It's easy to accidentally ask children questions that aren't real questions. Perhaps the right answer is so obvious I don't realize in time that they might decide otherwise: "do you want to wait to eat your messy candy until we're out of the car?" Or I don't figure out that there was only one answer that would work until after I finish asking the question: "do you want to do your bath now, or before dinner? ... Oh, wait, we have guests coming over in the afternoon and we can't do the bath then, now's the only time that works."

I find that these interactions tend to go poorly, much worse than if I'd never asked a question. Something like, they thought they had a choice, try to make a choice, and now they're feeling me take that away.

I've tried pretty hard to get myself to stop doing this, and one strategy that has worked for me was deciding to stand by my mistakes. If I accidentally offer them a choice when I shouldn't have, I won't withdraw it if they choose (to my mind) badly. This isn't a completely strict rule: I can imagine foolish-enough things that I could accidentally ask that it wouldn't make sense to stand by. On the other hand, though, I've found I can recover from most things if I'm willing to put some extra effort. Going back to the messy candy example above, and imagining some further discussion:

  • Parent: Do you want to wait to eat your messy candy until we're out of the car?

  • Child: I want to eat it now!

  • Parent: That's gonna make a mess everywhere. I don't think that's a good idea.

  • Child: But I want the candy now!

  • Parent: If it makes a mess, will you clean it up?

  • Child: No.

  • Parent: How will it get cleaned up?

  • Child: You can do it.

  • Parent: I don't want to clean it up.

  • Child: I don't want to either.

  • Parent: If you make a mess, it's your job to clean it up.

  • Child: Ok, I'll do it.

  • Parent: Will you put up a $1 bond? Where I get to keep the dollar if you don't clean up?

  • Child: Ok. [eats messy candy]

  • [time passes, arrival, getting out of the car]

  • Parent: It looks like there's a mess on the seat.

  • Child: I don't want to clean it up.

  • Parent: If you don't, I will keep your dollar.

  • Child: [cleans up, slowly, with parental help depending on age]

This definitely requires a lot more time and back-and-forth than just saying "sorry, I shouldn't have offered that, we shouldn't eat messy candy in the car". But it avoids going back on what you offered, is more respectful, and also gives an opportunity to show why you didn't think it was a good idea.

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Edit to add: the following is a very heartfelt rant that, upon reflection, has most of the heartfelt bits aimed at parents who aren't on LW and aren't trying to improve. It's not intended to be a personal attack on the poster or even the post, just an expression of frustration with a way of thinking and acting that turns kids into very non-agenty adults who optimize what they "should" want instead of what they do want. But there's no reasonable expectation that anybody should already know this, least of all the post author. So to the extent that it comes across as personal frustration or anger, please understand it's really directed at other parents who aren't conveniently on LW to yell at. :)

(Also, it seems only fair to disclaim that I'm not a parent and have no idea how hard it actually is, etc. etc. Info in this post is basically backseat driving from a person who only tries to fix the cars after they've already been in a few wrecks.)

All that being said, the actual information in it is not something I'm backing away from, only the tone. And so, fair warning about the tone if you read on. Maybe at some point I will come back and try to make it less rant-ish, but for now it is what it is.

For this age of child, why are you asking their preferences anyway? Speaking as someone who has to fix the mess parents often make of their kids' psyches, I've noticed that it's very unpopular these days to do the one thing that least messes kids up, which is to just tell them what to do. Don't ask. Don't persuade. Don't say "should" or "have to". Just say explicitly one of two things:

  1. "Do X", or, if you want to offer a choice,
  2. "I want X"

That is, if it's a real choice, don't ask, just state what you want and let them do as they will. If it's not a real choice, say what to do.

Asking, persuading, should-ing, have-to-ing, etc. all create pressure of various kinds. Some of them imply the child is in control of the situation, which is a huge pressure on a developing mind. They know the adults know better, and can feel like they're literally being abandoned by not having leadership or boundaries. A lot of seemingly "rebellious" behavior is actually saying, "you're the adult, you're supposed to tell me what to do. I don't know what to do, I'm a kid! Take charge already, dammit".

And if it's actually a choice, asking feels like a trap. Even if it's a genuine choice. Because they want to know where you stand on the subject.

Children aren't adults. They are an ML system in training mode, not runtime. They're actively looking for all types of input, including framing. When something is framed as a question or a "should" rather than explicit instruction, they take this as "this person doesn't trust me". They think I don't know what's important or that I'm going to do something else. They're making me play guessing games instead of telling me what they want.

Out of all the common problems I help people with, perhaps the single most frequent intervention is reimagining parental interactions clients had as a child to "what if they were just honest about they actually wanted, or told you what to do?" And people then realizing that, "oh, it wasn't me that was messed up here," and becoming a lot less anxious about the subject area.

If you want kids that aren't anxious and self-conscious all the time about whether they're doing the right thing or pleasing other people, tell them what the f** you want*. It's your job to be responsible for them, and that includes making decisions for their well-being. And in cases where there are choices and options, be explicit about your own desires or intentions so that it's clear they're yours, rather than something you're implying is a universal moral value or constraint.

Paradoxically, people worry that explicit instruction or statements of desire or intent will interfere with kids' boundaries, but the exact opposite is true. If you tell them to do something, then it's obvious who's responsible: you are. If you tell them what you want, it's obvious whose feelings are being stated.

Both leave the kid free to be themselves: they can not-like it while they're following the command, and in the case of desire/intent they can choose whether they want to make you happy or would rather do their own thing. These things foster internal independence in a way that trying to persuade, incentivize, or otherwise influence do not.

Sorry for the rant, it's just... the entire interaction described in this post is... well, it's not anywhere near the worst I've had to help people clean up in their heads, but it follows a pattern that leads a kid to creating a whole subsystem in their heads to figure out WTF they're supposed to want in order to be right or do the "best" thing, instead of developing personal agency.

And yes, I'm talking about the recovery here! Instead of running with the mistake, say, "Oops, sorry, I made a mistake. We need X, so do Y." Explicit instruction! "Do this thing." Don't say "we need X" and leave it for them to figure out. Say the thing you want. Say you want it, if you like, but if there isn't a choice, then say to do it.

Because what you're actually teaching the child here is something like: "when you make a mistake, feel insecure about it and manipulate others in order to try and cover it up. Don't ever tell people what you really want, just try to get them to do it indirectly."

This isn't explicit knowledge, but when they are in a situation that's enough like the one you were in to trigger the example, they'll feel the same way that your body language implies you feel about this whole thing. They won't say exactly the same things you did, but they'll feel drawn to the same strategies you exemplified here.

And because it's not explicit knowledge, there's no way to counteract it the way that one can reflect on and then reject explicit statements of belief or fact. It just becomes part of the training data for behavior generation, and has to be explicitly tracked down and fixed on the experiential level later in life to fix it.

