Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2021
I was asked by someone with an interest in Taking Children Seriously for my criticisms of of Kiss Me, by Carlos González, translated by Lorenza Garcia (2021). Before I list some of my criticisms, I must stress that this is a warm, charming, beautiful book that is absolutely brilliant at showing us how it is for our babies and young children, creating empathy, and at doing that with gentle humour and without demonising parents. My criticisms notwithstanding, the author feels to me like a fellow traveller – someone whose heart is in the right place – and I highly recommend this book for anyone who is pregnant or has a baby.
In making his argument against coercing babies, the author writes rather a lot about animals and evolution and sociobiology, arguing from the ‘natural’, from how primitive tribes and our ancestors did things and from animal behaviour, and there is some anthropomorphism too. I found that off-putting. Having said that, the argument being made in that part of the book in no way depends on those details, and is very persuasive.
Here are some problematic quotations from my Taking Children Seriously perspective:
Because we have so little information about our ancestors, we are tempted to examine what we refer to as “primitive” societies. A long time ago, when I was nine or ten, I read in a picture book that Australian Aborigines never beat their children. That sentence stuck in my head, and has stayed with me ever since. […] I quote: “Aboriginal children have a good life, because no matter what difficulties their family group might be experiencing, they receive the most nourishing part of the food, and are always treated with great affection by their parents, who scold them when they are naughty, but never punish them.” This is even better than I remembered! Aboriginal parents not only don’t beat their children, they don’t punish them either. I am far from being the first person to admire the way other cultures raise their children.
The suggestion that primitive tribes have/had a better idea of how to treat children is clearly false, as it takes coercion to maintain the stasis of static societies, as David Deutsch argued so brilliantly in Chapter 15 of The Beginning of Infinity.
We will need to compare the way in which different human societies raise their children, and to choose what appears to work best.
In the above quotation, the author seems to be making a pragmatic argument, as opposed to making the philosophical argument from fallibilism and taking children seriously as persons with minds, ideas, wishes, etc. See my talk given at the Oxford Karl Popper Society: Taking Children Seriously: a new view of children for more on this.
He lumps us in with animals in the section on natural selection –
Natural selection doesn’t only determine our physique, it also determines our behaviour, insofar as it is instinctive – that is to say inherited as opposed to learned from our parents. A turtledove that doesn’t incubate its eggs or protect its nest, a doe that doesn’t constantly lick its young in order to remove the smells that might attract predators, are less likely to have offspring that survive and give them grandchildren. Over millions of years, each animal has evolved the type of behaviour that is most advantageous to its reproductive success.
– as part of a very long argument to get to the point that the “tried and tested” “always been done” argument doesn’t hold water. I think it would have been better to make the argument directly and concisely, from fallibilism and logic, rather than starting at natural selection. (Also note the mistake of viewing evolution as maximising the good of the species, whereas actually it is the gene that is the unit of selection, and the mistake of thinking that evolution always improves useful functionality, which it does not. See Chapter 3 and especially Chapter 4 of David Deutsch’s book, The Beginning of Infinity for more about that.) Having said that, I suggest, when reading this part of the book, that you not get hung up on such quibbles and instead look at the thrust of the argument being made. It is actually a very persuasive argument against coercing babies.
From my perspective, statements such as this next one feel jarring and at odds with the rest of the book, which at least when the author is talking about babies is not at all advocating coercion:
Sometimes, a child will ask for a sweet, an ice-cream or a toy because she wants it. Of course we aren’t saying you should buy her everything she wants; that will depend on your finances, on her diet (i.e. how many ice-creams or sweets your daughter eats every week), on the number of toys she has and how often she plays with them. What I am saying in this book is that, if you decide not to give your child what she asks for, then let this be for a sensible reason (because she already has too many toys, because it is expensive, because sweets are bad for her teeth – and not simply in order to “train” her to “learn that she can’t get her own way”; don’t say “no” to your child simply out of spite. There are other times when a child demands sweets or toys simply to try to “get attention”.
