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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 on July 6, 2006

Comments (1)

er...so much to argue with. but is this meant to represent reality or deal with a particular point? certainly, there are overbearing parents who give their kids bad information. What I don't see is what its like to be young, and why we are talking to the anonymous child in a sympathetic way; while I may not agree with the way a parent is acting towards their child, unless I see a certain degree of potential for permanent damage, I certainly don't feel bothered enough to interfere - though honestly this applies to all relationships, not just children.

now, if this advice is particular to parent who is agressivly neurotic in their control over their children and their thoughts, I find it questionable in its effectiveness and consequences. Great, so you just lent a sympathetic ear and pointed out where maybe the kid can get more information. whoopdeedo. most peope are wrapped up enough int heir lives that they don't seek out additional information on things of small consequence, which is most things. Yes kids will seek out knowledge on their own, but it tends to be more random and not in depth. There also seems to be an inherit bias int he action of intererence: would you go to a parent and say "you seem to be taking your child seriously and letting him be an independent person, however, whereever you learned this from may be biased. You should read this book about why you should be a control freak about your kids and spank them daily. Oh me? no of course I don't believe that stuff"...in other words, chances are you will only interfere if you disagree with whats happening, rather then enlightening or empowering the child itself. Lastly, even if you get through to the child, and it becoems a strongly independent person, the results of disobeying such neurotic parents may be disasterous: the kid might get kicked out ontp the streat, or the rules may be more tightly enforced, or even just a general punishment. THat is because we do not live in an ideal society where, regardless of age, people are taken seriously. That is a wonderful ideal, but the real world does not yet reflect it.

perhaps the better solution, if you wish to act in a case like this, and I don't know why you would, is to get to the actual heart of the problem and convince the parents, or teach the kid how to negotiate and deal with his parents. If you talk to the parents, even if its only on 1 issue, it sends a message to the kid that the things its parents say are mutable. You might even get them to open up in general. Logic,fairness, and empathy for the child are three powerful clubs you can use to try and beat these parents into your own bias; while a lot of people may not like it, a logical and or scientific abcking is hard toa rguye with. Additionlly, if the parents are eating lamb and carrots, you might throw into question why they area cting as such. lastly, the parents probably want whats best for the child: if you can show that the things does no harm, and that the excess control does do harm, the parent might loosen up.
Alternativly, you can teach the child to work his parents over and convince them itself. sometimes this may mean aquieccing to their demands,a nd other times thropwung logic, fairness, or emotion int heir face, but it not only deal with issue X, but gives a lifeling tool for the child to use for later issues

Sitraahra at 2:51 AM on July 14, 2006 | #18

What do you think?

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