In cases where there is not actually a choice for the child to make, I completely agree that you should not be offering them a choice. That's why I introduced my example with "If I accidentally offer them a choice when I shouldn't have..."

I also agree that it is okay to admit you made a mistake, apologize, and say what has to be done instead. I think it is good to have some of this, demonstrating what it looks like.

I strongly disagree, however, that the example I gave involves manipulating children to cover up a mistake, or that it is indirect about what the parent wants. Instead, the parent in the example walks the child through the consequences of the two options, explaining important trade-offs, and ensures that the child does not attempt to take an option that is unavailable (making a mess without cleaning it up). The parent is explicit that they don't think the messy option is a good choice, but supports the child in making that choice anyway.

Children aren't adults. They are an ML system in training mode, not runtime

It's not like children spend their first 18 years in training mode, then go off to college and switch into running mode. Instead, they are continually progressing toward being adults, taking responsibility in more and more areas.

Instead, the parent in the example walks the child through the consequences of the two options, explaining important trade-offs, and ensures that the child does not attempt to take an option that is unavailable (making a mess without cleaning it up).

You did admit you didn't want to clean it up -- eventually. But you also could have just said, "Oh, wait, that'll get the car messy, never mind. Eat it when we get home." Thus modeling useful concepts like, "notice when you've made a mistake, be clear about what you want, and take decisive action to correct it". And the entire rest of the conversation would be unnecessary.

What you modeled instead was that the way to get people to do what you want is to go through an elaborate ritual of persuasion to create a social illusion that you're not exercising power over them -- even though you are.

The parent is explicit that they don't think the messy option is a good choice, but supports the child in making that choice anyway.

Based on the conversation, the child is not at an age where this has any functional effect -- they lacked sufficient self-reflective ability to even predict the part where they're not really going to clean up the mess. (Even with your bounty!)

Basically, you were trying to teach through explicit example a function their hardware isn't ready to perform yet, and congratulating yourself for being a good teacher while what you actually taught was not anything you said, but the structure of what you did.

That kid can't yet learn what you were trying to teach, and what you were doing instead was basically torturing them with impossible dilemmas beyond their ability to comprehend. What they could comprehend was, "this person is in power over me and won't let me do what I want, and on top of that they're making me jump through hoops that have nothing to do with what I want or think right now".

It's not like children spend their first 18 years in training mode

When I say "children" here, I mean pre-adolescents; most of our effective behavior/personality training happens before age 10, let alone 18.

Sufficiently-young children learn implicit context and behavior WAY more easily and efficiently than they learn explicit content; the explicit reasoning part of your scenario was going in one ear and out the other because his conscious mind was focused on guessing the teacher's password and his unconscious was learning examples of how to exercise authority. Neither of these things really has anything to do with the explicit content you were theoretically teaching.

You should pretty much assume that explicit content goes in one ear and out the other. "What to do when" and "how to feel about it" is what's actually being taken in, to be used later as the child's basis for feeling and acting as an adult or adolescent, in relation to others and to themselves. It wasn't your conscious intention, but AFAICT this dialog basically modeled something like, "when you want somebody to do something, try to convince them it's all their own ideas and decisions instead of ever being clear about what you want, while feeling good about how compassionate and helpful you're being, even as you deliberately thwart the other person's goals".

If this is the sort of examples this kid grows up with, I would also expect them to spend a lot of time trying to talk themselves into doing things they don't want to do, trying to persuade themselves it's a good idea, while only grudgingly going along with it, and not really taking into consideration what they actually want themselves.

You did admit you didn't want to clean it up -- eventually.

The first parent response to the choice is "That's gonna make a mess everywhere. I don't think that's a good idea." How is that "eventually"?

you also could have just said, "Oh, wait, that'll get the car messy, never mind. Eat it when we get home." Thus modeling useful concepts like, "notice when you've made a mistake, be clear about what you want, and take decisive action to correct it"

As I wrote above, I agree it's good to do that sometimes. On the other hand it's not good at getting me to stop asking non-real questions, so I wouldn't want to fall back to it always.

What you modeled instead was that the way to get people to do what you want is to go through an elaborate ritual of persuasion to create a social illusion that you're not exercising power over them -- even though you are.

But in the example they're not doing what the parent wanted them to do. Instead they're making a different choice, and practicing ensuring that the choice is not unfairly burdening others.

How do you see the child being misled about power here?

Based on the conversation, the child is not at an age where this has any functional effect -- they lacked sufficient self-reflective ability to even predict the part where they're not really going to clean up the mess.

I'm imagining my older two kids (currently 8y and 6y) at about 5y. They totally know that the messy food will leave a mess they won't want to clean up. So do I. The conversation is about verifying that we are on the same page, and getting them to confirm that the option bundle they are selecting is "eat and clean up" and not "eat and try to wiggle out of cleaning up".

That kid can't yet learn what you were trying to teach, and what you were doing instead was basically torturing them with impossible dilemmas beyond their ability to comprehend.

Completely disagree. Kids are smart. After a conversation or few like this, I would expect next time they would open with "...and I'll clean up after" and follow through on the cleanup.

"when you want somebody to do something, try to convince them it's all their own ideas and decisions instead of ever being clear about what you want, while feeling good about how compassionate and helpful you're being, even as you deliberately thwart the other person's goals"

They have the goal of eating messy candy now. I have a goal of not having to clean up. Neither of our goals are being thwarted.

The first parent response to the choice is "That's gonna make a mess everywhere. I don't think that's a good idea." How is that "eventually"?

"I don't think that's a good idea" is not communicating anything in particular. It masks your personal preference behind an illusion of objectivity ("good idea").

In contrast, "it will make a mess and I don't want to have to clean it up" is clear on the subjectivity involved. It teaches (by example) that it's okay not to want to do things and that it's good to plan in advance to keep from needing to.

You eventually admitted to not wanting to clean it up, but waiting that long to say so implies that you're not supposed to tell people what you want directly, only imply it.

It's not good at getting me to stop asking non-real questions, so I wouldn't want to fall back to it always.

If you believe on a feeling level that it's better to ask your kids than tell them stuff, you'll probably keep doing the same thing, yeah. If you are aware that doing this kind of "autonomy theatre" is not just not doing any good but actively doing harm to your kids' models of agency and interpersonal relations, you might stop wanting to ask them questions that aren't driven by curiosity.

To put it another way: if you're asking them questions for any other reason than you want to know the answer, it's probably manipulation. It might be relatively benign manipulation -- a lot of adult conversation is, after all. But it may not be.

But in the example they're not doing what the parent wanted them to do. Instead they're making a different choice, and practicing ensuring that the choice is not unfairly burdening others.

Are you telling me that you didn't know exactly how that entire series of events was going to go? That you weren't steering it to your desired end state? (Specifically, the end state of "the car is clean and the child has outwardly agreed with a course of action leading to that".)

