“What if…?” questions

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1995, Taking Children Seriously, TCS 20

Originally posted: 8th September 1995

Puzzled parents often ask me questions of the form, “What if a child does [insert some absolutely awful thing, X, here]? Then what would a non-coercive parent do?” This question may seem meaningful, but is pointless and misdirected. It assumes that children are inherently irrational, foolhardy or wicked, and asks how non-coercive parents handle these ghastly problems. But such problems arise out of the relationships between coercive parents and their children. They are caused by coercion.

To ask what a non-coercive parent would do if her child did X is a bit like someone in Eastern Europe asking about the free market, “What if no one ever opens any food shops and everyone starves to death?” The point is that this sort of mis-allocation of resources is characteristic of centrally planned economies and is caused by central planning. This problem simply never arises in a market economy.

But there is more to this misunderstanding than that. Taking children seriously is not defined by the answer to the question, “What happens if a child does X?” any more than the free market is defined by, “What happens if no supermarkets are opened?” The very question, “What mechanical response does the parent have to such-and-such behaviour?” is meaningful only in coercive child rearing, just as questions like, “What laws are there to ensure that there will be enough supermarkets?” is characteristic of a centrally planned economy.

I sometimes answer these what-if questions by asking some other wildly-improbable question. For example, in answer to the question, “OK, so your youngster decides to stay up until 3 a.m. What do you do? Do you stay up with the child to make sure that he doesn’t decide to go play in the sandbox next door at 2:30 a.m. and the local hoodlum kidnaps him?” I replied (with less equanimity than one might have hoped for): “What if your husband went for a walk on the wrong side of town and got killed by the local hoodlum?”

Such retorts are not mere sarcasm: they are attempts to illustrate the fact that the what-if X question seems to me equally improbable. In case above, it seemed improbable that a young child would want to play in the sandbox in the dark on his own in a bad neighbourhood at three o’clock in the morning. Similarly, it seemed unlikely that the husband would wilfully risk getting killed. However, it appears that these responses of mine are not helpful, hence the present attempt to explain my point explicitly.

When I answer in this fashion, parents accuse me of evading the question, so first, what would I do in the case above? I would stay up with the child if that is what he wanted, or go to bed if he was happy to be up alone (assuming I felt like going to bed). If he wanted me to stay up but I felt terribly tired, we’d talk about it and come up with a mutually agreeable solution (not a compromise, but a common preference). This answer is not necessarily applicable to another family situation, and not surprisingly, when I do give this sort of straight answer, parents find it unhelpful:

  • “It is all very well for you, but I need eight hours’ sleep, and I have to get up early to go to work/nurse my baby/cook breakfast, so I couldn’t stay up with the child even if I wanted to.”
  • “It’s all right for you, but in this family, we all have to be out of the house by 8 a.m. and that is not compatible with 3 a.m. bedtimes.”
  • “Many of us do have very serious health reactions to not getting enough sleep, even one night’s.”

One reason I have such trouble answering these what-if questions is that I can “hear” so many objections to my answer that I don’t know where to begin addressing them. Anyway… let me make a start. The sorts of objections that my lax attitude towards bedtimes raise in people’s minds are:

  • What if the child took the opportunity to do some artwork on the most beautiful wall in the house?
  • What if he decides to drink a bottle of Creme de Cacao that he, in his unattended state, finds in the drinks cabinet?
  • What if the child turns on the oven, climbs in while it is still cool, and burns himself to death?
  • What if he decides to go play in the sandbox next door at 2:30 a.m. and the local hoodlum kidnaps him?
  • What if he decides to investigate the chimney, climbs up it, and is killed by a meteorite — err, oops, sorry — I mean — gets stuck in the chimney — or covers the expensive new furniture with soot?

That is one class of objections. Then there are the objections of the form:

  • If he is allowed to stay up that late, he’ll be terribly grumpy the next day and we’ll all suffer.
  • Catering to the whims of one child may have serious repercussions with the rest of the family.
  • If he stays up late, he might get into a routine of staying up late.

