Taking Children Seriously

From Unschooling to TCS, With Lots of Children

Posted by Sarah Fitz-Claridge
on the TCS List on Sun, 5 May, 1996, at 19:07:50 +0100

A poster wrote:

I've only been on this list for a couple of weeks so at the risk of repeating what's already been discussed...I am a long-time unschooling parent who still has a lot to learn about coercion. After reading the recents posts I've decided that I have too many children. I should have had only one or maybe two spaced about twenty years apart! Not really, of course, but multiple children seem to complicate my goal to implement of non-coercive parenting. I'd love some suggestions and discussion around these three issues:

Welcome to the list!

My children's needs are very different and because we don't have enough hours in the day, the differences of opinion of how to spend our time conflict. Most of the time we work out a compromise but that's as good as it seems to get and I realise that there still is a large element of coercion in this.

Well that is a good start anyway. Recognising coercion can be incredibly difficult in itself, and most people mistakenly think of grudging compromises as non-coercive even though neither party is happy with the outcome.

I think it is more difficult with lots of children, especially when they are very young, but the older they get, the easier it should get. It is perfectly possible to find common preferences with lots of children if they are not all young and completely dependent. Nevertheless, there are non-coercive TCS subscribers who have many children, so don't lose hope.

It sounds as if you are feeling overwhelmed by all the demands upon you. If so, that in itself will make it much less likely that you will have the will to seek solutions and the creativity to find them. TCS is absolutely not about you being a slave or being in any way self-sacrificial, and it is unworkable if that is the approximation you adopt. You simply can't go on ignoring your own needs. You'll burn out, or grow to hate them or something. This “giving” self-sacrificial attitude is not peculiar to non-coercive parents. It is very common in our culture, with both men and women, in their different ways, being brought up to deny their own wishes – women to nurture, and men to support and protect at all costs. That is the antithesis of non-coercion. In many cases this self-sacrificial attitude is combined with extreme manipulativeness and control. “I have Done All This For YOU, so the least you can do is this ‘small’ thing for me.”

But this is not what you want, obviously. So the first thing to do might be to start taking your self and your own needs seriously. Until you can do this, I can't see how you can take anyone else seriously. Show your children, by the way you live your life, that there is more to being a woman than merely meeting the needs of others. Perhaps you could start by trying to become more self aware? Ask yourself “What do I want to do now?” “Is this what I want to do?” “Am I doing this despite wanting actually to do something else?” “Am I acting upon one theory while a conflicting theory is active in my mind?” Try to question whether there is coercion going on inside your mind. Are you forcing yourself to do something in the face of internal conflict? Are you thinking in terms of “willpower”? “Willpower” implies intra-mind coercion. It is something we are all brought up to think a good thing, but it is very bad.

If you can become more aware of your own theories and conflicts, and start applying your creativity to resolving some of your own internal coercion, that may help you to build institutions of consent in your family. Coercion = acting on one theory while another conflicting theory remains unrefuted. It can be all inside your own mind just as easily as it can be between you and a child. Ultimately this involves coercion in the mind anyway, so it is worth thinking about your own mind.

I am not, of course, saying “start coercing the children to meet your own needs”! That is clearly not the thing with which to replace a self-sacrificial tendency. Doing that would be self-defeating and ultimately result in more problems for you, by your own lights, than if you build institutions of consent in your family. For the more you coerce your children, the more creativity they will be forced to apply to protecting themselves from your coercion, and the less they will be likely to apply to solving problems to everyone's satisfaction. The safer they feel, the less defensive they will need to be, and the likely increase in trust and goodwill there is will facilitate creativity and thus lead to the solving of more problems. This is why non-coercion is so wonderful – it is about consent – and just think how relaxing and pleasant that is, compared with the constant sniping and battles in many families. This is something worth striving for.

One thing that people often find when they do make a determined effort to build institutions of consent in their families, is that the children start to come up with solutions to problems in situations the parent thought privately “There's no way in hell we are going to reach a common preference here.” When this happens, it is really quite astounding, and leaves one thinking “WOW!! It DOES work! I'd never have thought of that! My children are brilliant.” This in turn feeds into one's own will to find consensual solutions, and a virtuous circle may result. (Of course for some of us there are also occasions on which disaster happens and our mother's words fly from our lips, but hopefully the number of those occasions does decrease with increasing understanding, trust, goodwill and problem-solving together. I shall write more about that in another post.)

What I am suggesting (and these are all just my suggestions which may be entirely wrong and of no use whatsoever, so read them with that in mind) is the following:

  1. Become more familiar with the whole idea of TCS and how knowledge grows (that is – through active conjectures and refutations rather than passively receiving knowledge like a bucket receives water) by reading old posts and talking to others on the list (and reading the FAQ when it is ready). The more you can internalise the theory, the easier it all becomes in practice. Trying to do it without theory is a bad mistake, because all practice is driven by theory, it is just a question of which theory. For example, you feel worried about the children watching television now, but if you were to internalise the Popperian theory of how knowledge grows, you would not worry about the content of TV because you'd know that bad theories do not stamp themselves upon the unsuspecting minds of innocent children (or indeed anyone!).1 So ask questions just as you are, and read as much as you can about the idea, and talk to others.

  2. Think about yourself in this epistemological context – try to start viewing your own ideas and needs, and so on, in this light, so that you get more of a feeling for what it all means and how it all works, and why consent is always the thing to strive for. If you start to notice that you yourself are acting on one theory whilst one or more conflicting theories remain active in your mind, you might then be able to start eliminating such coercion, and that will make you feel so good that it might make it easier for you to feel in your guts that it is really worth that extra bit of effort to find a common preference when the problem is not just within you but a dispute in the family.

  3. Do remember that moving from coercive institutions to consent-building ones is difficult, and you will probably have many failures to find consent early on, but that if you don't give up, it really does get easier. Remember that most of the problems you are having are a result of the coercion, and that it will take time to build up institutions of consent.

Oh, and one particular thing to keep in mind:

  1. Watch out for less obvious coercion – making them feel guilty by being disappointed and so on. Putting children in double binds is very insidious and it is worth criticially examining your behaviour with this particular in mind.


  1. Karl Popper himself was rather against television and did not own one.

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