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On Children, Parents, and the Use of Force

Posted Nov 03 2009 10:01pm
The issue of force and children is an important one, and one that I have often heard discussed in real life as well as online. I've also seen the following quotation by Leonard Peikoff used in these discussions among Objectivists (emphasis added):

There are only two fundamental methods by which men can deal with one another: by reason or by force, by intellectual persuasion or by physical coercion, by directing to an opponent’s brain an argument—or a bullet. Leonard Peikoff, The Ominous Parallels, p. 90 (via the Ayn Rand Lexicon )
(However, I think this drops the context. Dr. Peikoff is talking about adults here--and I agree with this statement. But kids are a different case, as you'll see.)

Is it ever proper for a parent to force a child to do something (or not to do something)? If so, how does a parent determine when such force is warranted and what kind of force should be used? (I'm using the word force here to include any kind of coercion, from spanking to physical restraint to bribing with food or stickers.)

The short answer is: Yes. Sometimes a parent must force a child to do (or not do) things. Yes, we have forced our kids to do things against their wills.

So how can I advocate Non-Punitive Discipline? If I am not a parent who imposes and enforces punishments, then when and how am I using force, and should I be?

I am aware that many view Non-Punitive Discipline as too permissive. That using such methods necessarily results in what I call Doormat Parenting (or perhaps Un-Parenting would be a more accurate term), where the kids steamroll all over Mom and Dad because they do not fear punishment. That children need to be punished (up to and including hitting) in order for them to learn how to behave.

In practice, nothing is further from the truth. Just ask my children. :o) My kids are not punished or hit, and are learning how to behave just fine. Because I set limits and then enforce them.

This post is an attempt to delineate the nuts and bolts of setting rational limits, define a couple of guidelines I use when deciding whether to employ force with the children, and explain again why I think punishments and rewards are to be avoided. It's an overview of the general principles, not an attempt to address every unique situation (but I'm hoping that the principles will prove useful in this regard). It's a long post, so I hope you'll stick with me.

(Before I begin in earnest: I've written a couple of posts already that serve as general overviews of Positive Discipline--" Discipline without Punishment," and " The Art of War for Parents." If you haven't read those and are curious, it's a good place to start. Also, I tend to use Positive Discipline, PD, and non-punitive discipline interchangeably. Positive Discipline is the name used by Jane Nelsen, who has written many books on the subject and has a website for parents (highly recommended, btw). But there are many others who advocate this style of parenting, and I think non-punitive is a good way to describe it.)


The Life, Limb & Rights Principle (Or, Setting Rational Limits)

How should a parent go about setting rational limits on the behavior of their kids? It helps to have a standard, a principle. Funny, huh? :D And yet, I know so many parents who unfortunately don't have any consistent principle to guide their decision-making in this area, and way too many parents who set limits just because it was a limit they had to endure as children.

The standard for limit-setting that I use is an idea I borrowed from Kelly, who just formulated it so nicely that I can't think of a better way to put it. The standard is this: if the child's own life, limb, health or mental health and/or if someone else's rights (which of course include their life, limb, etc.) are in definite or probable danger, then a limit must be set. Let's call this the Life, Limb & Rights Principle for short.

In cases of possible/probable serious or irreparable harm to life, limb, etc., the parent will probably set the limit before being faced with such a dire situation. Examples of such preemptive strikes include things like riding in car seats, playing in traffic, jumping off the roof, the taste-testing of Windex or other such cleaning supplies, etc. These are examples good blanket rules that we have ahead of time, and I'm sure every household has a few of these.

Sometimes you can imagine ahead of time that you might need to set a limit, but yet you don't really know until you're in the situation HOW you might best apply or phrase the limit. So you need to tweak. An example of this might be one of our household rules: Respect the Stop or the No. Of course I could imagine that we'd have a need to handle the "He's touching me!" situations (having two siblings myself, heh), but I waited until we had a real need for that limit to set it with the children. I suppose it's possible that my kids wouldn't annoy each other with the touching, and then I'd never have an actual need for such a rule.

