I’m sitting down to a chai in Blackwells.
So far I’ve been drinking a lot of chai but not typing anything. Oops.
Some thoughts on disciplining children. I’m against it. I think it does children a disservice and makes them ill-prepared for life. If that doesn’t immediately ring true to you, read on as I explain.
Take the kid who is throwing a tantrum because his mother is telling him to take a bath and he was just playing. She threatens all the privileges she will take away if he does not take a bath right now, and he only cries louder and argues harder. But they must go buy him some new shoes that afternoon, so the bath cannot wait and the argument continues until the child concedes and tearfully bathes himself.
Some common assumptions for adults to make are that this kid just has an irrational dislike for baths that needs to be cured and he is going to become a stinky, smelly, dirty kid if his mum doesn’t threaten him into bathing.
But we were all kids once. Think back to when you were that kid. Tears were streaming down your face. You were crying until your lungs hurt. Do you remember? You felt that some huge injustice was being done. You weren’t scared of the bath (or whatever it was you were commanded to do), you were resisting because you felt that something was wrong with what was happening. And that feeling wasn’t irrational. You were right.
Let’s do another thought experiment to determine what that was. Imagine you are an adult (this one shouldn’t be too hard). You are doing something – reading a book in a bookstore, having a cup of coffee, working on a presentation, working out at the gym – take your pick. Another adult approaches you and tells you to immediately go home and take a bath. He yells that if you don’t he will impound your car and freeze your bank accounts. How do you feel? You can’t even imagine this scenario because you’re saying – ‘wait, how is he going to freeze my bank accounts?’ Let’s just say he can. You’d feel like something unjust was happening. Your autonomy was being compromised and he held so many cards that you were forced to comply against your will.
That kid who throws a tantrum has not yet given up his hope of being an autonomous human being and his belief in his right and ability to successfully stand up for himself and defend himself. The kid who has ceased to throw tantrums, on the other hand, has. The kid who has ceased to resist the violation of their autonomous will is ill prepared for life. He is more likely to be successfully molested or kidnapped, more likely to be successfully sexually harassed or taken advantage of by his boss at work. It’s this type of compliance that made the Nazi army possible.
When we teach a kid to ‘obey authority’, we aren’t thinking about that kid’s well being. We’re thinking about having an easier time living with that kid. We aren’t thinking about the fact that we are making him vulnerable to the child molester down the street or eroding his ability to stand up for himself as an adult. We are thinking about the fact that we’ll be able to buy him new shoes that afternoon, and get him to school on time tomorrow, and he won’t come home with a horrendous tattoo in a few years’ time. Those are thoughts about our well being. They aren’t about what’s good for the kid, they’re about what we want for the kid.
If you disagree with this, please notice that it doesn’t matter what kid you are thinking about, you want the same thing for them – getting to school on time, not coming home with that horrendous tattoo. Now consider all the adults you know and how they are all different. Kids are all different, too, and when you’re trying to force them all into the same mold, you aren’t treating them as people.
Here’s how I would address the bath situation given at the beginning of this post: The kid is playing in his room. I would address him and give him a few seconds to switch his attention to me, instead of talking to him before he even realises I’m there. I’d remind him that he wanted to buy new shoes and let him know that this afternoon is the only time I have this week to take him shoe shopping, and ask if he’d like to go shoe shopping this afternoon or wait until next week. If I was picky about his bathing habits I’d say that if he took the bath before the shops closed we’d go shopping. But as I probably would judge that he wasn’t dirty enough to get me arrested if he were seen in public, I might instead ask if he would like a bath before we go out. I’d also apologise for bringing this up at the last minute and promise to try to give him more advance notice next time.
My point is – if he doesn’t want to stop playing (and perhaps, if he doesn’t want to take a bath), we wouldn’t go shopping, and I don’t have to fight with him. He will just have to wear his old shoes until next week and I will have the afternoon off to do as I please. Or he will decide, given perhaps a while to think about it, that he wants new shoes and he’s willing to make the sacrifice to achieve his goal. Either way, I haven’t violated the kid’s autonomy, I haven’t taught him a horrible life lesson, and I haven’t prioritised having control in the moment over the long term welfare of my child.
I’d rather have a child with beaten up shoes than a compliant child, any day of the week.