Taking Children Seriously (TCS) is a rational, non-coercive philosophy of parenting and learning which says:
- The main goal of parenting is to help children learn.
- Punishing doesn’t help with learning.
- Reason helps everyone win.
- Ignorance isn’t stupidity.
- Children aren’t fragile.
- Obedience and rules are bad.
TCS is easy to misunderstand because it involves a change in perspective. Don’t confuse it with any parenting styles you’ve seen before. It isn’t about being strict or lenient, gentle or harsh, controlling or hands-off. TCS helps families interact in win/win ways instead of choosing between either the parent or the child getting his way. It doesn’t fit into the usual categories like permissive or authoritarian. TCS isn’t a middle ground between those categories either.
Why Taking Children Seriously?
There’s millions of different opinions on how to parent. How’d TCS come up with these claims? Why are they better than alternatives?
TCS is a rational philosophy. That’s unrelated to the way you’ve probably seen some parents try to “reason” with kids. They’re trying to disguise their orders to sound more gentle, and trying to avoid saying “no” (the answer is still “no”, they just avoid saying it, which is confusing).
Most approaches to parenting start with some beliefs about how to treat children first (e.g. be strict or be gentle), and then make up biased justifications second. This contrasts with the rational approach: being open-minded and genuinely considering multiple different views. Do you want reasoning to help you find the truth? Or do you assume you’re right and just use reasoning to try to convince other people?
Reason is wonderful. Reason means if you see a problem with something, of any kind, then there’s a solution. Don’t accept something you think is bad. When something appears bad to you, either it can be improved or you can learn why it’s actually good.
TCS didn’t start with assumptions about parenting. It didn’t begin with an agenda like having or avoiding firm boundaries. TCS started with the philosophy of Karl Popper, Critical Rationalism (CR), which explains how learning works and how to think rationally.
TCS had a simple insight. Parenting is mostly about learning. Kids are born ignorant and need to learn a million things. So let’s take a rational philosophy, which explains how learning works, and use reason to figure out how parents can best help their children learn.
CR has stood up to all arguments from philosophers so far, and explains errors in every other philosophy that it competes with. It’s preeminent. It stands alone, on a pinnacle. So it’s worth taking seriously.
What does Critical Rationalism tell us? Highlights:
- Learning works by brainstorming ideas, looking for mistakes, and making improvements. (Popper calls this Conjectures and Refutations.)
- This learning process is evolution. Literally.
- Learning is problem solving – figuring out ideas that improve something, help with something, or are useful.
- Everyone makes lots of mistakes, even when confident.
- You can’t think for someone else. People have to understand things for themselves.
- There is one objective truth.
- Life isn’t a tangle of conflicts of interest making us fight.
- Judge an idea by whether it solves a problem, not by its source.
- Authority can’t settle disagreements. You can listen to an expert if you want to, but don’t accept ideas you think are wrong.
- Be tolerant and patient about different perspectives, different cultures, and ideas you disagree with.
Now watch how the ideas of CR are used as we discuss TCS. They come up throughout.
Help Children Learn
Life is all about learning. And children especially need to learn because they aren’t born knowing anything.
Better ideas let you make wiser decisions, accomplish goals, and solve problems. Learning is how you get great ideas. (CR talks all about the value of ideas, how to use them, and how to get them. It’s really helpful!)
We know from CR that people have to think of their own ideas. You can tell someone an idea, but understanding it isn’t automatic. They still have to do their own thinking and figure it out for themselves.
Parents should keep in mind that children have an ongoing learning process, and parents should do all they can to help with it. What does that look like?
If your child challenges or questions you, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe you. Arguing isn’t disrespect either. Look at it in terms of learning. He’s sharing his thought process. There’s something he doesn’t understand yet. He needs more information to help him learn.
When explaining, try not to repeat yourself. If your child isn’t getting something, he needs some different information to understand. His learning process is stuck. Explain it in a different way or simplify.
When you share an idea, your child will try to understand it. This isn’t automatic. He has to go through a learning process. And you know a lot of relevant things he doesn’t. You didn’t tell him everything you know (which would take forever). Try to understand what he’s missing and share additional information.
Kids ask for lots of things. Parents sometimes try to decide between saying “yes” or “no”. They can give in – and then get frustrated their kid is demanding too much stuff. Or they can put their foot down – and upset their kid. It works better to try to understand what your kid is thinking. Ask questions. He might not even want what he asked for, or have no idea what it costs (in money or in time and effort). Kids often communicate badly. If you figure out what your kid actually wants then you can know getting it for him will be really worthwhile, or you can suggest a better idea than what he asked for, or you can give him useful advice about why it’s not the best thing to get. (E.g. he asked for something that won’t actually do what he has in mind, or there’s a cheaper or easier way to get what he wants). A request can be a learning experience as you work with your kid to figure out the best way to handle it (and often that means teaching him something he didn’t realize).