Many times, though, you can't really predict what kinds of limits you might need to set. These are situational, and sometimes optional (more on that in a bit). For example, I never predicted I'd have to set a "No Poop on Walls" limit, and yet, there you go. Again--based on unique situations in your family, the need for particular limits might need to be set that are not needed in other households. Still, the Life, Limb & Rights Principle serves as a guideline for both predictable situations and those pesky unpredictable ones, too.

More Rational Limits:
  • Wear seat belts in the car
  • Keep peanuts out of our house
  • Loud, bothersome noises need to be produced outside or away from others if so requested
  • Use markers on paper
  • Don't empty out the kitchen cabinets unless you're willing to put the things back
  • The sledgehammer is for Daddy to use
  • Brush your teeth at least once a day
  • Ask me before you use my iPhone
  • No hitting/kicking/pinching/biting/punching people; use words instead.

Each of those limits can be traced directly to a reason based on the Life, Limb & Rights Principle. If the kids don't understand the reason for a particular limit, I can easily point it out, using reality and explaining my thinking on the matter.


Erring on the Side of Freedom (or, Opting Not to Set a Limit)


I've discussed this principle often. Sometimes, you the parent can think of a rational limit based on your own knowledge and experience. And yet if nobody else's rights will be violated, and if the consequences to the child's Life, Limb, etc. will not be severe, that's when I will often decide to Err on the Side of Freedom, giving the child the Freedom to interact with Mr. Reality without my interference.

An example of this is coat-wearing. My kids are often inappropriately attired for weather, as you will be aware if you've ever seen our pictures. This is an area in which I do not choose to enforce a limit. I'll suggest a coat, demonstrate to them that it's cold outside, remind them how useful coats generally prove to be in such weather, and then back off. Often, the child will make a good decision in the matter without any interference or further discussion from me. This is good practice, this kind of decision-making!

The only time I insist on a coat is in the (rare, for us) situations where their bodies could come to serious or irreparable harm. In other words, if the weather is really cold enough for frostbite, and we're planning to be outside for a lengthy amount of time, then I will insist on coats. I think this has only happened once, in Chicago while visiting relatives.

What happens if the kid insists on No Coat, it's not a "serious or irreparable harm" situation (say it's 40 degrees), but you're going to be somewhere outside for a good long while, and can probably count on some kind of severe whining episode as a result of the child's poor decision? Kelly told me of a situation she experienced recently with her daughter (it was sandals without socks, not a coat though). Kelly let her choose No Socks, but they agreed to bring back up socks in case her daughter changed her mind.

I've done this myself, with the coats. It's okay for you to make this non-irreparable-harm decision about your own body, but it's also not fair to the rest of us to ruin the fun of our outing if you later decide you've made a bad decision (this falls under my right to not be driven crazy by the whining). In those cases, a Plan B is a fair agreement. You are still giving the child the freedom to interact with Mr. Reality, but you are helping her (and yourself) work out a plan everyone can live with, should that decision indeed prove to be a mistake.


Enforcing Limits

So you have a bunch of limits. Now what? Well, first of all, make sure that everyone understands. Sometimes the best way to inform someone about your limit is when it first happens, in the moment. "Ouch! Don't pull my hair, it hurts." Okay, now everyone knows about the limit.

Next, prepare to remind people All. The. Live. Long. Day. Because they're new here, and they might forget. Because they might not completely understand. Because they don't agree. Because they're in a "testing" developmental stage and want to find out if you're really serious about this limit. Because they're trying to get on your nerves. Because, essentially, they're not fully rational and independent yet.

Reminding, Asking, and Encouraging
  • Ask: "Why don't you do the chest clip and I'll do the other buckles?"
  • Ask a kid who enters the house chewing peanut candy to finish his snack at his house
  • Give the kid a choice between being quieter in this room and being loud in another room/outside
  • Put paper in front of the child and remind him of the rule: "Color on paper, please!"
  • Remind the child that he's expected to put things away after he's done
  • Remind him that Dad wants kids to leave the sledgehammer alone
  • Offer to brush your teeth alongside the child. (Misery loves company, right?)
  • Remind her to ask me for a turn with the iPhone first
  • Say "Use words instead of hitting when you're mad! What could you say instead?"

