Taking Children Seriously

Moral Issues

Parents are morally obliged to help their children, while the children have no “balancing” obligation to obey their parents.

TCS advocates certain asymmetries in how parents and children should treat each other, namely:

  1. Parents are morally obliged to support their children, while the children have no “balancing” obligation to obey their parents.
  2. In the event of failing to find a common preference, parents give way to their children.

Finding common preferences is always the way to go. Since the “obligation” part of point (1) only comes into practical effect if the parent and child fail to find a common preference, the significant asymmetry is really contained in point (2).

Finding a common preference is always theoretically possible, in the sense that there is no absolute obstacle to behaving in a way that would benefit all parties, by their own lights. Finding it requires creativity, but if it chronically can't be found in practice then this is most unlikely to be an inherent property of the external situation; it is likely to be due to the parties' lack of practice and the existence of entrenched theories. These things tend to decrease with increased practice and understanding of the TCS theory. It is misleading to characterise the TCS conception of the child-parent relationship as “the parent always has to give in to the child”. Finding common preferences means that all parties prefer the final solution to their initial desires.

See also Against Self-sacrifice.

Why isn't the moral situation symmetrical between parents and their children?

Because the child has been placed in the situation (where a common preference cannot be found) by the parents' free choices, while the parents have been placed in the situation by their own free choices – artificially narrowed, perhaps, by the effects of their parents' choices – but not by their children.

It is a parent's responsibility to protect children from harm as perceived by the child

“Protecting” someone from something that they like is tantamount to inflicting on them, against their will, something they do not want. A bank manager has a duty to protect the customer's investment. But if the customer, having been offered a particular pattern of investment and informed of its merits, declines it, then if the bank manager goes ahead and spends the money on what he thinks is good for the customer, he will go to jail. Likewise, the duty to protect one's children never justifies overriding their own wishes in regard to what should happen to them, or what is done for them. Protection may take many forms (advice, physical protection, etc.) but always requires the same consent-based problem-solving process as any other problem. The typical TCS style of protection is for the parents to present their very best theories about a situation to the child in the course of a two-way discussion; everyone concerned takes it for granted that the child has the final say about whether, and what, protection is going to be provided. Where a child declines protection that is offered, TCS parents do not typically walk away – nor do they ever say “don't come crying to me if you fall off”. Instead they try to think of other ways of decreasing the danger, which the child will not object to – for instance, staying in close physical proximity (assuming the child is in agreement). Children want to be safe even when, on occasions, they need to take risks.

Is it the position of TCS that coercion is immoral?

NO!! Coercion is harmful. But whether it is immoral or not depends on the situation and in particular on the obligations that the parties have towards each other. For a parent to coerce his child is in general immoral because the situation in which the failure to reach agreement occurred is the result of the parent's choices and not the child's.

Copyright © 1997, 2003 Taking Children Seriously

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