Criticisms of Kiss Me, by Carlos Gonzalez

Friendly criticism of Carlos González, 2021, Kiss Me – rough notes

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2021

I was asked by someone with an interest in Taking Children Seriously for my criticisms of of Kiss Me, by Carlos González (2021). Before I list some of my criticisms, I must stress that this is a warm, charming, beautiful book for anyone who is pregnant or has a young baby. Indeed, I wish I myself had had this book when I was pregnant with my first child. There are mistakes I made early in my first child’s life that I would not have made had I had this book.

Apologies – these are just rough notes listing some criticisms – I do not currently have time to explain.

There is a lot of stuff about animals and evolution and sociobiological stuff, arguing from the ‘natural’, from how primitive tribes and our ancestors did things and from animal behaviour, and there is some anthropomorphism too.

Some problematic quotes from my Taking Children Seriously perspective:

Because we have so little information about our ancestors, we are tempted to examine what we refer to as “primitive” societies. A long time ago, when I was nine or ten, I read in a picture book that Australian Aborigines never beat their children. That sentence stuck in my head, and has stayed with me ever since. […] I quote: “Aboriginal children have a good life, because no matter what difficulties their family group might be experiencing, they receive the most nourishing part of the food, and are always treated with great affection by their parents, who scold them when they are naughty, but never punish them.” This is even better than I remembered! Aboriginal parents not only don’t beat their children, they don’t punish them either. I am far from being the first person to admire the way other cultures raise their children.

The suggestion that primitive tribes have/had a better idea of how to treat children is clearly rubbish, as it takes coercion to maintain the stasis of static societies, as David Deutsch argued so brilliantly in Chapter 15 of The Beginning of Infinity.

We will need to compare the way in which different human societies raise their children, and to choose what appears to work best.

Erm, pragmatism/effectiveness (vs making the philosophical argument from fallibilism and taking children seriously as persons with minds, ideas, wishes, etc.). See my talk given at the Oxford Karl Popper Society: Taking Children Seriously: a new view of children.

He lumps us in with animals in the section on natural selection –

Natural selection doesn’t only determine our physique, it also determines our behaviour, insofar as it is instinctive – that is to say inherited as opposed to learned from our parents. A turtledove that doesn’t incubate its eggs or protect its nest, a doe that doesn’t constantly lick its young in order to remove the smells that might attract predators, are less likely to have offspring that survive and give them grandchildren. Over millions of years, each animal has evolved the type of behaviour that is most advantageous to its reproductive success.

– as part of a very long argument to get to the point that the “tried and tested” “always been done” argument doesn’t hold water (vs making the argument directly and concisely, from fallibilism and logic, rather than starting at natural selection). (Also note the mistake of viewing evolution as maximising the good of the species, whereas actually it is the gene that is the unit of selection, and the mistake of thinking that evolution always improves useful functionality, which it does not. See Chapter 3 and especially Chapter 4 of David Deutsch’s book, The Beginning of Infinity for more about that.)

Sometimes, a child will ask for a sweet, an ice-cream or a toy because she wants it. Of course we aren’t saying you should buy her everything she wants; that will depend on your finances, on her diet (i.e. how many ice-creams or sweets your daughter eats every week), on the number of toys she has and how often she plays with them. What I am saying in this book is that, if you decide not to give your child what she asks for, then let this be for a sensible reason (because she already has too many toys, because it is expensive, because sweets are bad for her teeth – and not simply in order to “train” her to “learn that she can’t get her own way”; don’t say “no” to your child simply out of spite. There are other times when a child demands sweets or toys simply to try to “get attention”.

If you have money, it can be “cheaper” to buy your child a doll that can walk and talk than to play with her and her ordinary doll for an hour every day. This is the way we gradually “spoil” our children; by teaching them to value material things above other human beings.

Should we always give in to our children, then? No, of course not. Not because it would spoil them, but because it would be impossible. There is no such thing as a child without limits. Physical factors, which neither the child nor his parents can control already impose considerable limits. Your child can’t fly, he doesn’t always win when he plays with his friends, and he can’t stop it from raining and spoiling a day at the beach.