IOW, you had an outcome from the beginning of not having to clean the car yourself, written on the bottom line of your report, and worked backwards to fill in something that gets that end result. But you didn't actually say that was what you wanted until well into the interaction. All the stuff before the point where you said you didn't want to clean it up was pretending to be about objective values or about what the child wanted, rather than being up front about what you wanted.

How do you see the child being misled about power here?

I didn't say they were being misled, I said, "social illusion". That is, a ritual of denying public common knowledge of who's in charge of this entire interaction, despite everybody knowing the score.

They totally know that the messy food will leave a mess they won't want to clean up. So do I.

Yes? I meant that they lack the reflective ability to process the higher-level concepts you were trying to teach, without treating them as teacher-password-guessing. On the explicit knowledge level, they've learned the password for this interaction, but the implicit learning was about how one should treat people (themselves included) when one wants them to do something.

Completely disagree. Kids are smart. After a conversation or few like this, I would expect next time they would open with "...and I'll clean up after" and follow through on the cleanup.

Sure, they know the password now. There are tons of ways to treat kids that will produce the results you want in the short run, creating kids who appear to be far more mature on the outside than they actually are on the inside. Society will perhaps even praise you for being a great parent. Then, as grownups, the kids run into problems because they find themselves doing as you did, not doing what you said.

Again, in fairness: I work with a very limited sample of people. I can't say with confidence that interactions like this will screw over every child. Maybe the people I work with are more sensitive and introspective than most. Maybe there's some other factor that allows some or even most children to be treated like this and come away with a sense of agency and boundaries intact.

I just know that I spend an awful lot of time helping people undo the effect of interactions like the ones you describe, where basically adults ruin kids' boundaries by pretending they're doing things to helpfully teach kids stuff that is actually for the benefit of the parent's ego and/or convenience, or playing out patterns of concealment and manipulation they learned from their parents.

From my perspective, this is a bit like Temple Grandin's Animals In Translation, where she talks about all the things where humans think animals are being well cared-for if their surroundings are clean and various other things that are important to people and not animals, while completely missing all the shit that is scaring or stressing the crap out of the animals.

In the same way, parents do lots of things that make them feel like they're being really good parents even as they stunt their children's growth as independent individuals and ignore the child's real needs or wants -- which often run paradoxically counter to what a child might say or even believe they want at the time.

What kids most want is for their parents to be in charge and discerning and to then pass their parents' tests of discernment. So if they think there's approval to be had, they will happily distort their sense of self to match whatever passwords they can guess you want to hear.

You can't not test them, but it works better if the tests are simple actions. "Wait to eat" is a test they can win and immediately feel good about, and doesn't require warping their self-perception. But the test you implicitly gave here is like, "be somebody who can reason about consequences and make binding pre-commitments while looking out for the implicit motives of others with power over you" -- which is a lot harder to be sure whether they've passed, assuming they can even reverse-engineer the intent of the interaction that specifically and correctly!

And when a kid can't pass the tests you're setting, they will distort their sense of self to try to make themselves into someone who can (without even being aware they're doing it), until their emulation of your apparent desired person is sufficient to pass the tests.

But maturity emulated in software (rather than grown in hardware) is fragile. It's highly state-dependent, and it's poorly aligned both internally and externally. It's good enough to pass your tests (by definition), but when the kid leaves home everything becomes OOD and they don't know how to act in the real world except by going through the motions of what they were (implicitly) taught.

To me, this is tragic, and not just because it's a lot of work to fix afterwards.

They have the goal of eating messy candy now. I have a goal of not having to clean up. Neither of our goals are being thwarted.

The child has many implicit goals being thwarted here, including "receive good examples of guidance and leadership so I know what to do and how things work around here", "make sure I know who's in charge and what I can and can't do", "win my parent's approval and respect through actions I can control", "prove I am independent of my parent... up to the point where it's detrimental to my well-being, at which point they should prove I'm not that independent".

Most of those goals are much more easily met if you just tell them what to do, or at least what you want, as explicitly and clearly as possible without talking about abstractions like whether something is "a good idea".

I appreciate what you seem to be animated by but very much disagree that Jeff's post is an example of it.

I think maybe you're conflating Jeff not 'wanting' to cleanup with someone he won't 'reasonably agree to do'.

I really do sympathize – if I didn't 'know' Jeff from having read his posts for a long while now, I think you'd be (more likely) correct about someone sharing the same story.

Another factor that I think you might not be aware of is that the 'negotiations' described aren't remotely the first such that haven taken place. Generally, I think Jeff probably does a great job at not making the mistakes you're describing.

I agree with you that honest coercion is better than dishonest coercion, and that a lot of modern parenting attempts to be noncoercive merely make the coercion less honest. I agree that this is a really big problem that causes a lot of emotional damage to children, and I'm heartbroken about it.

I don't think that's what Jeff is doing, in part based on patterns present across his parenting posts. One of those patterns is "retesting his children's capacities on a given goal every few months to see what's in their zone of challenge", which predisposes me to believe his assessment of his children's capabilities in this story, much more so than I would a random person. 

I can see a few possible goals for this comment, none of which I think it serves well:

  • The first is releasing stored emotional pain. I think this would be totally appropriate, often good, as its own post, and I encourage you to write one and post it (I have half a draft on the damage of dishonest coercion myself). I think it would be appropriate to text to a friend and vent about. But is not fair to dump stored pain on a stranger who is not responsible for it, even if they have some things in common with the people who caused it. Based on your edit, it seems like this was your goal, in which case I think you owe Jeff an apology.
  • The second is changing Jeff's parenting to benefit his children. If that were goal I think the aggression in the comment would undercut it severely even if your object-level criticisms were 100% correct. Parents get criticized a lot from all sides, parenting is very emotionally charged, if you want to improve outcomes for a particular child by influencing their parent you need to take responsibility for managing the parent's emotional response to the criticism. No one is more annoyed by this than me but it remains true.
  • Changing other people's parenting to benefit their children. I think a top-level advice post accomplishes that better (maybe linking here), in part because when one parent sees another attacked for behavior they share they get defensive by proxy.

I can see a few possible goals for this comment, none of which I think it serves well

Fair, though my goal wasn't to actually change any currently-existing parents' behavior, because (among other reasons) that would be an unrealistic goal on my part, given I have no idea what actually good parenting looks like. I only know what imaginary good parenting looks like when injected into broken adults to fix it. (As I disclaimed earlier, I have no real parenting experience and am aware that it has all sorts of gotchas I have never had to nor will ever have to deal with. I have a much clearer idea what NOT to do than to do.)

That is, it was more "This thing is bad (and why) and I wish people would stop doing it", not a considered treatise on actually persuading anyone in particular to actually change their behavior, especially since I know that rearranging surface behavior does nothing to fix the problem (which is all about implicit communication, not explicit behavior anyway).