None of the reasons he gives justify imposing our will. Each individual’s dietary intake is a matter for them, not someone else. Having an arbitrary limit on the number of ice-creams or sweets someone else eats is violating that person’s boundaries. We can state our case, but if the other person is not persuaded, it is their life not ours.
How would you like it if your spouse were to institute a rule that you may only eat n ice-creams a week? Would you not regard such a rule as being an unacceptable boundary violation on your spouse’s part? What effect would that be likely to have on you? If it were actually possible for your spouse to impose such a limit, would that not make you likely to want more ice-creams than you might have otherwise? If your spouse were to call such an arbitrary limit a ‘sensible reason’ for denying you an ice-cream, what would you think? If there really is a sensible reason not to have the ice-cream, such as that you are having life-saving surgery in 8 hours and you have been told not to eat for 12 hours beforehand, then it should be easy to persuade you: you will see that it really is a good reason. But as in some of the suggested reasons given in the quotation above, often we parents do not actually have a good reason, we are just imposing our will for arbitrary reasons that would not persuade anyone, and we only get to impose our will because we are bigger and stronger and our child is completely dependent on us. When we thus coerce our child, we are acting as if might makes right, instead of using reason.
When I want something, I get it. If a loved one of mine wants something, that is a very good reason for them to have it. When we human beings want something, that suggests that we think we will learn something by having that thing. The growth of knowledge should not be impeded. If one of us wanting something seems problematic to the other, such as for financial reasons, that would not be the end of the matter, we would solve the problem together in a way that both of us prefer. Such a solution is not a compromise. In a compromise, I give up something I want, and you give up something you want, meaning we both suffer: each of us would really prefer our initial idea instead of the compromise. Taking our children or anyone else seriously does not mean necessarily going along with their initial idea. But similarly, it does not mean imposing our will either. When the child’s initial idea conflicts with our own initial idea, that is a problem to solve, and it is not solved by imposing one party’s antecedent theory on the other party. Instead, we solve the problem by coming up with a new and better idea that neither of us had at the outset – a solution that both of us prefer, including finding it preferable to our own antecedent theory.
If you were to talk to parents, I am not sure that you would find any who would say that they say “no” out of spite, or simply in order to teach their children that they can’t get their own way. No one approves of coercion out of spite. And if a child were asking for things to “get attention”, I would not be thinking that that would justify imposing my will, it would raise the question of why there was a lack of needed attention, and is that a pattern or just a one-off? There might also be a question about why my child was unable to ask for attention directly, and whether I am inadvertently making it unsafe for the child to do so.
If you have money, it can be “cheaper” to buy your child a doll that can walk and talk than to play with her and her ordinary doll for an hour every day. This is the way we gradually “spoil” our children; by teaching them to value material things above other human beings.
Yikes. Whilst I agree that our children need our attention and engagement, I do not agree that buying our children wanted dolls teaches them to value material things above other human beings, or that it risks spoiling them. Denying our children the ‘material things’ they want is far more likely to spoil them, because it teaches them that the way to deal with disagreements with loved ones is to impose one’s will instead of solving the problem by consent. It teaches children that problems are not soluble. It teaches them that life is a zero-sum game. It teaches them pessimism that may well adversely affect their whole lives.
So what do you do if you are not independently wealthy? There are toy co-ops, swap groups, and rental services. People buy and sell nearly new toys on the internet. There is only no solution if we reserve the right to have the final say. When we reserve the right to impose our will coercively, we tend not to be devoting the effort and creativity needed to solve the problem. When we instead take the view that problems should be solved, we are much more likely to think laterally thinking outside the box, and to come up with brilliant solutions together that both we and our child prefer.
Should we always give in to our children, then? No, of course not. Not because it would spoil them, but because it would be impossible. There is no such thing as a child without limits. Physical factors, which neither the child nor his parents can control already impose considerable limits. Your child can’t fly, he doesn’t always win when he plays with his friends, and he can’t stop it from raining and spoiling a day at the beach.