There are times when you force him to do some things and forbid him from doing others for reasons that are more than justified (or at least you think they are, other parents may think differently): you have to go to school, you have to do your homework, you have to sit down and have supper, you have to wash your hands: you can’t eat so many sweets, you’ve had enough ice-cream, we can’t afford to go on holiday to Paris, the video game console is too expensive; I don’t want you watching so much TV; you can’t ride your bicycle into town, the roads are too busy; put your Meccano set away, we’re going to see your grandparents; it’s time for your bath, pick up your dirty clothes; don’t touch the gas knobs; we can’t have a dog in the flat …

How would it be if it said this:

“There are times when you force your wife to do some things and forbid her from doing others for reasons that are more than justified (or at least you think they are, other husbands may think differently): you have to go to work, you have to do your housework, you have to sit down and have supper, you have to wash your hands: you can’t eat so many sweets, you’ve had enough ice-cream, we can’t afford to go on holiday to Paris, the video game console is too expensive; I don’t want you watching so much TV; you can’t ride your bicycle into town, the roads are too busy; put your Popper books away, we’re going to see your parents; it’s time for your bath, pick up your dirty clothes …”?

No, I am not arguing against setting our children limits, for the simple reason that it would be impossible. What I am saying is we shouldn’t set artificial and artful ones. If our child asks us for something which isn’t harmful to him, which doesn’t destroy the environment, which we can afford, which we have time to give him, let us not say “no” simply “in order to set him limits” or “to accustom him to being obedient”.

We can do so much better than this. And with adult loved ones, we do. Imagine if it was advising husbands about how to treat their wives instead and said: 

 “No, I am not arguing against setting our wife limits, for the simple reason that it would be impossible. What I am saying is we shouldn’t set artificial and artful ones.” 

People who treat one another decently don’t just stand back and welcome ‘natural consequences’, they solve the problems. Only when it comes to children is it suddenly seen as being good to ‘allow’ ‘natural consequences’ to ‘teach’ the child. 

If we have refused him something, and we see that his response is “disproportionate”, could it be that we have misjudged the situation, could what we have refused him be much more important to him than we thought? Then let us reconsider our decision in the light of this new discovery: will he catch a horrible disease if he has his bath tomorrow instead of today? Will the world come to an end if we wait until his favourite cartoon is over before going for a walk? Will he freeze to death if he doesn’t wear a coat?

How about if he merely disagrees? And again, how does it sound when we reword it to be advice for wives re dealing with their husbands?

“If we have refused him something, and we see that his response is ‘disproportionate’, could it be that we have misjudged the situation, could what we have refused him be much more important to him than we thought? Then let us reconsider our decision in the light of this new discovery.”

In other words, there is still paternalism in his view of children. The parent is still in charge. This is not taking children seriously.

If in the end we decide not to give in; if he has to go to school, finish his homework, turn the TV off this instant, will we be able to exercise our authority without being overbearing, to give orders without resorting to shouts or threats, to tolerate our child’s frustration and accept that he obeys us grudgingly, not with a big smile on his face, like the good little boys and girls in the movies? It is well known that Napoleon’s grenadiers “grumbled and followed him faithfully”; even he couldn’t force them to obey without complaining.

How about not exercising authority over our child? Do we want our child to grow up to be a serf or someone who obeys the gang leader? And again, look at how it looks when we reword it as follows, as advice for husbands with respect to their wives:

“If in the end we decide not to give in; if she has to go to work, finish her housework, turn the TV off this instant, will we be able to exercise our authority without being overbearing, to give orders without resorting to shouts or threats, to tolerate our wife’s frustration and accept that she obeys us grudgingly, not with a big smile on her face, like the Stepford Wives in the movie? It is well known that Napoleon’s grenadiers ‘grumbled and followed him faithfully’; even he couldn’t force them to obey without complaining.”

Taking children seriously does not mean merely being a kinder authority figure, but rejecting authority entirely, such that all the ideas are competing freely, and no one is being managed, moulded and shaped.

In short, he doesn’t have the philosophy, doesn’t quite take children seriously as persons, is still viewing children through the lens of paternalism, and he seems to have a romantic vision about animals, tribes and our ancestors, etc. However, most of what he says with respect to babies (apart from when his romanticising the ‘natural’/primitive gets in the way) is aimed at helping readers how to treat babies kindly – so despite my criticisms I do very much recommend this book for anyone having a baby.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2021, ‘Criticisms of Kiss Me, by Carlos Gonzalez’, https://www.fitz-claridge.com/criticisms-of-kiss-me-by-carlos-gonzalez

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