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Learning By Force

Caeli: Hi!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: Are time outs OK?
Elliot: No. They aren't voluntary.
Caeli: Why do they need to be?
Elliot: Well, it depends what they are for. If the goal is to get rid of the kid, by force, because the parent wants a break, then they work OK. But tying the kid up with rope would be more effective. On the other hand, if the goal is for the child to learn something, then using force is no good.
Caeli: Can't people be forced to learn?
Elliot: No.
Caeli: Consider all young people. Some are uninterested in learning. Of those people, some will go on to learn things. It can't be voluntary, because they didn't want to. Therefore some people were forced to learn.
Elliot: Good try, but no. There aren't any people who are completely uninterested in learning all topics. No one is irrational about everything.
Caeli: Do rational people always want to learn?
Elliot: Yes. There are always things they want to learn.
Caeli: What about a kid who hates the piano, but his parents make him take lessons, and he grows up to be a skilled pianist. When he was six, he was not a skilled pianist. In the meantime, he learned. If his parents had not used force, he wouldn't have learned that skill.
Elliot: The child didn't learn from being forced. Let me remind you what force is like. It's when your mother shrieks that you're really upsetting her, and threatens to take away your property and freedom if you don't listen to her. And your father, sternly, says you better do as your told real fast. And you have a feeling that if you don't, he'll start shouting or maybe hit you.
Caeli: That's awful.
Elliot: Yeah. So, your parents do all that. Now the child has an easy choice. He can go to piano lessons, or face that scene every day. So he goes. Now, while he's there, the piano teacher forcibly prevents him from doing something else, like reading Popper. He is unable to pursue his other interests during this time. What sort of the force does the piano teacher use? Well, threatening to tell his parents that the child isn't applying himself is probably enough. But the teacher is in a position of authority and power and will have other leverage over the child as well.
Elliot: So, now what? Well, the child can either waste his time, or try to learn something he isn't interested in. Further, if he doesn't learn it, he will be under increasing pressure to make progress, and perform songs for his parents, and so on. And if he does find a way to learn about it, his time won't be completed wasted, and lessons will be less unpleasant because he won't always be fighting with his teacher.
Elliot: So, what's the result? Well, ninety nine times out of a hundred, the result is nothing but unhappiness all around. Never forget that. But what about the other time? That one other time, the child manages to, despite that it's absolutely the wrong thing for him, figure out a way to become interested in piano and learn about it. Shall we celebrate now? Of course not. If he'd spent all that time learning something that wasn't an uphill battle, that would be a much more reliable way to become successful. And the worst part, by far, is the force. If someone gets it into his head to learn piano, even though he's bad at it and has always hated it, that's no big deal, if he can quit whenever he wants to. The worst that can happen is he won't like it and will stop. But when force is involved, disaster always looms. And there's is such great pressure on everyone, especially the child, that it's very hard to think. It's hard to be creative. If only the child had been gotten to the piano lessons with less or no force, his chances to learn piano would be far greater.
Caeli: Good points. But imagine another child, of an even rarer variety, who is actually a pianist at heart, but doesn't know it. He believes he isn't interested in piano, but he is. Soon after lessons start, he discovers this, and everything goes smoothly. Force played a role as a catalyst.
Elliot: First, bear in mind that the reason this scenario goes more smoothly is that it contains far less force. Almost the entire thing is voluntary. So, of course it comes out better. But, from where the parents are sitting, this is nothing more than good luck. They can't have reasonably expected anything but disaster, and they did it anyway. That's awful.
Caeli: What about for the child?
Elliot: Imagine ten kids with potential, who are pianists at heart, but believe they aren't. If you forced all of them to try piano, nine would hate it for the rest of their lives. They'd be turned against it, by the huge pressure on them, and the, well, force. It's violent, wrong, distasteful, and to be avoided. It will be entirely reasonable if most of these kids stay far, far away from a topic that has brought such pain and agony, whenever they are able to.
