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Unschooling: Learning and Living Without Coercion
by Jan Fortune Wood

Beyond "Common Sense Parenting" and Towards Respect and Autonomy

non-coercive parentingI recently read an article where the author expressed anxiety about the notion of what he called extreme “kid lib.” It occurred to me that he would certainly think that our home is an example of such extremism, yet living in this household seems very ordinary; not loud or out of control or anything else that might warrant the “extreme” label. It reminded me of a conversation that my daughter had with a home educating mother after I’d delivered a parenting workshop. The mother had opined that it must be very chaotic in our house and that every decision must take a century if we really aim to meet everyone’s preferences in an environment of consent.

I have to report that there really isn’t much chaos, beyond the usual scrum of art materials, chemistry experiments, and books competing for space. The principle of consent, far from slowing us to a standstill, makes our life together smoother and smoother the longer we flex our creativity in finding it.

This writer frets that without parental coercion he would expect toddlers to throw themselves under cars, five-year-olds to begin experimenting with sex, and family life to generally unwind in a catalog of catastrophes. He starts from the premise that, since children are dependent (physically), then parents must make decisions for them. He goes on to say that it is not simply benefit (the idea that we are acting for our children’s own good even when they don’t recognize it) that justifies parents in doing this, rather it is “commonsensical” that children lack the capacity and rationality to make decisions and therefore their autonomy must be incremental.

He compares children to patients either in a coma or drugged for whom diminished mental capacity necessitates that decisions be made for them. Parents use the child’s likely future preferences as a standard by which to evaluate present treatment, balancing the requirements of acting in the child’s best interests and the avoidance of harm against the likelihood of the child preferring and endorsing the treatment once grown.

The problem with this “common sense parenting” is that it makes a range of unwarranted and ultimately harmful assumptions. It assumes that a child’s physical dependency on parents signals an exception to treating them as autonomous human beings. It assumes that coercion is harmless. It assumes that children are innately irrational, yet will become incrementally more rational despite being routinely coerced and not accustomed to making rational and creative decisions throughout their lives. In short, it assumes a very poor educational theory, one in which thinking can be routinely hampered by coercion whilst expecting the rationality that has been destroyed by coercion to appear by adulthood.

It’s easy to think that certain acts of coercion are not obviously wrong and harmful; you would never beat your child, but a tap on the hand when a toddler is about to touch a fire is surely the lesser evil? Most of us think that there are degrees of coercion and draw lines that we wouldn’t cross; a stiff talking to, being grounded or losing pocket money might seem to us mildly painful but useful ways of both motivating good and responsible behavior and showing ourselves to be caring and responsible parents. Many of us think that coercion is inevitable. We might wish life could be sweetness and light, but tell ourselves that acts of coercion are normal. Consent based parenting provides another way.

Meet Alex, a lively four-year-old with an older sister, Jenny, seven, and baby brother, Jack. His mom, Emma, is overtired. Between feeding Jack at night and coping with Alex, who never seems to need sleep, Emma is at the end of her tether. Emma decides that everything would be much better for everyone, Alex included, if Alex had to go to bed at a “reasonable” hour and stay there until a “reasonable” hour.

"Many of us think that coercion is inevitable. We might wish life could be sweetness and light, but tell ourselves that acts of coercion are normal. Consent-based parenting provides another way."

We can all sympathize; of course Emma needs more sleep, but the problem with this approach is that the solution is decided in advance and is so important that it is worth coercing Alex, even believing that the coercion is as much for Alex’s benefit as anyone else’s. Finding solutions in tight corners is hard, though possible, but for now I want to concentrate on the damage that may be being done to Alex.

We don’t actually know what the damage is. The problem with coercion is that it affects every unique individual in uniquely individual ways. One child triumphantly proclaims “That didn’t hurt!” as she is smacked for the tenth time that day, while another whimpers at the slightest cross look from his mother. It’s for this reason that we can’t establish an acceptable quota of coercion that can be safely used on children. It’s rather like a pregnant woman drinking alcohol. In theory there is no safe amount.