I don't think that's what Jeff is doing, in part based on patterns present across his parenting posts. One of those patterns is "retesting his children's capacities on a given goal every few months to see what's in their zone of challenge", which predisposes me to believe his assessment of his children's capabilities in this story, much more so than I would a random person.

As I've previously implied, I definitely have obvious biases here. OTOH, I also think most people are biased to see as reasonable and normal or even positive, all sorts of things that can be very harmful to children's development, as per my earlier reference to Animals In Translation. Adults thinking things are fine has a really high false positive rate from my (incredibly biased) perspective.

Complicating matters here is that I'm reading text and having to assume how the interaction played out, whereas when working with a client they can tell me what they feel like the adult in their memory is trying to accomplish and why, whereas an adult's report of what they were doing or intended to do is going to be completely different.

But as I've also repeatedly said: this interaction is hardly the worst thing I've seen. It's not even that bad on an absolute scale. I mean, it's a very mild example of things that can be so much worse. I edited my original comment to add the disclaimer at the top shortly after I wrote it, and wanted to figure out a way to edit it further to make it less rant-ish, but wasn't sure (and am still not) how to rephrase it without turning it into a treatise on what to do instead of what not to do.

And as I'll say yet again, I'm really not a parenting expert, any more than a car mechanic is a driving instructor.

Honestly, to the extent I want to educate anybody here, it would be the people who are having problems caused by this type of interaction, to help them realize that the patterns they're stuck in are just bad training data, along with some idea of what to replace it with.

(I suppose an article on that might not be a bad idea, though.)

I think you Jeff an apology.

Having re-read the original comment multiple times at this point, I'm not sure what you're asking for here. The original comment even before I edited it literally apologizes for the rant, and the addition at the top (added minutes later, possibly before anyone even had a chance to read it) was intended to further clarify that the rant in question was never directed at Jeff personally -- the "you" throughout the original comment was always meant as a generic "you" of people in general, that I simply wish would stop doing this thing to children.

On reflection, however, it's probably the case that I should not have posted at all, because it's unlikely the comment will achieve even the relatively minor goal of getting even one person to stop, and the odds that it will be effective in helping adults address any of the issues arising from growing up with the described pattern is similarly low.

OTOH, I'm not sure that deleting everything in the thread serves a useful function either, at this point, and it does serve the positive function of telling those other adults they're not alone, which is presumably why it's gotten some upvotes as well as downvotes.

FWIW I found the models in your comments useful, and they did make me adjust some of my ideas of how I might want to parent if I ever have kids. (More specifically, I spend some time hanging out with a crowd who's into ideas around non-coercive parenting, so it was good to see a reminder that trying to do non-coercive parenting and failing at it is likely worse than just doing mildly coercive parenting outright.)

When I was first trying to figure out how to fix my own upbringing (in my head), the book The Continuum Concept was extremely helpful, in providing an example of how implications are far more important than explications. The indigenous people described in the book trust and believe in their children in ways and to extents that "civilized" people find shocking.

trying to do non-coercive parenting and failing at it is likely worse than just doing mildly coercive parenting outright

That's not quite what I'm getting at here: trying to do "non coercive parenting" as a technique that is aimed at a result is the problem. Actually trusting and believing in children is an entirely different thing altogether, and the superficial behaviors have little to do with it.

One of the most common things that happens when people first try to reimagine their own upbringing is to try to change their idea of their parents' behavior to something better, fairer, nicer, more non-coercive, more supportive, etc. This attempt invariably fails because what they're imagining at first is a parent who does all these things on the outside with no change to how the parent is thinking or feeling on the inside. So compassionate behaviors become pitying or contemptuous, noncoercion is manipulation to fix the broken or defective subpar child, etc.

This is why I'm reluctant to try to give any actual parenting advice, because it's not the behavior, but the internal model that generates the behavior that determines the nonverbal status communication that will program the child's future attitudes and strategies used in relationships with themselves and others. Children's brains try to extrapolate from outward behavior what the intent behind the communication, with a prior that this intent is ultimately aimed at benefiting the child somehow and reflects the proper morals of the community to which it belongs.

So this totally backfires when the adults are operating on faulty assumptions about the children, as these assumptions are then taken in uncritically as programming for how to act. An adult who tries to proactively teach their children things, for example (vs. exposing them to opportunities to learn), is communicating that they do not expect the child to want to learn or be capable of doing so. So what the child then most learns from this behavior is that they are considered stupid, ignorant, unobservant, or dull.

In the same way, trying to be "noncoercive" at a child when you in fact have an agenda for what you're trying to "noncoerce" them to, then you're basically saying you think they can't handle being told what is going on, or that they are the one in charge, or, well, it depends entirely on what the thinking going on is. If someone's basically thinking, "I need to do this so the kid doesn't grow up to be X", then the child picks up on the idea that they must be X by default. That they're defective in some critical way, because the adult thinks they're so dumb or careless or incapable that they would allow themselves to grow up X without intervention, or mistakenly think X was a good thing!

Anyway, if you consider telling a kid what to do coercive, well... in the Continuum Concept, the adults only ever tell the kids to do stuff that needs doing. They don't tell the kids what not to do, nor do they tell them things "for their own good", nor nag the children to learn the skills they'll need later in life, or a thousand other things that modern parents do to their kids all the goddamn time. They just tell the kids to do stuff that needs doing for the family or community's well-being.

For a child at the age where they want to do everything the older people are doing, telling a child to do something isn't coercion: it's acceptance and respect, recognizing their desire to belong and contribute in a meaningful way. The idea that this is "coercive" is completely ass-backwards.

Really, coercive vs. non-coercive is the wrong axis to think on, because whether you're being "coercive" has little to do with whether you're trusting kids. If you're trying to shape their behavior so they don't grow up to be X -- regardless of what "X" is -- you are undermining their agency and self-trust. Not by the behavior itself, but what the behavior tells them about your beliefs and attitudes towards their abilities, inclinations, and judgment.

Modern society has very few opportunities for children to genuinely contribute to the well-being of their family or community in a way that allows them to feel their actions have meaning or worth. Telling them to do these things isn't coercion for the parent's benefit, unless the parent thinks it so in their own mind. The people described in CC don't think that way: they assume children want to be a part of big people things and do stuff that's important, so telling them to do stuff is recognition that they have reached a level of capability to be trusted with an important task!

This is about as far opposite of coercion as you can get, despite literally telling the kid to do something.

trying to do "non coercive parenting" as a technique that is aimed at a result is the problem. Actually trusting and believing in children is an entirely different thing altogether, and the superficial behaviors have little to do with it. 