Caeli: And what about that other child. Did force help him?
Elliot: Nope. He managed, somehow, to ignore the force. That was hard, and almost ended in disaster, but through some miracle of human creativity, he defeated the force and became a pianist in spite of it.
Caeli: But if the parents hadn't used force, he wouldn't have become a pianist at all.
Elliot: First of all, if a parent never says much about pianos, his children may still become pianists. It happens.
Elliot: Second, the parent can't know the force will "work". There is no way for him to know that his child is that one-in-a-thousand case you are talking about. It's overwhelmingly likely that he isn't.
Elliot: Third, and this is my original point, children never learn from force. They learn, as I've described, despite the overwhelmingly horrible experience that force brings. What they actually learn from, unsurprisingly enough, is some combination of piano lessons and thinking.
Elliot: Fourth, there are other things the parents could have done. Suppose they actually did have some reason to think their child would make a good pianist. Or even less than that, a reason that being a pianist is more wonderful than most people give it credit. Well, they could tell their child about this. They could persuade him. All these parents willing to go to such extreme measures seem to be very sure their child will be an expert pianist (despite that fact that many other parents have thought the same thing, and tried the same methods, and failed miserably). So, surely these parents draw their certainty from something. They can present this something to the child. If it's worthy of the parent being so certain, surely the child can be persuaded to give piano a try. And if he does that, then by the premise that this child is a natural who only needs to get started, then he will succeed, with no force.
Caeli: Oh. That's a nice way to look at these things.
Elliot: Yeah :)
Caeli: So let me summarize what we've said. First, time outs are bad because they are forceful: the child doesn't want to stay in his room, but is made to.
Elliot: Yes, but let me add that if the child did want to stay in his room -- if he thought that was a good idea -- then a time out would not be needed: the parent could simply suggest that the child might like to go to his room now, and the child will agree that that sounds nice.
Caeli: Cool. So, second, we discussed if force can be used to make people learn. You described in detail how force is distasteful, and almost always makes things much worse. Next, I honed in on the rare case where it seems to help. But, finally, you pointed out that there are much better solutions to even that case.
Elliot: That sounds right.
Caeli: I think we got distracted though. The purpose of time outs isn't learning. Isn't it important that children be punished when they act wrongly?
Elliot: Let me remind you that parents often say that time outs help children "learn their lesson", or they order children to "think about what they did".
Elliot: But anyway, what's the point of punishment?
Caeli: Maybe it's to learn to stop doing bad things.
Elliot: But that's learning, and we agreed that force doesn't cause learning.
Caeli: Oh, oops. Well, maybe it's not about the child. Maybe it's about the people he hurt.
Elliot: And what do they gain from his timeout?
Caeli: Maybe they'll feel better by getting a break from him, or because he was punished.
Elliot: If they feel better because he was punished (forcibly hurt), that is perverse. That doesn't help them in any way. And he's a human being, and they shouldn't want to see him suffer.
Caeli: What about getting a break?
Elliot: They could leave. Or they could ask him to, nicely.
Caeli: Why should they have to leave if the child hurt them?
Elliot: They don't have to. It's just an option. Imagine that your friend hurt you. Wouldn't you consider leaving and avoiding her?
Caeli: Yeah, I guess I would. But let's consider the case where the victim doesn't want to leave. And also, the child doesn't want to leave when asked.
Elliot: At this point I want to question the idea that the child has hurt someone. That wasn't the original premise. You've only added it when you needed a way to excuse treating the child badly.
Caeli: So what? It's useful to change hypothetical scenarios while we discuss them, to make the questions we want to ask about work better.