The author seems to be under the misapprehension that there are only two choices: imposing our will, or giving in. He seems to think that life is a zero-sum game and that for the child to ‘win’, the parent has to lose, or for the parent to ‘win’, the child has to lose. But there is a third possibility, as I mentioned above: that instead, we genuinely solve the problem together.
In the above quotation, the author seems to be suggesting that he has in mind natural limits that are outside the parent’s control. But first, rules about diet or how many ice-creams per week we allow our child (as in the earlier quotation) are entirely in our control. Our children could be forgiven for finding us illogical were we to justify imposing limits on our children on the basis that the limits are outside our control (like the weather), when in fact we ourselves are imposing the limits.
Secondly, if something happens that is genuinely outside our control, like an unexpected downpour of rain when we are having a family day on the beach, in no way does it follow that anyone needs to suffer. Problems are inevitable, but problems are soluble! No matter how dire the circumstances, we can find a way to solve the problem. If, in such circumstances, we just shrug our shoulders and give up, as if suffering is inevitable, we are thereby teaching our children to give up instead of finding a way to solve the problem. For example, our young children might enjoy finding some pavement puddles to jump in. Or having a cup of hot chocolate on the pier or in a nearby café. Our older children might find it fun to visit an arcade. Or we might all decide to go home and toast crumpets in front of the fire while we watch a funny family film or read Pollyanna together or have a lovely conversation about our day and what we will do next time. There is always a way to turn what seems like a potential disappointment into a joyful solution. Not that there are not times when we do not manage to find such a solution: we are fallible human beings who are not always able to create the needed knowledge in the moment when it is needed. But often we can. Often, we can surprise ourselves with the creative solutions we (including our children!) come up with. So instead of giving up, approach everything from the perspective that problems are soluble and that we can solve them. Approach every potential disappointment or unfortunate circumstance as if it is all part of the adventure. How can we make this time not just okay but a rollicking good time for all of us? There is a way!
There are times when you force him to do some things and forbid him from doing others for reasons that are more than justified (or at least you think they are, other parents may think differently): you have to go to school, you have to do your homework, you have to sit down and have supper, you have to wash your hands: you can’t eat so many sweets, you’ve had enough ice-cream, we can’t afford to go on holiday to Paris, the video game console is too expensive; I don’t want you watching so much TV; you can’t ride your bicycle into town, the roads are too busy; put your Meccano set away, we’re going to see your grandparents; it’s time for your bath, pick up your dirty clothes; don’t touch the gas knobs; we can’t have a dog in the flat …
At least the author seems to know that the rules are arbitrary – that parents disagree with each other about which issues are so important as to justify coercion. See the survey in issue 23 of the paper journal, Taking Children Seriously. So on what basis does he justify them?
How would it be if the above excerpt said this:
“There are times when you force your wife to do some things and forbid her from doing others for reasons that are more than justified (or at least you think they are, other husbands may think differently): you have to go to work, you have to do your housework, you have to sit down and have supper, you have to wash your hands: you can’t eat so many sweets, you’ve had enough ice-cream, we can’t afford to go on holiday to Paris, the video game console is too expensive; I don’t want you watching so much TV; you can’t ride your bicycle into town, the roads are too busy; put your Popper books away, we’re going to see your parents; it’s time for your bath, pick up your dirty clothes …”?
When we make it about an adult instead of a child, it does not look unobjectionable, does it? We view children differently from how we view adults. Why is that okay? See my talk given at the Oxford Karl Popper Society, Taking Children Seriously: a new view of children, for more on this.
No, I am not arguing against setting our children limits, for the simple reason that it would be impossible. What I am saying is we shouldn’t set artificial and artful ones. If our child asks us for something which isn’t harmful to him, which doesn’t destroy the environment, which we can afford, which we have time to give him, let us not say “no” simply “in order to set him limits” or “to accustom him to being obedient”.
