Taking Children Seriously

Against Self-Sacrifice

Posted by Sarah Fitz-Claridge
on the TCS List on Thu, 15 Jun 2000 at 10:51:20 -0400

Since readers often seem bent on misunderstanding TCS as saying “defer to your child” if not “grovel on the floor for a little mercy from the evil monster child”, instead of seek common preferences, I thought it time for a repost or three. Self-sacrifice is coercive. TCS does not advocate self-sacrifice. Self-sacrifice is not TCS. Self-sacrifice is hideous. To say that TCS advocates deferring to the child is to miss what TCS is in fact saying entirely. That bit on the web site appears to be causing such gross misunderstandings that I am thinking of removing it!

If you are in the frame of mind in which you are fearing having to self-sacrifice, TCS is not just out of the window, it has never been in the window! With that attitude, there isn't a hope in hell of finding common preferences! You are ensuring failure before you even start. As for thinking in terms of a child “allowing” you to do things or “letting” you – excuse me while I vomit! This is not TCS!

If you are giving every indication that your child is a nasty little shit to whom you must beg for a little mercy every now and then, whatever do you expect the child to think? How ever do you expect a young child to be able to rise above the ghastly view you have of him? How is he supposed to grow to understand the idea of common preferences if everything in your interactions with him leads inexorably to the conclusion that the way to get what you want in life is by bossing everyone else around and getting what you want at their expense?

Posted by Sarah Fitz-Claridge
on the TCS List on Fri, 31 Jul 1998 at 13:14:15 -0400

At 6:08 PM -0700 on 7/27/98, someone wrote:

Oh, sorry. I meant in the situations we have been talking about here where the child is already crying for only mommy and it is obvious (or has been expressed) that no one else will do. For the father to offer his help at that time, or to try and present alternatives often results in more distress, because the child understands that such efforts translate into a longer wait for the one they really want.

Understandably, the poster is turning back to the question of what to do in the immediate situation here. But given that there is a continuing, serious problem here, it is vital to drag one's thinking away from what to do in the immediate situation, because that is not where the solution to the problem lies. If your attention remains focused on the immediate problem, the discussion becomes one of simply who should be the one to get hurt (like ‘who should rule?‘ in politics, where, as Popper tells us, if we concentrate on that question we are bound to get tyrannical rule; and the solution involves dragging our attention away from that, to the real question of how we can get rid of bad policies and bad rulers.)

So when I keep insisting on broadening the focus of the discussion, to address the cause not the symptoms, and when I refuse to focus on the immediate crisis situation as Stephen wants me to, I am not being callous or perverse. I believe that focusing the discussion in that way would make it unlikely that the problem will ever be solved.

BTW, there's only one thing worse than focusing on who should get hurt, and that's focusing on whose fault it is: is it (a) the toddler's, for clinging to the “only mummy will do” theory; or (b) the mother's, for not being willing enough to self-sacrifice; or (c) the father's, for not making himself attractive enough as a parent; or (d) TCS's, for not letting them give the child a good slapping – he'd soon shut up; or (e) society's (for not providing round the clock nannies courtesy of the tax payer). Or all of the above, or some of the above. You could write a thesis analysing this, but even if you found the true, final answer to whose fault it is, you would have made no progress towards finding the solution which – remember – does exist! In fact, you would probably have moved further away from a solution.

It is all very well to say that where there is no common preference found, the parent must self-sacrifice, but this TCS idea is neither a solution nor a sufficient condition for a solution to be found. Self-sacrifice is not intended to be something which happens day in, day out, in a TCS family. Occasional failures, or even frequent minor failures, to find solutions, are probably inevitable, and we endorse parental self-sacrifice as the best way of making them less harmful and less frequent. But daily occurrences of severe self-sacrifice are actually incompatible with the TCS style, just as coercion of the children is.

Occasional parental self-sacrifice is a stabilising, self-limiting thing, but if someone is sacrificing night after night, that situation is unstable. It tends to destroy the person's ability to find common preferences, and it becomes increasingly hard to prevent it from having terribly bad effects on the children, teaching them (in terms of their inexplicit ideas at least) that in order for them to get what they want, someone else has to suffer. It will also inevitably build up resentment and guilt in the self-sacrificing person and make her wish she were dead or that her children were, or something. And then of course she will feel guilty about that too. All this is BAD.

The family described on this thread has a certain dynamic that has the effect that people get hurt. TCS theory tells us that there is another way that they could live, that wouldn't have that property. To find that way, it is vital that everybody stops thinking about who should be hurt (or whose fault it is), and starts thinking about how to solve it.