Finally, be prepared to enforce the limit--to use some degree of force upon the child to make sure that they stay within the limit. Sometimes this means physically preventing the child from doing something. Sometimes it means putting away some property that is in danger of damage--even putting it away for a really long time.

And prepare to enforce your limit many times, too, for all of the reasons mentioned above.

Methods of Enforcing Limits (not an exhaustive list, just ONE of many possible ways for each limit):
  • Physically strap child into car seat
  • Take peanut food out of the house myself
  • Take loud child to another room
  • Put the markers away temporarily
  • Put a lock on a cabinet
  • Keep off-limits tools way up high in the garage
  • Brush the child's teeth for him
  • Put iPhone out of their reach
  • Hold child's arms/legs still for him

Appropriate Use of Force

Using force is a necessary part of the parenting job. How can an Objectivist justify coercion, the use of force, against their children? Isn't force supposed to be bad?

As Kelly discussed in her post " The Nature of Children," children are neither fully independent rational adults, nor are they irrational adults, nor are they animals. Therefore when kids resist a rational limit and when rights are being violated, or they are endangering themselves, then the parent is right to act in order to ensure that everyone/everything is safe. Force is appropriate to the extent that a child is not behaving rationally, and when rights are in danger.

However. And this is a Big However, so pay attention. Children are not fully mature, independent, rational adults-- but neither are they dumb animals who must be conditioned to behave appropriately.And they are not irrational adults either, which is why I believe that the above quotation from Dr. Peikoff is not applicable to parenting situations. With irrational adults, when reason proves futile, then force is pretty much what you're left with.

Children are just learning to be rational. From the first concept formed during the first year of life until they leave your house never to return, they are working on their burgeoning minds. They're going to make mistakes along the way, because of inexperience or experimentation or simply because their brains are immature. When those mistakes could or will violate the Life, Limb & Rights Principle, a rational parent's job is prevent the full and complete consequences of those mistakes.

Yet I want my children, as they set out on their own as adults, to have practiced using their own minds to make rational choices about their lives. Therefore it is absolutely critical that they have not been encouraged to obey authority figures without question; to make decisions about their behavior based on punishment or reward systems; to have become accustomed to being coerced by others.


The Minimum Force Principle

What to do? Force is necessary, sometimes. And yet, they must not become accustomed to its use.

Here is another parenting principle, a corollary of the Life, Limb & Rights Principle: Use force on children as minimally and infrequently as you possibly can. Let's call this the Minimum Force Principle.

The Minimum Force Principle helps me remember that my kids hate being forced to do things just as much as I do, by virtue of the fact that they are human beings. As much as I hate being forced to pay taxes, they hate having me tell them what to do. And they're allowed to have those feelings about it.

I don't want them ever to become accustomed to the feeling of being forced. There are enough "sheeple" in this world already, people who do not even understand when they are being coerced into doing something they otherwise might not want to do. I am not raising dumb animals; I do not need to condition them through carrot-and-stick methods to act in ways of which I approve.

I am trying to guide new humans, with their young little minds, into adulthood. I know that rationality and independence (among other virtues) are crucial to their future happiness as adults. If I cripple their minds now through the frequent use of heavy-handed force, how can I expect them to know how to use their minds at the age of 18 or 22? This is their time to practice being rational, to practice being independent, while under the guidance (and yes, protection) of their parents.


And Speaking of the Carrot and the Stick . . .

When using the Minimum Force Principle, I use the minimum force necessary to ensure the limit is followed. This also means that I do not add on another Mom-imposed consequence after I've gotten that compliance. In other words--a punishment.

A punishment is imposed by the parent onto the child, over and above the enforcement of the limit. Sometimes it's to help them "learn." Sometimes it's done as an act of retribution. Examples of punishments include: spanking, grounding, sitting in a time-out chair to contemplate one's transgressions, doing extra chores around the house, etc.

Here's the thing. The kid will understand what they're supposed to do, learn what they ought to learn, simply by having the parent enforce rational limits consistently and fairly. If I am consistent and principled, then the child will learn "Mom will make me sit in my car seat, even if I don't want to." I do not need to spank him into it, threaten or scare him into it, bribe him into it, take away his toys into it, or ground him into it. I simply have to put the child into the car seat every. single. time. he is unwilling to do it himself. Case closed, end of story.

