of parents think they should decide what's best, and then make their child do it. If he turns out 90% the way they wanted, then that's a pretty good success.

But consider what happens if I make my kid 90% of what I think is good. Then he takes his values, and makes his kid 90% of that. And then the next kid is 90% as good as his parents. And so on. See how it gets worse every generation? As a percentage of the original, the generations go 90%, 81%, 73%, 66%, 59%, etc

TCS aims for children to be even better than their parents. For that to happen, they are going to need to be something more than not quite perfect copies of their parents. You can't just take the parent, copy it with only a couple flaws, and call it better. That's obviously going to be a little worse.

Children, to turn out better than their parents, are going to have to disagree with their parents about at least one thing, and be right. Parents need to allow and encourage that, not suppress it.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)

TCS Basics 4

If I parent has "the final say" on all issues, that means all the parent's mistakes are final. They aren't going to be corrected.

Parents often speak of "taking into account" the child's ideas, and then making the final decision in a fair way. What this means is that the parent alters his decision exactly as much as he considers right, and if the child considers that wrong, that's too bad, and if the parent is mistaken that's too bad as well.

I do not advocate replacing the rule of the parent by the rule of the child. I advocate that all disagreements be resolved in such a way that everyone genuinely agrees at the end. Until that happens, they must be considered open questions.

One benefit of this is that it does a child a lot more good to learn why something is best instead of having a misconception about it but following some orders. If the child just follows orders without understanding that isn't educating the child.

Another benefit is that it raises the bar for the quality of ideas the parent needs. Everyone makes mistakes, and this will help the parent make fewer. The bar in a conventional household is: whenever the parents feels upset, feels certain, or finds further questions hard to answer (and therefore frustrating), then he ends the discussion and tells the child he needs to stop the sass and listen.

In fact, some of those situations seem to hint that maybe the parent is wrong. (That doesn't mean the child is right. Often they are both wrong, and some other idea is right.)

Having to persuade the child means having to think about how to explain the issue in an understandable and compelling way. It's OK if the parent wants to take a break as long as he comes back to it later. A real discussion also means answering the child's questions. That helps the child learn; any parent should be happy to answer questions. And for the parent, there are two possibilities. Either answering is easy, so it won't be any trouble. Or answering is hard, which means the parent didn't know the answer well enough, and it's good that he thinks about the issue a bit more.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (6)

TCS Basics 5

Suppose your child starts smoking. A lot of parents would say, "smoking is bad for your health, therefore you must stop smoking immediately." If the child stops they are happy. If the child continues they are sad and start threatening or punishing or manipulating him.

I agree smoking is bad for your health, and is generally a really bad idea, and it's good to point that out. But there is a flaw in the approach I describe. It treats children as not having reasons for the things they do.

In addition to offering advice about smoking, a parent should try to find out why his child wants to smoke. The best way to do this is usually to ask and then to listen without arguing or interrupting (just asking questions to get clarifications and elaborations). Don't worry if everything the child says is wrong. It's not going to kill him in the next 20 minutes, so just hear him out before you respond.

Once you know why your child wants to smoke it can make a big difference in how you react. At the minimum, you can give your child more useful advice. If he doesn't know smoking is bad for your health, then tell him all about that. If he read some pseudo-science saying it makes you smarter, then explain to him about proper science. If he thinks smoking makes him cool, then don't tell him about the health risks in detail, just mention them and then focus on discussing the coolness issue. And so on. This is pretty simple but a lot of parents get it wrong because think don't think of their child as a thinking human being who has genuine reasons for his actions, they just think of him as a simplistic partial human to be ordered about and controlled into doing the right things.

When the issue is something less clear cut than smoking, then it's even more important to find out what the child's reasoning is. Maybe he has a reason you've never heard of before. Then you'd need to think about that instead of just telling him all your standard arguments that don't engage with his idea. Maybe if you know what he wants you can suggest a better way to get it, and then he'll change his approach voluntarily. To have any real hope of getting a child to change his behavior by choice, which is always preferable, you have to think about things from his point of view and see what reasons he does and doesn't have behind a given decision.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

TCS Basics 6

Young children are ignorant. They don't know very much. Does that mean they'll never have any useful ideas?

No. They can contribute a lot to a discussion, even though they don't know very much.

The main reason is that although there is a lot they don't know, there are a few areas where they know quite a lot. In particular, they have a lot of knowledge about what they want, and which sorts of situations they would be happy or unhappy with. If you are trying to find a way of proceeding that everyone will consider acceptable and voluntarily agree to, then this knowledge the child has will come in very handy. It will play a major role in figuring out what to do. You couldn't find a way to proceed that everyone likes without some knowledge about the likes of the child.

Children, like everyone else, do not have perfect knowledge. They can be mistaken about what they want, or in their estimations of what future possibilities they would like. And this kind of knowledge is not exclusive to the child. The parent can have some too. But taking those facts into account, it still remains that children have useful knowledge that can help find solutions if it's allowed to.

Let me give a few examples. Suppose the child left out a board game, and it's in the way now. It could be put away in the box, or it could be carried elsewhere to preserve the positions of the pieces. How are you going to know which would be best? You should probably ask the child. And bear in mind he might say something else, like that it's very important to him not to disturb the game, so could it please be left where it is and some other solution found? If he says that, he is contributing important knowledge that's highly relevant to what the best thing to do is. It really is the case that some proportion of the time its important that a game be left undisturbed, and it's good to find out when that is the case or not.