If there is a chronic failure to solve a problem, then the chances are that the parties involved with have narrowed their creative thinking to the issue of who should get hurt, as I said. This is natural, but since that is never the real problem, creativity should be devoted, as always, to the task of finding the real solution which will have the property that nobody gets hurt. So one needs to find out

- what is causing it?

- why is the syndrome the way it is, in detail?

- how does the syndrome operate, in detail?

- what practical steps would make matters even slightly better?

- what practical steps would make it easier to discover the above information?

... and so on.

If they fail to find a solution, they will be more tempted than ever to devote their creativity to finding a way of coping with the immediate situation each time it arises. But this is a mistake because there is almost certainly no such way. They have no option but to simply carry on looking, and to try even harder to solve the underlying problem. Yes, the question of who should get hurt in the immediate situation will come up as a practical issue the very next night, and the family will have to make some choice or other about that, and to have that at the forefront of their minds, and that is why these things are distressing and horrible. But when somebody from the outside tries to address the underlying problem (as I did in my original post), then it would be a mistake for the outsider, who has the luxury of not having to endure all the anguish, to be drawn into answering the question as if it were about who should get hurt.

Self-sacrifice as a way of resolving occasional cases when people have been unable to find a common preference for whatever reason, is the TCS line, but it simply is not possible to do this in one of these chronic, highly distressing situations, because even when you give in nominally, there are psychological processes that go along with the self sacrifice that are coercive. If someone is breast-feeding toddlers through the night and it involves self-sacrifice every night, then somewhere in the mother, there will be an impulse to have this stop, and the child will empathise with that impulse as well as having the impulse to breast-feed, and this will be a chronic conflict in the child's mind as well as in the mother's. And so the mother will have become a more coercive parent, will become resentful, and so on.

Parents who have a tendency to self-sacrifice also have a tendency to feel guilty, and there is almost inevitably resentment too. However much “weight” you give the children's wishes and no matter how how little you give your own (when no common preference is found), there is still absolutely no justification for the chronic self-sacrificing pattern where you feel guilty for telling the children that something they have done or are doing is painful and upsetting to you. What often happens is that parents feel guilty for even thinking that. Then they feel even more guilty for wanting to say that, or for saying it, and whether they say it or not, they try to make up for it by self-sacrifice. Whereas of course what they ought to have done is not just say it when it gets unbearably painful, but long before, when it was just slightly inconvenient. They ought to be saying it as early as possible, and they ought to be expecting that a solution will be found and that everyone will be happy about it. It should never get to a state where there is extreme self sacrifice going on chronically.

And then, on occasion, when a solution is not found, then you grit your teeth and self-sacrifice, but then, you don't feel guilty or resentful, you feel noble. You feel that here is something worthwhile you are doing for your children and although it hurts and you are in a state of mental conflict, you don't resent the children for that; you even get a nice warm glow when you think about it later. And the children don't get anything bad to empathise with, and they don't have the experience of their needs being dependent on a loved one's suffering.

Posted by Sarah Fitz-Claridge
on the TCS List on 29 Sep 1998 at 7:52am

At 2:08 pm -0700 on 28/9/98, someone wrote (quoting a TCS poster):

“Self-coercion is a form of coercion. And it is just as damaging to the child as any other form of coercion is.

There are several people on the list lately who have said similar things to this. Saying something like “my child has not experienced much coercion” but then go on to say that the parent has self-sacrificed or self-coerced a lot. Well, in such situations, a child has experienced a lot of coercion. Self-sacrifice and self-coercion on the part of the parent is a form of coercion of the child.

Self coercion inhibits creativity. If this happens to a parent it might result in coercion of their child depending upon what else is going on. Was there some other coercion of the child you were referring to? Just curious.

Yes. When a parent self-sacrifices, unless it is an unusual situation and the parent is feeling good (well, heroic, say) about doing so, she will probably be feeling some level of psychological pain and thus on some level resentment towards the child. This will be conveying to the child the fact that she is self-sacrificing, and because the child cares about her and wants her to be happy, this will cause the child herself an intractable conflict.