A special word about spanking--obviously, since I don't advocate punishments of any form, I don't support spanking. Using the Minimum Force Principle will sometimes include firm physical handling, and yes, those situations can be infuriating.

Spanking is the ultimate argument from authority. It's a great way to win compliance and get results. No doubt. But hitting a child--even just a "pop" on the hand--is really just "because I said so" with a dose of physical pain to back it up the words. I oppose any form of hitting a child for the same reasons I oppose "because I said so"--because it teaches a child to obey rather than think.

Spanking is particularly egregious because teaches children that Mom and Dad, their protectors, the ones they are supposed to trust more than anyone else in the world, will cause them physical pain. In addition to reinforcing obedience, I think hitting damages trust in a relationship that needs so much of it due to the dependence of one party upon the other.

We don't use reward systems either. Rewards are the flip side of punishments in a way. Rewards include: gold star-type systems where the kid can "earn" a reward, or bribery.

Rewards are nicer, gentler Mom-imposed methods designed to get a child to behave in a desired way. But they're still a form of coercion. A child can easily become conditioned to behave desirably when the reward system is in place, but then might stop after Mom runs out of stickers or candy. I made this mistake when we were potty-training Ryan. Once he figured out he wouldn't get his reward every time, he actually looked at me and asked, "Well then why should I do it?"

I think it's easier and kinder to just enforce the limit as gently as possible rather than to try to make the kid want to do it for a piece of candy or a gold star. I think the use of rewards and bribes can encourage second-handedness in a child. I know many kids about Ryan's age who can't do many things without looking up to see if the adult in the room is nodding approval or ready to give them a treat. These kids have already learned to substitute adult approval for their own judgment.

Ryan didn't learn to use the potty because we gave him treats; he used the potty because we sat him on it whenever we thought he looked like he needed to go. He hated this use of force, by the way, and I suspect that might be why he eventually decided that he might as well just go ahead and do it himself.

Keeping the focus on limit-setting has another great result, too. Once the child is willing and able to comply with the limit, he is effectively substituting his own inner discipline for your previous external discipline. Ryan uses the potty just fine now--he is self-disciplined in this area of his life.


Why Non-Punitive Discipline?

The Life, Limb & Rights Principle, the Err on the Side of Freedom Principle, and the Minimum Force Principle serve as a framework for most (if not all) of my parenting decisions. I've been considering how to formulate these principles for many, many years now, since before I became a parent. And boy it feels great to have finally articulated them! (Although the formulation of the Life, Limb & Rights Principle is not originally mine as I stated above--thanks, Kelly!) These principles are not derived from, but are compatible with, Non-Punitive Discipline techniques.

I think about what it means to be a good parent all the time, for many reasons. It's my day (and night) job, so I'm constantly faced with parenting challenges opportunities; I want to parent differently from my own parents; I want to parent according to my values and philosophy; but mostly because I have three wonderful children and they deserve good parenting.

As an Objectivist, I value rationality, justice, honesty, and independence (among other virtues, of course). I want my kids to value those things, too. One of the reasons I use PD tools is because I can reinforce such virtues while simultaneously modeling them for my kids. They can practice these things AND see Mommy doing those things, too. WIN-WIN.

The PD techniques I use and have described here in the past support rational limit-setting, consistent enforcing of those limits, using minimal force only when necessary, and without punishments or rewards. With a focus on getting input from the children about the limits, kindness yet firmness when enforcement is necessary, and partnership in problem-solving so that we can all improve next time, PD helps me live (and parent) according to my ideals. I am parenting in a virtuous way to get those three little values of mine going in the world.

Kelly Elmore and Brendan Casey provided valuable feedback on this post, for which I'm extremely grateful. I owe you both some kind of fancy dinner at the very least. Additionally, Kelly's contribution to my thinking about parenting cannot be emphasized enough. We have had hours of interesting conversation about parenting techniques and philosophy. Without these talks, I'm sure both my parenting and my writing would not be as far along as they are. :o)
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