Taking Children Seriously

Behaving Rationally – or How the Theory Relates to the Practice

Posted by Sarah Fitz-Claridge
on the TCS List on Tue, 18 Apr., 1995, at 18:40:31 +0000

Criticism effects error-elimination by refuting some of the competing theories. It can take a number of different forms, including not just experimental testing and formal, conscious criticism in science, for example, but argument, experience and many forms of inexplicit criticism. A child learning language is unconsciously testing sophisticated inexplicit theories about language. He is also testing meta-theories (theories about theories) which embody knowledge of how to criticise, how to learn and how to form new conjectures.

The criteria that characterise rational (learning) processes are that they are truth-seeking and open to criticism. Were it the case that the small child learning language was not truth-seeking and open to criticism, his language skills would not improve as they do. These criteria have profound implications for the growth of knowledge within families. To be seeking truth means first, looking for solutions to problems, seeking better explanations and better ideas, assuming that there is a solution or a better answer to be found, and that through creative endeavour, it may be found (but that it may be hard to find). It means not assuming there is no solution or better idea to be found.

Being open to criticism means that if there is a disagreement in the family, prima facie, there is a problem to solve. That means not discounting someone's genuine disagreement because you think you know best. It means not prejudging the issue, but considering all the available ideas. It means that ideas should be judged by their content, not by their source. For instance, discounting an idea on the grounds that it was put forward by a small child, is inimical to the growth of knowledge, because if the child were right, you'd never find out. Being open to criticism means avoiding dogma and all entrenched ideas, because if an idea is fixed, then by definition, it won't be replaced by any better ideas that do arise.

Another very relevant Popperian idea is that of human fallibility: the idea that one may be wrong in anything one says, or to put it another way, the idea that there is no way of knowing for sure that one has not made a mistake in any particular thing one says. The implication of that idea is that in any disagreement between two individuals of good will (parent and child, say), all one can be sure of is that at least one of them is wrong. Given that human fallibility applies as much to the parent as to the child, there can be no logical certainty that the parent is right. The fact that the parent feels certain means nothing, for that feeling of certainty is perfectly consistent with being completely wrong. So the situation is that there are conflicting theories, and according to Popper, giving a priori preference to one of the theories because of its source, is irrational and will tend to perpetuate error. Creating knowledge depends on being able to implement a procedure that judges the ideas by their content alone.

Now if the parent has a preconceived vision of what the outcome of an argument must be, then he is acting anti-rationally: he has an entrenched theory and is trying to make the child to adopt that particular theory, rather than looking for a better one. The way to create new knowledge is to resolve the disagreement by finding a proposal that each person prefers – a common preference.

Given human fallibility, it is worth keeping in mind that “...truth is often hard to come by, and ...once found it may easily be lost again.” [Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations Introduction, p. 8]. And ”the theory that truth is manifest – that it is there for everyone to see, if only he wants to see it – this theory is the basis of almost every kind of fanaticism. For only the most depraved wickedness can refuse to see the manifest truth; for only those who have reason to fear truth conspire to suppress it.“ [Conjectures and Refutations p. 8]. Parents who think the truth is manifest tend to see their children as bad or naughty when the children disagree with them.

Take the case of the parent who says: “my baby daughter has never liked having her nappy changed (after all, it's a transition from warm to cold), but her nappy has to be changed, for the sake of her health and well-being, so I have to change it, irrespective of her wishes.” This parent appears neither truth-seeking nor open to criticism: he has an entrenched theory about nappies, and about babies (or perhaps just this particular baby). In accepting the idea that babies hate having their nappies (diapers) changed, the parent is abandoning all creative endeavours to find a way of making the experience pleasurable for the baby. He, like most parents, just assumes that there is no solution. This virtually ensures that he will never come up with one. If a parent starts with this attitude, then by that posture, he blinds himself to any growth of knowledge that there might otherwise be. So in saying that the baby must have her nappy changed because “Health Requires It” this parent is saying that his baby's suffering in this case is already dealt with, justified.

How might a more rational parent view the situation? First, he would take the view that if the baby is clearly not happy with the situation, there must be something wrong. If the baby is objecting a lot, then there must be something badly wrong. So the rational parent would be making great efforts to find a solution. He would be open to the baby's evident criticism; he would not discount her distress. It might be that the baby is perfectly right not to like the cold or whatever, and that it is up to the parent to remove the cause of her distress (change her in front of a warm-air heater, perhaps?) and that then she will enjoy having her nappies changed. Or maybe she doesn't want to wear nappies at all.

Most parents say that they do “whatever they can” to see that their children are comfortable, safe, happy, and free. But by “can” they mean “choose”; and that makes little difference if they systematically assume that there is no solution to be found in a wide range of situations in which their children get hurt. Parents often talk in terms of conflicts of interest. For instance: “When I get home after a hard day in the office, I am exhausted and I just want to relax and unwind. The problem is that my five-year-old son doesn't understand this, and won't leave me alone. He wants me to read stories, play games, and generally give him attention, and he bugs me about it for hours every night. I don't object to giving him attention at weekends, but during the week, I think he should be in bed when I get home, because I am just too tired to play with him. The way I see it, what we have here is a conflict of interest: either he gets his way or I do. Why should it be the parent's wishes that are sacrificed?”

The problem with this conflict-of-interest analysis is that it assumes that reason is simply a matter of picking “the right answer” from the two possibilities listed. It utterly fails to account for new ideas, real solutions, discovered through human creativity. Rationality in this Popperian sense is not about trading off anything; it is about what to do in the face of conflicting theories; it is about creating new knowledge.

So how might a more rational parent view the problem of the nightly battle of wills? First, I should point out that this whole conflict would have been much less likely in the first place if the parent had behaved more rationally when it was first beginning to arise. But let's assume that (like most of us) this parent is not always as rational as he'd like, and so this situation has arisen. What would he do? Well, he would not see the answer as being one of only the two initial conflicting ideas. He would think that as each of those “proposed solutions” would make the one of them unhappy, both of those ideas must be rejected. He would then work with the child to try to find an answer which genuinely solves the problem – one which both are happy with. They might discuss a whole string of potential solutions before finding one that they both found satisfactory. What he wouldn't do though, is to stop looking for a solution.

If they could not think up a better idea between them, the father might, upon reflection, decide that it might be worth trying the son's theory wholeheartedly, in the hope that that might release the creativity necessary to find a real solution. After all, so far the father has not enacted the son's theory; he has reluctantly allowed himself to be “bugged” unwillingly into reading the odd story or playing the odd game, and has been complaining and trying to get the son to go to bed all the while. So he has not even tried the son's theory yet. He might think it worth a try, in view of the fact that he does value his son's happiness as well as his relaxation. He might well find that when he adopts his son's theory, it turns out that his son is perfectly satisfied with only a small amount of play, or that he is quite happy to read stories rather than playing energetic games, or that he is happy to play chess with his father while his father simultaneously watches television, or that he is very happy to have nice conversations with his father while his father lies resting on his bed. For what it is worth, I can testify that the more open one is to children's ideas, the easier and more pleasant everything tends to get, not just for the children, but for the parent too.

“As it happens with our children, so it does with our theories: they tend to become largely independent of their parents. And as it may happen with our children, so with our theories: we may gain from them a greater amount of knowledge than we originally imparted to them.” – Karl Popper

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