Coercion is something that happens in the mind of another human being and which isn’t always clearly apparent, so when we talk about coercion damage we are not talking about something measurable and uniform. We can’t predict that one smack will result in two percent thinking damage or that six months of being forced to go to bed at a particular time will result in four percent thinking damage. Humans are simply not that predictable. What we can say is that every act of coercion risks damage that will be unique to each individual and that repeated acts of coercion in one area would tend to produce damaged thinking of varying kinds in that area. Alex may be a very resilient little boy, but it is just as likely that he will experience considerable distress at this new regime and that, even though he is eventually defeated, he also suffers from forgetting how to live by his own body clock, growing up with poor theories about how much sleep is needed regardless of personality and individual requirements. Later in life, Alex may well develop sleep problems without ever knowing why.

Life is full of things to blame: if we perceive our children as behaving badly or they grow up as unhappy individuals we have a ready list of culprits to reach for: sugar, food allergies, pollution, TV, computers, syndromes, the breakdown of community, or a thousand and one other bogeys. Amongst so many competing pressures and when most parents do everything in their power to do their best for children, it seems unhelpful to blame parents for their 30-year-old son’s sleep problems.

Living by consent is not about blame, but about how we can live best in this moment, realizing that we will have made mistakes in the past and that we will make mistakes in the future, but finding optimistic and creative ways to do no harm or constantly do less harm and more good. I simply want to put in a plea to look at coercion differently, to see it not as an ally in child raising, but as potentially deeply damaging and unnecessary.

"I don’t think we can expect children to become rational, autonomous and creative if they are not treated as such from a young age."

Part of finding solutions lays in trusting that children are themselves innately rational. When we talk about coercion damage we’re not talking about the bruises an abused child receives in a violent home, but about something that takes place in the mind of the child. Coercion has the potential to affect how we think about things. The turmoil of having one theory active in his mind whilst being made to do something else affects how Tom thinks about those things; things like eating, playing, learning, etc.

That’s where rationality comes in. Rational thinking is about having the space to genuinely engage in a search for the truth. To achieve this, there must be the possibility of refutation as well as conjecture, and openness to criticism both from oneself and from the theories of others.

If parents cut short their children’s searches and experiments by asserting that they have superior authority or experience then the rational process is interrupted. Parents who have information or opinions on a subject should certainly contribute to the rational argument, but if their arguments fail to convince perhaps they should be willing to give way to new and better theories.

There is often a tendency to believe that reasoning is something that develops with maturity and experience, and is dependent on our ability to construct an articulate argument. This kind of thinking allows that we can “reason” with older children, but not with babies, toddlers and young children who are pre-verbal or have more limited articulacy and logic.

Being rational is not the same as being able to reason or having a certain level of articulacy and intellectual development. A baby constantly creates new knowledge and as such is a rational being. We can find common preferences with any rational being. We may not always use words. We may sometimes use very simple words with visual and practical demonstration, but we will definitely be aware of a baby or toddler’s preference. We can also clearly see that toddlers and babies are able to move to new preferences or (in their own way) suggest new solutions to adults.

I don’t think we can expect children to become rational, autonomous and creative if they are not treated as such from a young age. I’m not afraid of what might happen if children are not coerced, but then I live with four children for whom consent is a way of life and who, contrary to dire predications, have never attempted to drink bleach or play on the highway and who have no more desire than I do to live in a chaotic environment.

Jan Fortune-Wood works as a freelance writer, parenting adviser, poet, and humanist liturgist (developing ceremonies and rites of passage.) She is author of four titles on home education, autonomous education and non-coercive parenting (Doing It Their Way; Without Boundaries; Bound To Be Free; & With Consent, all published by Educational Heretics Press). She home educated her own four children.

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