One of the most common things that happens when people first try to reimagine their own upbringing is to try to change their idea of their parents' behavior to something better, fairer, nicer, more non-coercive, more supportive, etc. This attempt invariably fails because what they're imagining at first is a parent who does all these things on the outside with no change to how the parent is thinking or feeling on the inside. So compassionate behaviors become pitying or contemptuous, noncoercion is manipulation to fix the broken or defective subpar child, etc.[...]

For a child at the age where they want to do everything the older people are doing, telling a child to do something isn't coercion: it's acceptance and respect, recognizing their desire to belong and contribute in a meaningful way. The idea that this is "coercive" is completely ass-backwards. [...]

... children want to be a part of big people things and do stuff that's important, so telling them to do stuff is recognition that they have reached a level of capability to be trusted with an important task!

This is about as far opposite of coercion as you can get, despite literally telling the kid to do something.

I think I agree with all of this.

because whether you're being "coercive" has little to do with whether you're trusting kids. If you're trying to shape their behavior so they don't grow up to be X -- regardless of what "X" is -- you are undermining their agency and self-trust. 

I'm defining "coercion" as something like "overriding the child's preferences and values and treating them as intrinsically less important than your own"; the opposite of coercing (in this sense) would be to resolve conflicts by seeking solutions that satisfy both the child's and the parent's preferences. 

It seems to me that under this definition of coercion, non-coercion is tightly linked to trusting the child and having an internal model of the child as capable. If you believe things like "the child needs to be forced to do Z or they won't grow up properly", then that forces you to override their preferences in cases when they'd prefer doing non-Z. Whereas if you do have trust in them turning out fine when allowed to pursue their own preferences, and consider those preferences equally important as any adult's, then that naturally tends you towards non-coercion (as defined here).

This is also compatible with telling them to do things if they want that - if it's their preference to be told things, then you're obviously not overriding their preferences when you do that!

Definitely agree that non-coercion is about the internal models more than the behaviors. I think that the value of thinking and talking about a concept such as "non-coercive parenting" is that it forces one to more critically examine their models. One nice example was an article I once saw - I've unfortunately lost the link - where the author had done a survey of various people, asking them about things they thought children have to be forced to do. Most of the people who responded agreed that there are some things children really have to be forced into - but they tended to disagree with each other over what those things were! Doing that kind of an inquiry of "what do children really need to be coerced into" can help find ways where it's not actually necessary in the first place, and where one's models that suggested otherwise were flawed.

I'm defining "coercion" as something like "overriding the child's preferences and values and treating them as intrinsically less important than your own"; the opposite of coercing (in this sense) would be to resolve conflicts by seeking solutions that satisfy both the child's and the parent's preferences.

Yeah, that seems... wrong to me, though it's hard to say precisely why. It has to do with why I think this is the wrong axis of consideration.

I mean, I agree that the intrinsic-less-important thing is indeed the bad thing. I'm just not sure I agree that "seeking solutions that satisfy both preferences" is the correct solution, depending on the details of how that exactly cashes out.

For younger children especially, that should generally mean the adult listens, and then makes the decision, rather than placing responsibility on the child for being part of the resolution. A lot of damage I've seen comes from adults trying to make kids responsible for things they're not ready to be responsible for -- something that's just as damaging as never letting them have any responsibility.

So to me, the relevant axis is probably something more like how much responsibility does the child get, with the adult ultimately being responsible even if some is also being taken by the child.

I think one of the things I was originally reacting to in this post was that the dialog described seemed to me to be putting a bunch of responsibility on the child that they implicitly aren't ready for: asking questions of a child regarding their actions in such a way can have the effect of forcibly assigning them responsibility and depriving them of leadership support.

Anyway, I think that's why I see coercion/noncoercion as a not-very-helpful axis of distinction. It's more about who is responsible for what, and allowing children responsibilities they ask for (implicitly or explicitly) -- even knowing that they'll screw them up -- without ever letting go of the fact that final responsibility still lies with the parent. You can't just make stuff their fault and blame them for it, even if they were the one who asked for the responsibility and made the mistakes.

The people in the Continuum Concept basically have the concept that if a child makes a decision, they're old enough to accept the consequences of that decision. This only works for them, however, because their entire system is set up in such a way that the children mostly don't assert themselves until they're old enough to accept the consequences. Since the adults have been only ever telling them to do useful things, they trust the adults enough to mostly follow their guidance and example.

But it's kind of hard to distill that down into a nice helpful "technique" or list of dos and don'ts.

That makes a lot of sense. To be clear, I agree that "noncoercion" probably isn't quite the central thing, and also that you can't really distill it down into a technique. I view it more as like... there's a cluster of related things, and "noncoercion" is pointing to one incomplete aspect of it that can help clarify things, but to require everything to be fully noncoercive would probably be Goodharting.

For younger children especially, that should generally mean the adult listens, and then makes the decision, rather than placing responsibility on the child for being part of the resolution.

This makes intuitive sense to me, though it feels like it's maybe slightly in tension with the thing you said about trusting and believing children - if the adult reserves the right to make the final decision, doesn't that imply disbelief in the child's ability to make it?

(The way of reconciling those that comes to my mind would be something like "trust that children are doing their best and acting out of sensible motives, even if they don't yet have enough knowledge and cognitive capability to reliably arrive at the right decisions".)

if the adult reserves the right to make the final decision, doesn't that imply disbelief in the child's ability to make it?

No. The trust is that the child is capable of learning and growing to ultimately take care of themselves, not a belief that the child currently has all the information, skill, or wisdom needed to make decisions for their own or the family's long-term good.

The thing that doesn't work is that when parents try to micromanage children's behavior and development in a way that puts responsibility on the child, the message is, "you're broken and I have to constantly fix you or you're going to wind up defective." Like, an awful lot of stuff adults do sort of presuppose that the child is never going to learn from their own mistakes or the consequences of their actions (let alone the example of others), and therefore have to be explicitly told things. Or they presuppose that a child being focused on short-term things means they will never improve their time horizon and must be constantly nagged about future concerns.

The people described in the Continuum Concept don't do this kind of thing. They basically assume that children will grow up to be wise and responsible adults, without any need for explicit teaching or management by adults. They provide learning opportunities (toy bows and food processing tools) but do not nag the children to practice. And if they need to tell the kids what to do, they don't act like this is something the kids are supposed to know or want to do already, or to blame for not doing.

(The way of reconciling those that comes to my mind would be something like "trust that children are doing their best and acting out of sensible motives, even if they don't yet have enough knowledge and cognitive capability to reliably arrive at the right decisions".)

This still feels orthogonal to the real thing to me. Partly, this is because the CC's description of how decision-making works is that they consider that a child who asserts a thing is old enough to make that decision. In the absence of any micromanagement or pressure to appear more mature than they are, this assumption works.

A big part of what happens, I think, in that environment, is that their children grow up with an unconditional sense of belonging and acceptance. A lot of talk about the Continuum Concept tends to focus on the part where children are constantly held and carried, from birth on, and never put down or left alone, until they want to crawl or walk. And they're not just carried by parents, but by siblings, cousins, any random person more or less, all of whom are visibly happy to be interacting with them.