If your child wants to do something, it’s probably part of his learning process. Children learn when they play with toys, use the computer, make noise, and everything. Ask him about why he’s interested in it, talk about what he’s learning, and figure out how you can help.
Learning isn’t just for school subjects (and schools aren’t very good at helping people learn – but that’s another story). Getting better at a computer game is learning ideas about it. Figuring out a new way to play with dolls is learning. Getting better at sports involves learning new strategies and new ways to practice. Learning is everywhere in life, and learning about anything is valuable.
Even learning about an unimportant activity has benefits. If your kid is doing the activity, he’ll have a better time if he’s good at it. Any learning is good practice for how to learn. Learning one idea often leads to more ideas, and some will be useful for other activities. (CR explains how and why ideas connect together.)
If you understand the details of how learning happens, you can be more helpful to your child’s learning. Fortunately, we know those details from CR. I’ll talk about them in the next section.
Ignorance Isn’t Stupidity
Children are born ignorant. They don’t know English. They don’t know about football, sex or beer. They can’t do addition or walk. They don’t understand how to be polite or get along with people. They don’t even know what clothes are.
Children are also born capable of thinking. They learn fast. They learn so much in their first few years! They’re actually really good at learning.
Children learn by a process of trial and error. Little kids don’t get everything right at first. They make lots of mistakes in their head that you never see. And plenty more mistakes you do see. They pronounce words wrong. They fall over. They spill things. Later on they read words incorrectly, add things up wrong, and mistakenly believe you that Santa Claus is real.
Trial and error is the process of CR. Everyone does it. Brainstorm ideas, try them out, look for errors, make some improvements, and do it again. Some of the trials are done in your head (you imagine how an idea would work out) and some are done in the real world. Kids do both (you just don’t see all the ideas they brainstorm and reject mentally). We know from CR that trial and error is the only way learning is possible, so kids must be doing it.
You can communicate with children about their learning. Children are ignorant but that doesn’t mean they’re stupid. They are capable of brainstorming and seeing some ideas don’t work. And you can share information they didn’t have. Don’t just humor or lecture children. Try to understand their thought process and help them with it.
Don’t think of your child as stupid. A good explanation for a child would seem reasonable to your adult friend, not condescending or disrespectful. Think about how an adult would react before you say something to your child; if it’d be offensive, don’t say it.
People think kids are so gullible they have to keep away “influences” like TV and the wrong friends. But they also think kids are so stubborn they won’t listen to their parents. That doesn’t make much sense. Which one is it?
Kids aren’t especially gullible or stubborn. They accept what makes sense to them (and make plenty of mistakes). Some parents treat kids like they’re stupid instead of helping them understand things. That’s a reason children can prefer TV and friends, which are usually respectful of children’s intelligence and opinions. (Also, if your kid is really stubborn about one point, sometimes it’s because you’re actually wrong, and that’s why your point doesn’t make sense to him. Parents make mistakes too.)
Think of your child like a visiting foreigner. He has a different perspective. He doesn’t act like the friends you usually hang out with. He’s ignorant of your customs. But he’s not stupid. So be patient, be tolerant, and help him learn about your country. (You’ll also learn some things from him.)
Children Aren’t Fragile
Some parents view their children as weak, helpless and fragile. Every time their child gets a scratch or faces any conflict, they think it’s a disaster. They expect their child to be scared of rollercoasters, cry when he falls, and find challenges upsetting. They offer emotional comfort to help him cope, and try to avoid telling him he’s wrong.
Children usually learn to look at life the way their parents do. They pick up on their parents’ attitudes and perspectives. Worried parents can accidentally teach their children to be scared of life.
CR explains that problems are part of life. Problems aren’t a bad thing to fear. They’re natural and good. Remember to see problems as areas where improvement is possible.
Finding and solving problems is how people learn and grow. Children are capable learners. They can try things and succeed, step by step, and become confident about their ability to deal with the world. Sometimes they make mistakes and fail, too.
CR explains that learning involves improving on one’s mistakes. Don’t pretend a child’s bad idea is good. Don’t humor him. Communicating about mistakes and problems is a necessary part of learning improved ideas. Sharing criticism is really useful. Otherwise children would have to figure out all their mistakes themselves. They can learn faster if their parents help them understand some mistakes.
As we know from CR, learning involves brainstorming, and finding and improving mistakes. Suggest ideas to your child to help with brainstorming. Help him find mistakes by explaining some you find. Then help him solve the problem and improve – no harm done! Finding out about mistakes helps him get a better life by fixing the problems those mistakes were causing.
Children aren’t born too fragile to go through the learning process. It doesn’t have to hurt or be scary. Having a positive attitude will help it go more smoothly. (Being scared of criticism is actually something people usually learn later because people can be really mean about mistakes.)