Suppose the child wants a red baloon, but there aren't any more. Which baloon would he like as a replacement? The child probably has the best knowledge of that. And if it's a surprising answer, like he'll accept green baloons but he needs two, or actually if there's no red baloons he'd prefer a water baloon instead, then you'll never get stuff like that right without the child contributing his ideas. And should you go to the store to get more red baloons? That is a question you won't be able to answer accurately without the child contributing some knowledge about how valuable the red baloon is to him (and also the parent contributing knowledge about how inconvenient a store visit would be).

Suppose the child doesn't want to wear his seatbelt. The parent thinks of everything he can to make it better. He gets the child an ipod so he'll have a distraction from the seatbelt. He glues pillows to the seatbelt to make it softer. He paints the seatbelt the child's favorite color. He glues glitter on it. He tells the child stories about seatbelts saving lives, and with heros who like seatbelts. Yet still when he drives he sees his child pushing at the seatbelt, and shifting in his seat, and with a sad look on his face. Finally the parent says: "I give up. Why does the seatbelt bother you so much?" And the child says: "I can't reach the controls to raise the window." And the parent says: "That's so easy to fix. I'll give you a stick you can reach them with from further away. Why didn't you tell me?" And the child says: "It didn't occur to me to tell you, because you didn't ask, and you don't act like my ideas matter." (Or more likely, the child would say "I don't know", but that would be the reason.)

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

TCS Basics 7

Sometimes parents say, "My child doesn't listen because he doesn't know anything."

Other times they say, "TV is dangerous. My child doesn't know enough not to listen to it."

These two statements represent opposite views about ignorance. One view is that ignorance cause stubbornness and a closed mind. The other is that it causes gullibleness and an open mind.

So, which is it?

Suppose it's the closed mind. Children are born with a very closed mind. Whatever you do, and whatever they are exposed to, it won't make much difference. Slowly, they will become slightly more open minded, and learn a little. The older they get, the more easily they will learn new things. By the time they are 40 or 50 years old, they will finally be very open minded and learn new things all the time. I think we can see this is not what the world is like. People learn more rapidly when they are young. They appear to get more closed minded with age, not less.

Now onto the possibility that children are born with a fairly open mind. Then, when a child doesn't listen, one has to wonder why. (Asking why a child does or thinks something is a major theme of TCS.) He wasn't born closed to what his parent is saying. If he's rejecting it, there is some cause after his birth. It could be a history of his parent's advice being unpleasant for him, or it could be that he has a different (contradictory) idea he thinks is superior, or it could be that he's trying to listen but there is a failure of communication (e.g. the parent's explanations are too complicated and confusing, or too dumbed down without enough persuasive content).

If the child doesn't listen because listening has gone badly for him in the past, that is a problem the parent can and should do something about. He needs to take all of his advice and consider it carefully from the point of view of whether it will be pleasant for his child.

If the child doesn't listen because he has a different idea, the parent can talk to him about what his idea is, and offer criticism of it, and ask questions about it (the child could learn a lot trying to answer questions about it). The parent could can also accept criticism of his own idea from the child. That way the child will learn to think of criticisms, and see which ones work and how well (some criticisms will result in a short explanation of how they are trivially mistaken, some will lead into a whole new area of interesting discussion, and some will lead to the parent changing his mind).

And if you're going to have a discussion with questions, criticism, new ideas, and explanations being exchanged, then that is just as if you were having a genuinely open-ended discussion where the final answer isn't a foregone conclusion. So as one final step, the parent should himself have an open minded, and it should really be a truth seeking discussion, instead of a "how to make the child listen to the idea I already KNOW is right" discussion. If your idea is right, it will be the conclusion of a truth seeking discussion anyway, so you don't have anything to lose.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)

TCS Basics 8

A theme of TCS is to have discussions where you try to learn something (about what is true, rather than just sticking to the ideas you already have), and find a way of proceeding that everyone is happy with (or content with, the point is no one is distressed or suffering or hates it). But what if your child doesn't speak English yet? Or doesn't want to sit still and talk for an hour?

I only use the word 'discussion' because I don't know a better one. The important thing is there be communication with certain qualities. It can be spread into lots of little pieces with no long sessions, that's fine. If it's not in English, that's fine too, just try to express things (like options the child has) and try to understand things the child communicates (like whether he likes or dislikes something) and keep an open mind (if you expect your child to like something, but he hates it, then your prediction was mistaken and you need to change your mind about what your child's preferences are). So young children who don't have long, English discussions are no problem.

The 'discussion' (communication) does need to have certain properties. It needs to be rational. That means if either side has a mistaken idea it could be corrected. It means ideas are treated as having a degree of uncertainty. It means never relying on authority in place of using your own judgment and understanding, and especially not expecting your child to submit to authority against his better judgment. The communication needs to facilitate voluntary interaction. That means if a child should do something, you don't force him to do it, you help him understand why it's right. If something is morally right, and you don't help a child see that for himself, then you are doing him a great disservice. And if you force him to do it while he thinks its wrong, you are making him act in a way he considers wrong so he loses respect for right and wrong, and also for you. Principles like these work just as well with young children as older children, and also work with adults. Forcing adults to do things is bad too, and with adults too if something is right to do (like being kind to one's children) then it's very important he understand that for himself, and not do it just because someone commanded him to.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)