A kid growing up with that is not operating at a deficit of approval, so while they may want to grow up as quickly as possible, they have no need to fake a higher level of maturity than they actually have -- a child who diligently practices the bow will get no more approval or acceptance than the one who does it randomly and sporadically as the mood moves them. The adults will not pay any particular attention one way or the other.

In modern child-rearing, there is nearly always something a child can immediately gain by faking a greater maturity level than they actually have -- often because the adults themselves will feel rewarded by their children's apparently-improved behavior or performance.

So the thing that I am trying to point at here is that "non-coercive" seems broken and wrong to me because it still seems to me to imply the goal is to somehow make something happen to the child, vs. an approach of say, "benign indifference" or "Genuinely Not Giving A F*ck". The CC describes adults who are not in the least bit absorbed by the question of how their kids will turn out, and have difficulty understanding why the author is asking such dumb questions about how they raise their kids. They're like, you carry them until they can carry themselves, and then they figure it out for themselves from there. Like, "duh".

That's what I mean by trusting: it's not that they believe children are already adults, but that they believe that growing up is something kids learn, not something adults teach. Modern discussions of raising children, OTOH, nearly always seem to assume there's something adults have to do to turn children into Real People, whereas the CC folks believe children are already Real People who just happen to be temporarily embarrassed by being short, ignorant, and not particularly wise, and thus need some seasoning, but will of course start volunteering for progressively more important responsibilities as soon as they feel ready. (And they trust them to also back off if it turns out they're not as ready, or to gradually titrate up how much of a thing they do.)

If anything, I would call this "non-interventionist" rather than "non-coercive", as it doesn't matter whether intervention is framed in coercive or non-coercive terms. Or to put it in LW-dialect, they don't believe in "other-optimizing" their kids.

Thanks for sharing that book The Continuum Concept! I've had this idea for a while that a huge amount of trauma - and even philosophical underpinnings of ideologies - are actually rooted in subconscious, innate expectations that were dashed in childhood. Looks like this book can give me some fodder for this theory.

Example of what I mean: the belief in a loving god is a generalization of the desire for a loving parent. People who didn't have a loving parent may be more likely to seek a religion with loving gods as a subconscious compensation. I did, anyway. That's a testable prediction - are people with bad childhoods more likely to become religious? Given how trauma seems to coincide with greater willingness to join cults, it seems plausible.

That said, I am a bit skeptical of the book's apparently highly general universal claim (haven't read it yet of course) about what is best in parenting, which looks as if it's just sort of posed and argued for without any experiment. Actually, how much of the theory of parenting has been experimentally tested?

As I said, I can't really comment on the parenting aspect. My own perspective is strictly "use the behavior as a model to envision alternatives to fix fucked-up parenting" in the minds of people (like me) who had certain kinds of fucked up parenting.

(That this seems to produce good results does not really prove that doing those things would be good parenting, though, especially since human beings can fuck anything up if they really want to, and turn the most wonderful things into weapons of abuse with even just a little effort.)

I came across the CC at a point where I was researching developmental psych in order to find out what could be done to fix the kind of crap I had in my head and came across in others'. Mostly books tended to give advice like "love yourself" or to "love", "protect", "care for" etc. one's inner child. The best ones talked about re-living past scenarios with good parenting.

But none of those books ever explained what any of that was, so if you didn't experience love or protection or good parenting, they were kind of useless.

CC and Cycles of Power (by Pamela Levin) were the only books I found that made a significant effort to show just what functional parenting might look or sound like. (Though Weiss & Weiss's "Recovery from Co-Dependency" deserves an honorable mention, but I get the impression a lot of its inspiration actually came from Levin's work.)

I now have a mostly-good-enough model of what functional parenting looks like that is based on more general principles of responsibility, trust, and clean communication, but in difficult cases I still reach for Levin or Leidloff on rare occasion.

(Again, "functional parenting" not meaning actual parenting, but "what kinds of parenting experiences do people need to imagine as alternatives in order to repair their own functioning by realizing what they were missing and why they don't need to keep running coping mechanisms to work around their dysfunctional parent.")

Non-coercive parenting is fine – within reasonable limits.

If your toddler 'wants' to walk into traffic (i.e. does do so) – too bad; that's outside of the reasonable scope of their decision-making! It is entirely reasonable to physically coerce (e.g. pick them up) such a child in those circumstances.

Everything short of an imminent and potentially dire emergency is more-or-less plausibly up for grabs. I think it'd be generally better for parents to build a 'positive' scope of decision-making instead of trying to patch an initial mostly 'open-ended' scope.

I personally think that homeschooling is perfectly fine to consider but others should probably think about it a good bit, or even try it out for a limited period, before (implicitly) allowing that as an option if one of their children doesn't want to go to school.

Similarly, there's lots of things that kids/children do or would/could do, mostly out of ignorance, that their parents probably aren't really committed to living with, e.g. making (spectacular) messes, drawing on walls/furniture, destroying things, etc..

I think it's much better to 'flout convention' explicitly, while also teaching kids about the standard convention(s) too. I was lucky enough to be (explicitly) allowed to draw on the walls of my bedroom at one point. That seems totally fine to allow – unless a parent really isn't willing to live with the consequences.

At least the first part of your original comment was fine and I think correct.

I was confused as to whether you thought Jeff was doing what you decried. I don't think he does – and just based on everything else he's written about parenting. I think he was describing the 'honest mistake' version of what you described.

But I think you're absolutely right that what you described is in fact pretty bad. I remember that kind of thing and some kids I know now definitely share similar negative feelings about it too. Kids are pretty smart!

Wow. This - and other comments of yours in this thread - actually made a small mental shift of some sort happen in my head. I was raised by ... rather inadequate parents, and I learned from a young age to constantly try to predict what my mother was thinking and feeling because she was and is extremely emotional and inconsistent. Gradually her personality rubbed off on me as a result - my model of her was much larger with much more information content, due to its complexity, than any other model of anybody.

As a teenager trying to figure out all my trauma from the numerous ways my parents were emotionally abusive / neglectful / inattentive to me, I first developed multiple dissociative alters which were almost universally female, and then eventually realized that they were all parts of my ultra-complicated mental model of my mom, split off relative to her different mood states - and they'd all splintered into me! A huge portion of my personality was just... hers.

And all this because I had to figure out what was going on in her head instead of just being told. (Along with e.g. being constantly insulted, manipulated, yelled at, etc.) As a result I have extreme social anxiety now and constantly fear that other people are secretly judging me or that I'm going to break social protocols I'm not aware of if I do basically anything - and this makes me extremely irrational whenever other people are involved - because I'm projecting her onto them.