We can do so much better than this. And with adult loved ones, we do. Imagine if it was advising husbands about how to treat their wives instead and said:
“No, I am not arguing against setting our wife limits, for the simple reason that it would be impossible. What I am saying is we shouldn’t set artificial and artful ones.”
People who treat one another decently don’t just stand back and welcome ‘natural consequences’, they solve the problems. Only when it comes to children is it suddenly seen as being good to ‘allow’ ‘natural consequences’ to ‘teach’ the child.
If you have not read Kiss Me, by Carlos González, these quotations may be giving you the wrong impression of this book. At least to my eye, these bits advocating coercion seem to be at odds with the thrust of the book. When it comes to babies, the author’s advice is scrupulously non-coercive. When it comes to older children, coercion-advocating comments do creep in, but the book is mainly about babies so the overall feel of the book is much kinder than you might imagine from reading these quotations.
If we have refused him something, and we see that his response is “disproportionate”, could it be that we have misjudged the situation, could what we have refused him be much more important to him than we thought? Then let us reconsider our decision in the light of this new discovery: will he catch a horrible disease if he has his bath tomorrow instead of today? Will the world come to an end if we wait until his favourite cartoon is over before going for a walk? Will he freeze to death if he doesn’t wear a coat?
How about if he merely disagrees? (But it is quite unusual for a book aimed at parents to suggest that we ask ourselves whether we might be mistaken.) And again, how does it sound when we reword it to be advice for wives re dealing with their husbands?
“If we have refused him something, and we see that his response is ‘disproportionate’, could it be that we have misjudged the situation, could what we have refused him be much more important to him than we thought? Then let us reconsider our decision in the light of this new discovery.”
In other words, there is still paternalism in the author’s view of children. The parent is still in charge. It is still the parent’s decision. This is not taking children seriously.
If in the end we decide not to give in; if he has to go to school, finish his homework, turn the TV off this instant, will we be able to exercise our authority without being overbearing, to give orders without resorting to shouts or threats, to tolerate our child’s frustration and accept that he obeys us grudgingly, not with a big smile on his face, like the good little boys and girls in the movies? It is well known that Napoleon’s grenadiers “grumbled and followed him faithfully”; even he couldn’t force them to obey without complaining.
How about not exercising authority over our child? Do we want our child to grow up to be a serf or someone who obeys the gang leader? How about viewing our children as equal, sovereign beings instead of inferiors needing to be moulded and shaped by us? And again, look at how it looks when we reword it as follows, as advice for husbands with respect to their wives:
“If in the end we decide not to give in; if she has to go to work, finish her housework, turn the TV off this instant, will we be able to exercise our authority without being overbearing, to give orders without resorting to shouts or threats, to tolerate our wife’s frustration and accept that she obeys us grudgingly, not with a big smile on her face, like the Stepford Wives in the movie? It is well known that Napoleon’s grenadiers ‘grumbled and followed him faithfully’; even he couldn’t force them to obey without complaining.”
Taking children seriously does not mean merely being a kinder authority figure, but rejecting authority entirely, such that all the ideas are competing freely, and no one is being managed, moulded and shaped. Watch my Taking Children Seriously: a new view of children talk for more on this.
In short, Carlos González does not have the philosophy, does not quite take children seriously as persons, and is still viewing children through the lens of paternalism. However, most of what he says with respect to babies (apart from when his romanticising the ‘natural’/primitive gets in the way) is aimed at showing readers how to treat babies kindly – so despite my criticisms I do very much recommend this book for anyone having a baby. Indeed, I wish I myself had had this book when I was pregnant with my first child. There are mistakes I made early in my first child’s life that I would not have made had I had this book.
Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2021, ‘Friendly criticisms of Kiss Me, by Carlos González’, https://fitz-claridge.com/friendly-criticisms-of-kiss-me-by-carlos-gonzalez