Example: Suppose the child wants the mother to take her to a friend's house to play, and the mother is busy working on something and does not want to stop, and after some discussion no common preference is found (the mother is tired and stressed, say) so the mother opts to self-sacrifice, but feels a little upset or exasperated about it. Is it not likely that the mother will be albeit inadvertently conveying this psychological pain to the child? And if she is, won't the child empathise with the mother and want her not to be in pain, while simultaneously wanting to go to the friend's house? If she does, she is in a state of coercion and she is being harmed by it just as surely as she would be had the mother not self-sacrificed. She is at least getting what she wants in one way, that she would not be if her mother were to refuse to take her; but nevertheless, unless the self- sacrifice is done without conveying any pain to the child, the mother is indeed coercing the child, as the first poster suggested.

Posted by Sarah Fitz-Claridge
on the TCS List on Sun, 10 Jan 1999 at 20:58:51 -0500

Self-sacrifice is coercive. Most obviously, it is a form of self-coercion, because when you self-sacrifice, you are, by definition, acting against your own will.

For example, it is very common for parents to do the following things for their children while simultaneously wanting not to (i.e., they are literally acting against their own will):

  1. Getting a child to school on time even if the parent has had almost no sleep the night before because of being up with a baby and even if the baby is now sleeping soundly and every fibre of the parent's being is saying sleep now, forget about school for one day. The parent takes the view that it is essential to take the child to school on time in order not to damage the child's education. The parent is self-sacrificing for the child. (We can argue about whether the child wants this or not, but the point is that that is how the parent sees it.)
  2. Helping out at the child's school despite hating every minute, in the belief that by doing so, it will help the child.
  3. Staying in a job they hate out of obligation to their children. They are self-sacrificing very painfully on an on-going basis for the children.
  4. Continuum/attachment parents often stick rigidly to the idea of family bedding despite the fact that it is a complete disaster for the parents, who can never get a good sleep because of wriggling, poking children. I am NOT saying that family bedding is always a mistake, merely that for SOME parents it involves significant misery and self-sacrifice, as evidenced by comments one can read on usenet or other places where Continuum parents converse. The point is not that family bedding is necessarily self-coercive, merely that it apparently is for some.
  5. Tired, stressed TCS parents sometimes don't have the creativity or the state of mind required to find a common preference but sacrifice their own wishes in favour of their child's.

Doing these things is painful. It hurts. It is literally acting against one's own will, instead of resolving the conflict and enacting the resulting better idea. self-sacrifice is self-coercion. When you self-sacrifice, you are in the psychological state of enacting one idea (doing the thing for the child) while a conflicting idea (wanting not to do that thing) remains active in your mind.

But there is more to it than that.

Self-sacrifice coerces the child too.

The coercion of the child evident in number (1) above is obvious, in that the child probably does not want to go to school anyway. But even if the child does want to go to school, it is still likely to be coercive. However, let's forget the first four examples of self-sacrifice I gave above, and consider the more clear case of number (5), the TCS case.

In example (5) the TCS parent is sacrificing her own wishes in favour of the child's actual wishes. How on earth could that possibly coerce the child?

Well, let's consider another example –

  1. Your beloved self-sacrifices for you. You know that she is self-sacrificing. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that you are too fearful or embarrassed to go to an evening class on your own, and that your partner self-sacrificially agrees to go with you despite the fact that she hates the subject of the class and would rather be doing something else at home. But she cares about you and knows you really want to try this class and instead of finding a common preference, she opts to grit her teeth and go along. And then is horribly bored and you can tell that if she ever hears another word about Conservation of the Outer Mongolian Bog Worm or whatever it is she will run screaming from the room. It is not that she is nasty to you about it; you can just tell that she is in psychological pain as a result of going with you. You can tell that she does not really want to be there.

How would you feel?

Will you not empathise with this person you love, and feel some anguish yourself because you can tell that your beloved is in a state of coercion that you, in a way, have caused? Do you not feel pain when you think that you have caused a loved one pain?

Now think about it from a child's perspective. Imagine that you are a child of a TCS parent who instead of finding a common preference with you has opted to self-sacrifice instead (no doubt because she is tired and stressed and a fallible human being who makes mistakes on occasion, as we all do). Think about how you, the TCS child, feel about your parent. Do you not love and adore your parent? Do you not want your parent to be happy and conflict-free? Do you not wish with all your heart that you and your parent can always find solutions which you both prefer?

And when your parent self-sacrifices, and you know that, will it not cause you intense pain? Do you not empathise with your beloved parent? Are you not in a state of psychological conflict in which you want your wish but also want your parent not to be in psychological pain? To the extent that you are, you are in a state of coercion, and it is in that respect that self-sacrifice on the part of the parent is coercive not just for the parent herself but for the child.

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