Knowing this doesn't help me resolve all the infinite variety of individual cases, but it's very interesting to see that to a great extent it's about her failure to provide me with any kind of clarity and certainty about what was important, what was not, and how I ought to behave about important things. (To her, everything is important, and disagreeing with her about anything is very bad; so much for my ability to trust myself to figure things out.)

Knowing this doesn't help me resolve all the infinite variety of individual cases,

Man I wish it did. My life and work would be soooo much easier. But yeah, it definitely does not.

but it's very interesting to see that to a great extent it's about her failure to provide me with any kind of clarity and certainty about what was important, what was not, and how I ought to behave about important things.

Sort of? The only caveat here is that this phrasing implies there are absolutes, and IME whenever families deal in absolutes, it's as a form of deceptive manipulation.

Clean communication doesn't include appeal to absolute values or priorities, but to the parent's desires or goals. "I want you to do X", not "It's important you do X. Or, "I think you should X because Y", not "You should X" (or even "You should X because Y"!).

When adults deny their "I", they also deny the significance of the child's "I" and the relationship between those I's. The implicit message is: "individual goals or priorities don't matter" / "I don't care what your priorities are". And "if you need to get people to do something, appeal to universal correctness instead of asking, negotiating, or otherwise communicating".

(Again, for anyone reading this as a parent -- I'm not promoting a theory of parenting here, just saying what thought process usually works for adults to fix the entanglements that create their insecurities, self-consciousness, procrastination, indecision, etc., etc.)

I'm not sure that appeals to universal correctness are that big a deal though. They're the way all social mores are understood in most cultures: as morally obligatory for all members of the community, period. But people don't all have terrible childhoods in traditional cultures.

They're the way all social mores are understood in most cultures

And that's precisely why they're so easily (and commonly) abused for deception and manipulation.

But the real issue is their being absolute, rather than things you can weigh and trade off (see e.g. your earlier mention of your mother's attitudes). Absolutes are thought-stoppers and give you no room to make your own judgments.

So in the context of being a functional, emotionally-free-to-choose adult, universals and absolutes are always a red flag worth checking. Anything that can be claimed as a universal can also be derived (as an adult) from one's desires, values, reasoning, etc., and is a term to be weighted in your utility function, not a true absolute driving utility to zero or infinity.

(And if there is any emotional objection to questioning the absoluteness of a principle, that's a double-extra sign of manipulation to be investigated, since a truly universal value would still make sense even when deeply questioned.)

people don't all have terrible childhoods in traditional cultures

I wouldn't know; my bias is that I work with people who have problems now, and some of those problems can be linked to their upbringing. I literally can't even say for sure that bad parenting causes problems, all I know is that fixing mental models of bad parenting fixes problems for the people that have them. And in that context, absolutes and universals are always a big red flag.

People who are taught everything that way have a lot of trouble figuring out what they want, because they've never really thought about it... or if they tried, they couldn't get very far because it kept getting shut down by critical voices.

Again, I can't say that's a cause of problems with people in general, since If I tried to do that kind of reasoning from the people I see, I would also have to conclude that bad parenting makes children more intelligent, talented, and sensitive!

(In reality, the causation probably goes the other way: intelligent and sensitive kids are perhaps more likely to be damaged by shit parenting because they take in more, think more deeply about it, and more acutely feel the effects of it. Maybe create broader associations and generalizations, for that matter.)

Anyway, within the context I'm speaking of, healing this kind of damage requires practice hearing one's own feelings, wants, desires, values, all that kind of thing -- and thinking in terms of universals, absolutes, and other abstractions is the exact opposite of listening to one's own self. That's why it's a red flag to me.

My point is that "people should be able to come to their own conclusions rather than be taught absolutes" is a very WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) perspective to take. The standard position throughout most human history and cultures is "you agree with your elders because they know best", and this is an absolutist claim. I am not willing to say most people in human history across cultures were abused or damaged by this.

The way you're saying this just doesn't parse to me. I don't understand how you can believe that a therapy aimed at imagining better parenting isn't implying something about what parenting is bad.

I am not willing to say most people in human history across cultures were abused or damaged by this.

Neither am I, as I explained at great length in my previous reply. Not sure what that has to do with anything, though.

In the context I mentioned -- i.e. the context of a person who has motivation and decision-making problems, absolutes in one's upbringing remain a red flag that require investigation, since they're most likely a problem.

Perhaps the context isn't sufficiently clear? I'm saying here that if I'm working with somebody and they mention an absolute, I'm going to want to investigate it. I'm not saying random people need to scour their childhood for random mentions of absolutes. I'm saying if an absolute or universal comes up in the context of fixing a specific problem, it's extremely likely to be one of, if not the source of the issue(s) at hand. (And so should always be investigated, if not expunged.)

The way you're saying this just doesn't parse to me. I don't understand how you can believe that a therapy aimed at imagining better parenting isn't implying something about what parenting is bad.

The same parenting can be perceived by people in different ways. One person perceives, "my parent is an asshole" and isn't bothered, while the other perceives, "I am the asshole" and becomes neurotic. (Extreme over-simplifcation here.)

The other complication is that it's not outward overt behavior that matters, it's what the adult seems to be implying about the child that has the most emotional impact. So no matter what the supposed philosophy of parenting is, one can probably find both loving and abusive ways to implement that philosophy. That's why I mostly try to avoid promoting a particular philosophy, or make any claims that damaging parenting is universally damaging, even if it seems so within the population whose problems I hear about.

Okay. I think I finally understand. What you're saying is that you think the damage here comes from children internalizing negative ideas about themselves, which can happen in any mode of parenting, but in your experience always seems to crystallize around some ideal held as absolute which they feel they're not living up to, thus making them bad etc.

So it's not absolutes themselves necessarily that are the problem, it's absolutes that make the child feel unworthy, and which thus, being absolute, are not modified or healed by experience but must be actively fought with therapeutic techniques.

Yes. I'm also saying it's common for human beings to use absolutes as a means to disclaim responsibility for their own choices or motives while emotionally blackmailing others to do what they want. This has less to do with the absoluteness of the proposition, and more to do with the concealed message that "you deserve to feel bad about yourself if you don't comply with my (concealed/disclaimed) wishes".

I call this an "FBI message", i.e. "feel bad if". People tend to focus on the seemingly factual/reasonable part of a communication or idea like, "you failed at X", and then feel bad about themselves because, well, that sounds like a fact. But the implicit, unspoken part of the communication was "You deserve to Feel Bad If you fail at X."

In the case of absolutes, they're a red flag because they usually conceal an unquestioned FBI message: the absolute part is like a stealth wrapper for the toxic payload. So ironically, the more reasonable, obvious, and factual-sounding the wrapper is, the worse it is for you, because it keeps you from questioning the toxic payload: feeling bad about yourself.