And:

  • If I don’t want to stay up with him, should he be allowed to coerce me into doing so?
  • Why should I allow my child to run my life?
  • Why should I pander to my child’s little whims? After all, he’ll have to learn soon enough that there is a cold hard world out there, and surely he should learn sooner rather than later that he won’t always get his own way in life?
  • It is irresponsible to raise a child in such a way that he never feels thwarted. How will he ever function in the real world?
  • If I give my child the message that it is okay to demand that I stay up with him, he might also think he can demand anything else he wants, and later he might turn to crime to get his way.
  • Children need to learn frustration tolerance, and the best way to teach them that is not to let them walk all over you.

So, first, people accuse me of evading the question, then, when I give a straight answer to the question of what I personally would do, I have my answer thrown back in my face dozens of times as being no good for other people! Well, fine, but if my questioners wanted to know what they should do, why are they so keen to ask me what I would do? When parents ask me a question about what I’d do if X happened, or about what a non-coercive parent would do, they should expect me to give an answer to that, not about what a coercive parent should do.

If there are specific considerations to be taken into account, I can hardly be expected to create an answer without knowing those considerations, can I? Furthermore, even if my questioners were to give me all this information, the chances are I’d still not be able to come up with solutions they would all like. That is because finding solutions to problems is a creative process, not a mechanical one, and it is much easier to apply the necessary creativity to solve a problem when one is actually involved in it there and then, and has all the information. Solving a problem like this involves creating new knowledge. This is not something you can do mechanically. I can’t predict future knowledge: I am not an oracle. But that is what I am being asked to do. All I can do is to give an idea of what a non-coercive parent might do, in one particular version of the situation. The reason my questioners do not like my answers is that we do not share the same assumptions, the same world view. And we do not have the same problem situation. So to them, I am not offering any solution at all.

One important thing we need to do here, is to separate how to get from the default of coercion to that of consent from what happens in families operating with consent as the default? These are two very different questions. Similarly, Eastern European economies face the question of how to institute market reforms. This is quite different from the question how do market economies work?

We may not know how to move from a centrally-planned economy to a market economy, but one thing we do know is that increasing government control of the economy is not going to help them. Similarly, in the case of coercion and parenting, the question of how to get from a highly evolved coercive relationship to one in which consent is the default is extremely hard to answer, but increasing coercion is certainly not the way. But for the present discussion I just want to stress that this is a different question from that of whether awful problems like X are inherent in the nature of children.

When I say that X is inconceivable, as I tend to, I am often accused of not answering the question, but that accusation is false. It rests upon the assumption that things like X happen in all families, irrespective of whether there is coercion or not. They don’t. Non-coerced children do not have tantrums; they do not discount the wishes of their parents; they do not steal, lie, commit suicide, intentionally destroy other people’s property, go out alone at 3 a.m. to play in the park, or drink bleach. They do not coerce their parents. Despite my many imperfections, I have not had any of these problems with my children, nor, indeed, have I had the usual problems with any of the teenagers who have stayed with me for extended periods. So it is no good saying to me, “Children do do X. What do you do about it?” That just isn’t so.

Sometimes I am in a bad mood, tired, stressed, etc., and then am coercive. This causes problems for my children, occasionally serious problems and distress. But I apologise and try my best to solve the resulting problems, with their help. Seldom if ever does one of these problems cause me or them as much distress as one of these X (or allegedly X-avoiding) incidents that are part of everyday coercive family life.

The answer to all the objections raised is that in a family in which consent is the default, (1) children simply don’t do these awful things so many parents are convinced all children do; (2) children (and adults, but more usually the children) come up with real solutions to the problems, which please everyone involved; (3) since everyone is working for consent-based solutions, everyone wants everyone else to be happy with the outcome of any particular problem. This attitude of, “I don’t give a stuff about your feelings” that many parents seem to think children have, is entirely absent.

The fact is, if my child wanted to stay up until 3 a.m. and I felt the need to go to sleep, and (for some reason I can’t currently imagine) I thought it would be unsafe for her to be up, we would talk about it. We (probably she) would come up with a solution. She would think of the one consideration I couldn’t think of, in my narrow, adult, view of things, and it would all be fine. It does not always run as smoothly as that, but these wild and scary eventualities parents talk about are inconceivable.

