Who Is Allowed To Coerce My Child?
I don’t let teachers coerce my child.
He was not forced to read at the developmentally inappropriate kindergarten age. He is not forced to suffer through the equivalence of a full time job just to be educated according to politicians’ guidelines.
I don’t let other people coerce my child.
I tell him that his body belongs to him and that he sets the rules. I give him the language to respond to people who are trying to get him to do things he doesn’t want to do.
I don’t coerce my child.
We work together on bedtimes and the contents of meals and what kind of clothes he will wear. For things he “has” to do, like those related to health and safety, I have a vast commitment to cooperation, and we figure out something that works for both of us.
And there’s one other person who is not allowed to coerce my child.
It’s the future, hypothetical version of him.
This is a tricky concept, but stick with me a minute.
Putting An Imaginary Person In Charge
A few years ago I encountered a family who kept their son in a bit of a bubble. I respected some other aspects of their parenting, so I asked about the extreme limitations they put on him.
They replied that their job as parents was to deliver his body, whole and healthy, to his 18 year old self. At that point he could make his own decisions, but it was their job to get him there.
It gave me a real creepy vibe. There was a puppet master exerting control on this kid’s life, and that person didn’t even exist yet.
While these parents took it to an extreme, their attitude isn’t that uncommon. There’s an underlying secret to the conventional wisdom about raising kids, and it’s that they aren’t really people. They are future people. They are potential people. They will someday be people.
Once you fully realize this, it’s a little bit horrifying.
The Piano Lesson Problem
Like many people, I was forced to have piano lessons as a kid. Once I week I was driven to a teacher’s house where I was put on the spot and coerced to perform on command. And every day my mother made me practice at home.
This went on for 7 years, and I hated every single single second of it. I tried many tricks and manipulations to get out of practicing, but I had little success.
Like many people who hated piano lessons, I now appreciate having had them. They gave me a musical foundation that enabled me to excel later in life at playing instruments I loved. I know things about music and appreciate music in a way that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t had that seven years of early training.
It’s tempting to me to say that it’s worth it. And since the child in this example is me, it’s tempting to say that I get to make that call.
But in a very real sense, I am not that child, and she is not me.
I don’t get to say, “It’s okay to mistreat a 5 year old so that I can have a passing understanding of music theory.”
Staying Grounded In The Present
The truth is, I could start right now, with ANY skill, and in 7 years of daily practice I would be pretty darn good at it. I’m not willing to do that with hardly anything. Much less the piano, which I still kind of resent.
I’m only willing to say that “I’m glad it happened to me” because it’s over, and because I no longer have to experience that suffering.
My piano experience is over. It doesn’t matter. It’s done.
But here’s what does matter:
If I’m not really careful, my casual approval of the mistreatment I experienced as a child will lead me to coerce my own child who is living his real life right now.
His experience is NOT over. It’s not done.
It DOES matter, because it is currently happening right now.
Mistreating him today because I think a hypothetical future person might appreciate it is 100% wrong. It’s creepy. My guesses may not even be accurate – I don’t know what kind of person he will be in the future or what that person will want.
But I CAN figure out what kind of person my son is today. I can ask him about what he wants right now. I can be his partner right here in the present where he is already a real person who deserves to be in charge of his own life.