Tell your child how learning works (in simple terms, not how a CR book would say it). Tell him that disagreements and failures help find problems. Tell him learning works by having a bunch of ideas, trying some out, finding some don’t work, and coming up with better ideas. Don’t tell him learning feels bad – it doesn’t have to.
Show him that conflicts can be resolved and solving problems is not just possible but wonderful. Live it yourself so your child has a good example. (If that’s hard for you, learning more about CR and TCS will help.)
Obedience Is Bad
Some parents make a bunch of rules and want their kid to “listen” to whatever they say. They try to be strict, enforce “discipline”, punish their child’s mistakes, and set clear “boundaries”. This is about obedience.
Demanding obedience prevents children from learning.
Children need to ask questions to learn. Most questions aren’t meant to challenge your authority or argue you’re wrong. Children usually ask questions because they don’t understand, not to “backtalk”. They need more information. They’re confused and looking for help. They want to know your perspective.
Instead of blaming your kid for “not listening”, recognize that children get confused frequently and don’t know what you want. And sometimes they disagree. Ask what he’s thinking. If he has a reason he disagrees, help him find some mistakes in it and understand the issue better. (Though sometimes he will be right.)
If your kid asks a question you don’t know the answer to, there’s no shame in that. Show him how to handle the situation. Google it.
Punishments teach children to fear making mistakes. But as we know from CR, making mistakes is part of learning. Everyone makes mistakes and improving on them is how we make progress. So punishments are harmful to learning. The lesson punishments teach is to try to please the parent to avoid more punishments, not how to learn good ideas. Punishments also teach kids to hide mistakes.
When you tell a child reasons, the focus should be to help him learn, not to try to get him to do what you said. Obedience is just temporary, but learning has lasting value. Kids need to learn ideas, not learn their place.
Parents make rules for two main reasons:
- Some parents think rules are good and necessary.
- Some parents are struggling and trying to cope.
Rules make children do stuff even though they don’t understand it or don’t agree with it. Rules encourage obedience instead of trial and error learning. Rules don’t help learning or explain ideas, they get in the way. Rules communicate that understanding and thinking aren’t important in life: “just do as you’re told”.
Some parents are having a hard time. They sacrifice for their children and give so much. They want some rules to keep things under control. But rules can’t create good family relationships. Cooperative learning and problem solving is the only win/win approach.
And don’t sacrifice yourself. Self-sacrifice is never the answer. Problem solving needs to go both ways. Parents have problems too, not just children. We know from CR that all problems can be solved, so no one has to lose (there are details you can learn). In life, happiness is possible. It may be tough but it is possible for things to get better if you learn some new ideas. You can work on that one step at a time.
Parenting generally goes pretty smoothly when you and your child agree. You do what you both agree on. It’s what you do when you disagree that determines what kind of parent you are. Do you try to hide disagreements because you believe your child is fragile? Do you put your foot down? Or do you try to cooperate with your child to figure out the truth of the matter, solve problems, and understand more about the world?
Parents aren’t always right. Kids are complicated and you’re not going to correctly understand everything they say, do or want. Lots of family conflicts are due to mutual misunderstanding. The best way to handle that is to focus on learning together. And remember, if your child magically listened to everything you said, then there’d be no progress in the world. Children have to go their own way sometimes, and have some new ideas, for them to have a better life than you instead of just the same life.
Children’t aren’t always right. Not even close! They need to find out about mistakes they make so they can learn better. Children aren’t too fragile to be told about mistakes. They aren’t too stupid to receive help understanding what they got wrong. And obedience won’t help them understand more.
Learning is wonderful. Disagreements and mistakes don’t have to hurt. Present the learning process positively instead of teaching children to be fragile. And help your child understand things himself instead of teaching him to be obedient. Children have a lot to learn, but there’s nothing stopping them from learning it – besides bad ideas about learning.
Using Critical Rationalism, the leading philosophy of learning, we know that all learning works by the same process. So you can use lots of these ideas when dealing with your friends, coworkers, or anyone. Understanding learning better will help your parenting and the rest of your life too.
Parenting is hard. Thinking about it carefully, using reason, helps a lot. If you want to do a great job, parenting is worth studying.
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Some of these ideas will sound weird at first (but that doesn’t mean they’re false). However, TCS is more traditional than it sounds. It actually fits with a lot of ideas you already believe. Click here for details.
Ask some questions at the discussion group or start reading. There’s lots and lots of writing available about TCS and by Popper. And there were a bunch of links in this essay that you could go back and click on after you sign up for the newsletter!
Acknowledgements: TCS philosophy was originally created, around 1994, primarily by David Deutsch, with help from Sarah Lawrence and Kolya Wolf.