There are lots of justifications our minds use to rationalize feeling bad about ourselves, but these justifications are smoke screens to keep us from being aware that the only real reason to feel bad about ourselves is to send costly signals to other people in order to influence their behavior. Feeling bad about ourselves doesn't perform any directly useful function for the individual at all!

In an abusive environment, sincerely feeling bad about yourself communicates to the abuser that their goal has been achieved of crushing your spirit, so they will hopefully be satisfied and don't keep escalating. But once you're out of that environment, feeling bad about yourself no longer serves any useful purpose whatsoever, as it's costly by design and can be thought of as a button for "Quick! Turn down the volume on all of my individuality and its expression!"

Anyway, it's definitely possible to communicate something as an absolute or universal without tacking an FBI message on it. But the kind of people who conceal their motives using absolutes are nearly always sending FBI messages along with them, so in that context ANY absolute is likely a carrier for one and should be detained and investigated. ;-)

As a kid I was often frustrated by adult inconsistency and unfairness. I’m glad to see a parent trying to treat kids with respect. The sticky candy example sounds like hassle for the parent, but it sends good messages to the kid.

I think this is an artefact of (potentially good, potentially not-good) politeness norms among adults.

If I order at a fast food restaurant and they don't give me the drink I ordered, I will ask 'and did I order a drink?'

That question is the same kind of fake question as in the child example. I did order a drink. I know I ordered a drink. I am not asking for information. However, on the whole I think it's a reasonable thing to say - the blunt 'you didn't give me my drink' sounds to me much more aggressive and confrontational.

Things might be different when speaking to a child, but even so I have a vague feeling that the indirect version feels less like a command and more like a reminder. Your mileage may vary.

I think Jeff is normally asking only questions where there is a choice and discusses how to handle when he notices that there wasn't.

My partner and I call this heuristic "Don't ask a question with a wrong answer".

I'm not sure your candy example is a mistake.  In retrospect, would you prefer to have said "you have to wait until we're out of the car", with no choice, or "if you eat it now, you have to clean up any mess, and I'll keep a dollar as deposit."  I suspect the latter is your preference in the first place.

In cases where there's no good choice to be made (taking a bath after company arrives), you can also just acknowledge the mistake - "I didn't realize when I asked that it's not actually a choice.  You have to do X."  

I think telling them to wait would still be my preference in retrospect, though it's close. It really does take a lot more time, and that can cause downstream problems (ex: we're heading home before bed, timing is tight, doing this means later bedtime and worse sleep for them).

Makes sense.  So how do you feel about acknowledging to the kid that you're imperfect and sometimes have to retract a choice when you learn that it's infeasible, VS committing to the choice but salvaging the results with extra restrictions?

It seems that either one is somewhat misleading to the child (and they'll figure it out anyway) - either you're intentionally giving the illusion of choice as an attempt to trick them into buying in to the result, or you're not a perfect supervisor, and can't be trusted to know everything all the time.  

Depending on where you come from and the age of the kid, properly explaining that you are fallible too and resolve their dissatisfaction can take much more time, i.e., more downstream stress than the OP approach. Good think to have in your toolbox.

My parents really cared about making things fair and giving expectations of fairness, and I really enjoyed it. It contributed to many of my qualities I care about (commitment to objective reality, attempt at consistency, integration of different parts of the self).

But sometimes I wonder if the opposite would be better, especially for surviving in maze-ey environment a la moral mazes.

This is speculative, but I think kids probably do better if they have the grounding of a fair and respectful system at home, and experience with healthy communication. They will be able to learn other systems when they are older as needed.

I also think that "moral maze" like systems are not as common as people here sometimes seem to think. Working in eight different organizations, six post college, none of them have felt well described by that. And I think avoiding that sort of environment is generally a pretty good idea and a one that I expect to be pretty practical for my kids.

I agree with you in terms of the fair and respectful systems grounding. My own experience with mazey-ness has been that they cause me intense anxiety and distress, and I'd imagine having that earlier in childhood being a very bad thing.

In terms of mazey organizations being common... I feel like it really depends on where you are and where you're from. In the social-economic section of China where I come from, for example, asking fake questions, sacrificing your own standards to fit in, manipulation, and "measure effort by who self-flagellates the hardest" are so common that they're just the assumed backdrop for every conversation about career stuff and academic stuff. And I think it has a certain momentum on you that persists even when you leave. For example, I find myself having a tendency to be attracted by vaguely shiny and prestigious things, and that's accounted for me landing in a sell-side quant position (VERY mazey) and a PhD program (somewhat mazey).

But yes all in all I agree that if surviving without bullshit is at all possible, developing a strong bullshit allergy is an awesome thing to do for your kids.

This fills me with...something between warmth and stern defiance at the world?

We don't have to demand things of children. There's another option.

I'm glad you're so thoughtful about how you should speak with children!

Sooner or later though, your child will have to learn that language is non-literal, and some questions like "do you want to wait to eat your messy candy?" are actually requests. For young kids though, it seems helpful to be clearer about when you're offering real choices or not.

Reflecting upon my experience, I have decided to wholeheartedly agree with you on being literal with young children. I think establishing a strong connection between language and objective reality is useful even when sometimes language is used to make illusions and manipulate.

I could see this becoming potentially detrimental, annoying at best, if the child thinks every set of choices are negotiable. Confining the options to a small set would help maintain your authority as the parent.

In the situation described in this post, I think the best option in most cases would have been for the parent to just say no. Once we get into the "recovery" section, the parent is limiting the child to two options: wait to eat the messy candy, or eat the messy candy and clean up afterwards. I'm not sure where you see the child as learning that choices are negotiable when they are not, or where you see too wide a set of options?

Separately, while I sort of agree that maintaining authority as a parent is important (kids do need to understand that some things you say are not optional, and be able to tell when that's what's happening) I don't see how having some situations in which the children are choosing from an open field of possibilities undermines that.

I think there is, effectively, some missing context for a lot of others. You obviously have a lot. I've been following your blog for a long while, so my main takeaway has been the idea of 'compensating' kids when you accidentally offer them a 'false choice'. I can understand tho why others might be 'over-generalizing' from this post in isolation.

That is indeed a large potential cost to doing this kind of thing too much.

I think this post was intended to be much more narrow tho. I like the idea of 'compensating' a kid when you accidentally offer them a 'false choice' – that seems fair and otherwise reasonable too.

But, yes, some decisions should be made by parents and not be negotiable. And offering a small set of (reasonable) options is better than a misleading open-ended query. (That's annoying when adults do it to each other too.)

I really appreciate this 'genre' of your posts! Thanks!

I've always tried to treat kids along similar lines: ignorant but not (necessarily) stupid/un-intelligent, and mostly pretty capable (tho relatively limited).

Beyond false choices, I really dislike it when people ask 'false queries', particularly to kids. That was also something I hated in school and something I vicariously dislike seeing kids encounter it now.

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