Elliot: That's fair enough. But there's a danger. Consider a parent who at first declares a time out for a bad reason. But when pressed, starts saying the child acted wrongly, and then elaborating that therefore the child hurt other people and that's unacceptable. But if the child hurting people was such a big deal -- say he used a knife and the victim is now in the hospital -- then that would be obvious from the outset, no one would even consider that a time out is the appropriate response, and there would be no issue about the victim and child staying in the room together. Everything would be very clear. The only reason that things are murky is that, in fact, the child did not hurt anyone badly.
Caeli: OK. I see how the idea of the child making a moral error got exaggerated to hurting someone, and then it got as severe as necessary to excuse whatever was being done to the child. But let's get back to my question: no one wants too leave the room. Now what?
Elliot: Well, suppose the child really did hurt this person. Then, tell him. He'll be apologetic and happy to leave the room if that would help.
Caeli: How can you expect that? That never happens.
Elliot: And why not? Isn't it the most natural thing? Isn't it what you would do?
Caeli: I might do that. I hope I would, now that I think about it. I see that it's natural in a way. But few people act that way. It's not well known in our culture. How can you expect a child to do it?
Elliot: Well, I don't expect him to. I was just saying what should happen. If it doesn't happen, there will be a reason it doesn't. And the reason, as you've just argued, is not that the child is unusually bad and wicked. He can't be expected to do this. Few people know how to. So any further problems are probably not the child's fault.
Caeli: That's a very nice point.
Elliot: We should be careful not to dismiss optimism out of hand. It's important, even when the ideal thing that we think of doesn't actually happen. It can cheer us up with glimpses of nice and possible ways of life. It can draw us closer to those things. If anyone bothers to suggest something wildly optimistic, sometimes people actually manage to do it. Often they do part of it. It's important to know good things to aim for.
Elliot: A further and related point is that children are not innately wicked. Ignorant yes, wicked no. So suppose a child does something wrong. What should we expect next? For the child not to know what to do? Sure. For the child to continue acting wrongly, persist in fighting with people, make things worse, or resist good ideas? No, none of those.
Caeli: Don't those things happen a lot, in practice?
Elliot: Yes. But when they do, it's not because you're dealing with a child. As I've just shown, the attributes of childhood don't cause those things.
Caeli: I see. So, what does cause them?
Elliot: Past history of fighting between the parent and child, past history of the parent giving bad advice or hurting the child. Past history of the child being thwarted. That sort of thing.
Caeli: What about past history of the child doing things like that to the parent?
Elliot: Children have no power to thwart their parents.
Caeli: Yes they do. Parents have responsibilities that children can use against them.
Elliot: Responsibilities? Like what? Parents often use threats to not fulfill their responsibilities as leverage. For example, a parent might threaten not to feed the child dinner, or not to help him travel to an event.
Caeli: Like if the parent wants to go out, but can't find a babysitter because the child has driven away all his sitters (by being horrible) and none want to come back.
Elliot: They could hire a thug. He'll handle the child, no problem.
Caeli: They don't want to.
Elliot: So, the child has devilishly trapped the parents by using their own good will against them?
Caeli: Right.
Elliot: And why would he do that?
Caeli: I don't know. But doesn't that happen a lot?
Elliot: I think what happened is that the child was forced to endure babysitters that he did not want to spend time with. The experience was unpleasant for all involved, so the sitters didn't want to come back. The parents then felt guilty about hurting their child, and that's why they don't want to hire a more harsh sitter. But they don't know how to solve the problem, and they desperately want to have a free evening again. So they start getting resentful, and blaming the child, even though all he wanted was to not be left alone in the power of people he doesn't like. They start thinking that if this is the consequence of his desire, then he must be asking for too much.
Caeli: Oh. I guess that would make sense. So, what should they do to fix it?
Elliot: I'll tell you next time, OK?
Caeli: Alright. Bye bye.

Elliot Temple on October 22, 2006

Comments (1)

ha ha ha

"Elliot" is going to read this when he's grown up, possibly become a parent for himself, and he's going to laugh his balls off.

Anonymous at 6:14 PM on May 19, 2009 | #1763

What do you think?

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