The Freedom Advisor

Noncoercive Parenting Revisited

Dear Freedom Advisor,

I've been reading your ideas on raising children to be free, and must say I admire your persistence and thoroughgoing commitment to your principles. However, as others have done, I feel compelled to express my scepticism with your approach.

I would like to be able to raise my own children in a more rights-respecting environment, and one as free of coercion as possible, but that can be carried to ridiculous extremes. Maybe not the former, but certainly the latter -- coercion has been defined so broadly in some circles that it seems simply asking a question could be considered coercive. How do you address this thorny problem?

Further, while I appreciate your emphasis on creating positive learning structures and incentives for your children, I wonder how successful you really are at it. How do you teach a child who loves to play with his food proper table manners, for example? I know of no incentive that takes away the fun of squishing veggies beneath little fingers.

Last (for now, at least), it seems to me that you are focusing more on an ideal world -- that you want for your children -- than the real one we're stuck with, in raising your children. Wouldn't you agree that raising your children to be as functional as possible in this world is important? If so, how do your parenting methods accomplish this? I fear your children will be in for a rude awakening when they leave the warmth of your home and must fend for themselves amongst the statist wolves.


A fan from across the pond

Dear Fan,

Thank you for your kind words as well as your excellent questions. Have you been eavesdropping on our home lately? We will do the best we can in this somewhat limited space to address each of them.

First, you sound like a reasonable, thinking person who knows that parenting isn't like a shirt one can simply pull on and it either fits or it doesn't. It's a process, involving at least two, and often more, people, and it's a process that evolves and changes as those individuals and the circumstances do. So we are, like all caring parents, constantly evaluating and thinking and trying to do the very best for our children. It isn't always easy. We focus on the goals we have -- healthy, mature, responsible, thinking individuals -- and the principles we want to instill -- respect for individual rights, personal responsibility, and joy in life chief among them -- and make the best decisions we can.

Coercion is a thorny issue, and we've seen some things that strike us as fairly silly definitions, too. We have come to a general agreement on what we view as coercive and noncoercive, and try to stick with it as consistently as possible. For example, we do not initiate force on our children, but they know that if they ignore a request involving complying with someone else's body or property, they are very likely to be physically removed from the situation, or the item in question being physically removed from the child's possession. We also withhold our cooperation in activities that we view as dangerous, or that goes against an agreement or understanding (if the family is going out for dinner, we won't start a game, for example). We're not too concerned about what others think of our definitions and solutions -- what works for our family regarding coercion is what's important to us. Decide for yourself what is coercive and what isn't, and help your children understand that as best they can. (And of course it's okay to point out where other individuals' definitions differ.)

It can be a huge challenge trying to set up positive interactions rather than negative situations. Sometimes a negative situation can't be avoided -- a child must learn the pain of the hot stove to learn to avoid it -- but we prefer not to try to be sources of negative energy with our children (no, we don't always succeed). If you reward appropriate behavior -- with words, a hug, a special treat -- that's much more informative than constantly saying, "No, don't do that!". If you do need to say "no", following it with an explanation targeted to the child's comprehension level provides more feedback on what was undesired, and what might be better. With older children, asking them to think the situation through, in order to arrive at possible solutions themselves, is even better. Our five-year-old can often do this (even if he can't always follow through on the solution he creates). Diligence and patience are called for here: it's important to call attention to behavior you want to see more of (without hovering and going overboard -- rewards shouldn't turn into bribes or payoffs), and to consistently reward the wanted and try to shift away from the unwanted behaviors.

But kids are kids -- and they will always be different from adults in their outlook, desires, and ability to think and control themselves. They simply don't have the experience and knowledge adults do. Of course they'll do things we don't want -- our daughter likes to eat like a dog, for example, and will do so from both the table or floor. Our quick, energetic protests only spurred her on, so we adopted a different strategy; she gets one warning to "eat like a person", and if she doesn't comply, she's sent to her room until the rest of the family finishes the meal. Then she can return and eat, with no audience, no company -- and much less fun. It doesn't always work, but it has altered her behavior more effectively than other tactics we've tried.

Such "shunning" is a powerful tool for the parent who doesn't want to spank or otherwise use physical force on a child. It removes the child from the environment that's contributing to the undesirable behavior, and it puts the child alone -- which most children do not like. We often request that the child think about what happened so that she or he can try to learn something positive from the incident, or that the child wait until he or she has a greater measure of self-control, and then they are welcome to return to the family. Noncooperative children who don't respond to time-out as a corrective measure generally respond better to this approach. Our approach is to allow some latitude with respect to play, as long as it doesn't interfere with others' property or bodies, but to expect an appropriate measure of self-control from the child as well. How much self-control is "appropriate" obviously varies from child to child, and changes as the child matures. Such judgment calls are invariably sources of second-guessing and mistakes. We do as much of that as any parent, we think, but we do try to be diligent about catching ourselves to prevent small problems from escalating into large ones. We also talk with our partners, and if necessary, intervene to stop something from going out of control. Pleasing parents -- or avoiding parental disapproval -- is a very powerful motivator for even very young children, and as long as it isn't abused, can help socialize a child without breaking his or her individuality.

We do agree with you that raising a child to function well in society is an important task of parenthood. However, it seems to us something like giving up to try to teach a child to fit into the world that is. We disagree with the notion that we're "stuck" in this world. If we're serious about making society a better, freer one, we need to teach our children to value freedom, respect property and individual rights, and to interact with others in ways that do not violate those principles and values. It's a balancing act -- teaching them the skills they'll need not to be taken advantage of in the world that is, while helping them forge tools that will make their world a healthier, saner place. Perhaps we are too gentle with them in some respects -- the world doesn't likely give as many warnings as we do -- but the ultimate foundation a child needs in order to grow further is trust. That must begin with parents. With that in place, parents are much better able to help a child through the painful ugly lessons that the real world requires they learn, but without the damage and scarring that mars so many children.

We know very well the challenges and limitations of our chosen path. We are working daily to improve ourselves, to learn more, so that we can be better parents to our children. The issue of discipline/noncoercive consequences for behaviors is an area that's particularly challenging. Again, we encourage other pro-freedom parents to contribute their thoughts and suggestions (anonymously, if preferred) so that we all may benefit.

Thanks again for your excellent questions.

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The Freedom Advisor

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