Parenting and Fallibility

Parents, like all people, have mistaken ideas. One of their goals, like all people, should be to discover and correct their mistakes.

Parents are in a position to pass on ideas to children. Parents usually pass on a large number of ideas, some true, and some mistaken. It's important how they handle this responsibility.

This passing on of ideas is an opportunity for error correction. If the child uses his judgment before accepting each idea from the parent, then he may catch some errors.

Unfortunately, the standard approach of both parents and teachers is that they want the child to adopt the idea they are teaching, verbatim. They want the child to "listen" and if he won't accept the idea then they consider that a failure. For example, schools use tests which check that the child learned to write the answer the teacher told him to write. Those tests work out badly for children who think for themselves and sometimes come to different conclusions than their educator.

By suppressing dissent from children, educators claim to be doing children a favor. They may be forcing some mistakes on children, but most of the material they teach is correct, they claim. If they let children judge for themselves, they might correct a mistake or two, but they'd make several hundred new mistakes. By looking at it this way, educators are saying they have no confidence in their ability to persuade children even of basic truths. Educators are saying they can't explain truths so children can understand them and be persuaded. If educators could explain their ideas well, children would happily adopt most of them. Whenever a child disagrees with an educator, either the educator was mistaken or could have communicated the idea better.

Educators pretend to force ideas on children because they know what they're talking about. Actually they are intolerant of dissent when their rational arguments are weakest. Whenever they can persuade children rationally they do that. It's only when they fail to rationally persuade that they resort to other approaches.

Some people say that it's great to let children exercise judgment sometimes, but other times when it's really important, and health, safety, education, future welfare, politeness, sex, other people, money or other significant things are at stake, then children shouldn't be allowed to make mistakes. Those issues, and some others, are momentous and children should only make their mistakes when nothing big is at stake. Unfortunately, those areas are so broad that they include most of life.

A fallibilist knows that even when he feels most sure of himself, he may be mistaken. Thus, he can't necessarily know which times the children are mistaken, or not. Sometimes he may be the one who is mistaken. So even if health or something else important is at stake, using his own judgment over his child's is no guarantee. It is irrational to pass judgment in any disagreement based on which person is in favor of which idea. Instead, ideas must be judged on their own merits, not the personal characteristics of whoever suggested them.

How do we know if our judgement of an idea's merits is any good? We can't rely on it being our judgment. So what else is there? We can persuade others. If they hear our idea, and see nothing wrong with it, that's a good sign. If we tell others, and they don't see the merit, that's a bad sign. If we're such a good judge of this idea, why can't we explain it well enough for others to see it our way?

Children are especially easy to persuade because they are ignorant. Ignorance means they haven't heard a lot of ideas. When you want to convince an adult of something, he may already have an idea on the subject, and you have to tell him a better idea. Children often don't have a preexisting idea for you to compete with. That makes persuasion easier. If you can't persuade a child — especially your own child who has a strong interest in getting along with you — then you should reconsider your idea. Maybe it's mistaken. Or maybe it happens to be true, but your reasons for believing it aren't very good, and you accepted the idea too easily without thinking through all of it.

Fallibilists shouldn't fear that people using their minds to judge ideas may lead to mistakes. It may, but what is guaranteed to lead to mistakes, and make them last forever, is people not using their minds to judge ideas.

(Did you like this? Click for a list of all the essays.)

By Elliot Temple, Feb 2010 | Join the discussion group, receive the newsletter, or send comments to

Acknowledgments: some ideas presented are modified from, or inspired by, ideas from Karl Popper, Ayn Rand, David Deutsch and William Godwin. Thank you!