If a non-coercive parent was worried about some danger or other disagreeable eventuality, she would simply tell her child about it, so that the child could bear it in mind. If she was a bit concerned that she might rise to find soot all over the new suite, she would simply explain her concern to the child, and the child would take care not to go investigating the chimney in the night. If investigating the chimney was very important to the child, the parent would probably become less sleepy all of a sudden, and help the child to do so in such a way that the new suite remained undamaged. Or if she really needed to sleep, the two of them would find some other solution. Maybe they could move the suite out of the room, or maybe if the parent explained about the effects of soot all over the new furniture, the child would be quite happy to wait until the following day. Or maybe the parent had had the foresight to use smokeless fuel or have the chimney swept regularly so that there was not a major problem with soot. Whatever happened, there would be a solution they both felt completely happy with. It is just not true that the child would not take into account her mother’s need to sleep before the big interview or whatever.

As for pandering to the child’s whims, or being coerced by the child — hogwash. The whole point of consent is that each person, including the parent, is happy with the outcome of any decision-making process.

People who think that the whole family will suffer after a short night, or that the child will be grumpy the next day, or any of those other things so many parents are convinced of, are the only people who have those problems. I have never had such problems, and I see absolutely no reason for them to arise. These parents are postulating a child who irrationally gets a short night and then causes trouble the next day as a result. But it need not happen that way. In my family the only person who is likely to be grumpy as a result of lack of sleep is me, and on the occasions when I am, everyone is awfully sweet to me, bringing me cups of tea and so on, and I soon feel better. There is a huge psychological element to these things!

I’d like to go through an example of a discussion following a what-if question on the Internet, to show why I sometimes respond in such an unhelpful manner. The question posed was:

“Let’s say that you’ve (actually I’ve) got a 2 two-year-old. She’s very, very sleepy, but is refusing to take a nap (gotten out of bed over and over). She cries, screams, etc., etc. The older children want to concentrate on their work/books, so what do you do? I’ll tell you what I did. I picked her up, gave her a good thump on the bottom (oh no!) and put her back in the bed. I insisted, coerced, whatever. She went to sleep, and woke up a little angel. Coercion was a very good option for everyone in this case.”

I replied that I do not doubt for a moment that this and all sorts of other awful things happen in coercive families, but in non-coercive families, children do not “resist nap time,” because they don’t have compulsory naps. They sleep when they are tired, just as healthy adults do. (Of course many adults have severe problems with sleep, resulting from the bed/nap-time coercion they underwent in childhood, or from other hang-ups also caused by coercion.) I am not surprised that this happens, merely disgusted, given that it is completely unnecessary.

My answer provoked the following response:

“Sarah, it’s lines like that that make me wonder if you really do have any children. I’ve seen this irrational state many times, in many children, not just my own. It’s very prevalent during birthday parties and other exciting times, when the child desperately needs rest, but won’t allow herself because she doesn’t want to stop.”

I myself was recently “guilty” of this very offence. That is, I was having a fascinating conversation with a friend, and really wanted to hear the end of the story he was telling me. But I was very tired and it got to the stage where I was falling asleep and forgetting the first half of his sentence by the time he finished the second half! It may have been silly of me to try to stay awake, but I had a burning desire “not to miss anything.” It would not have helped me to be forced to go to bed! That would have been deeply upsetting, and would certainly have caused me to lie awake in great distress. As it was, I eventually went to bed of my own accord. Sometimes a person will want to stay awake when they are extremely sleepy, but that is not the usual way of things. It happens when there is indeed something very interesting going on, and in those cases, the person prefers to stay awake than go to sleep, and is right to do so. If a child of mine were doing that, I would try to treat her in a very gentle manner, taking extra care to ensure that she was happy (just as she would do for me). I would not be horrible to someone who was feeling fragile through lack of sleep.

But this refusing-nap-time syndrome has nothing whatever to do with these sort of exceptional circumstances, does it? This is a completely expected part of everyday life in many families. There are even books written on how to make children sleep through the night and suchlike. They urge parents to threaten their tiny children to get them to stay in bed, to forcibly restrain them if necessary, to lock them in their rooms, to leave them to cry for however long it takes, and that hey presto, the child will then become a little angel. In my reply to the question, I described this as sick psychological torture, which annoyed some parents.

If you are offended that I should call such “loving” treatment “sick psychological torture,” you might think about how you would feel if you were completely in my power and I did that to you. If you consider me lacking in respect, you might like to compare my lack of respect for your methods, with the lack of respect embodied in your treatment of your children. At least I am not using physical violence on you. Would that the same could be said for your treatment of your children. If you think a “pat on the bottom” is not violent and psychologically painful, please tell me how it works in getting the child to obey. On second thoughts, don’t bother.

I was then asked to “…consider that just possibly that the parent is correct, and that tiredness actually is the cause.” Whatever the cause, I would never compound a person’s distress by being horrible to her. I really do find this callous disregard for real suffering quite nauseating.

My critic disagreed that the mother’s behaviour was callous, saying:

“I’ve seen kids where the crying/screaming goes on and on, no matter how soothing or comforting the parent is.”

But this is a non sequitur. Whatever my critic may have seen, we have the mother’s own testimony about what she did: she gave the child “…a good thump on the bottom (oh no!) and put her back in the bed… insisted, coerced…” It seems to me that it is not unreasonable to describe that as showing “callous disregard”. In any other situation, if we were talking about two adults, or even a child in a different situation — one in which the expression of distress is deemed appropriate (such as if the child had hurt himself in a nasty fall) — everyone would agree that hitting the distressed person would be a callous, horrible thing to do.

Is that really the only way the mother could think of to deal with the situation? Couldn’t the children have taken their work/books elsewhere? Couldn’t she think of some other way of “distracting” the child from her distress? If the child wanted to be left alone, couldn’t the mother do that? That she even got into such a state is a very unfortunate thing. That the mother hit her as a “solution” is quite vile.

All such cases have a history. We are never given the information as to what led up to it. I have never seen any child in severe distress who had not been badly treated or disregarded.

In this case, the mother’s behaviour was then justified in the following way:

“When a person is in such an irrational state, sometimes the correct thing to do is provide a small shock, to interrupt the wailing and get the kid thinking again.”

But were it not for coercion, the child would be highly unlikely ever to be in such a state. If “shock” (distraction) really is the solution, surely one could do something positive to “shock” or distract the person out of this state?

Discussions of what-if questions often degenerate into arguments such as this, “I’ve used the swat-the-bottom technique several times over the years. Guess what? It works! I’ve even had my child come back to me later and thank me for getting her out of that state.”

There are circumstances in which an apparent “victim” thanking the apparent “perpetrator” afterwards does exculpate the “perpetrator”. This is not one of them! If I break into your house while you are out and take all your valuables in order to save them from the approaching forest fire, then I am not the burglar I may have seemed to a casual observer, and you will thank me afterwards for doing you a favour. But if I break into your brain while you are off guard, and reprogram it so as to give you an overwhelming desire to thank me for doing this to you, then I have done you no favours. In fact I have violated you in the most profound way possible. When you wake up and thank me afterwards, it does not exculpate me at all. It just makes my crime, if anything, even more appalling.

In short, the “thanking me afterwards” defence is completely empty, indeed incoherent, when the crime in question concerns harming a person’s mind. You might as well say that if a person does not complain after you have hit him over the head with a sledgehammer, then you have done nothing wrong. The fact that your child thanks you for action which has forcibly caused a change in her mind can’t be a justification.

Parents often accuse me of idealist theorising and say, “We need to know how to make it work in real-life,” but this is not quite right. What they need to know is how to get from “there” to “here,” and that is an entirely different matter from the matter of how it actually works in practice if you are already “here”. Not, I hasten to add, that I claim to have “arrived” anywhere. As I keep saying, my own parenting style is very imperfectly non-coercive, and I am keenly aware of the need to improve it. To continue my market/centralised economy analogy, there are no perfectly “free” markets either. In fact all existing market economies are very imperfectly “free”. Nevertheless, the way that Western economies work is quite different from the way the command economies of the Soviet bloc used to work (or rather, not work).

I can try to speculate about what parents might do to get from “there” to “here” in these ghastly situations, and that may have some value, or it may not. But ultimately, solving problems can only be done as they arise, and can really only be done by those involved, who are in a better position to have all the information. One thing I can say fairly confidently is that it is much more likely that your children will create solutions than that any external adult will. One other thing I can say is that the less coercive you are with your children, the easier non-coercion becomes. My general advice does not seem to be very helpful, so I will think about what else to say, but really, this is not easy. There is no mechanical way of solving problems. It takes rational creativity.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1995, ‘“What if…?” questions’, Taking Children Seriously, ISSN 1351-5381, TCS 20, pp. 11-15, original post 8th September 1995, https://www.fitz-claridge.com/what-if-questions