Wednesday, April 4, 2012

What is coercion?

A prisoner is being tortured to give up vital wartime secrets or sign a false confession. Eventually, he realizes he has to give in -- but when he sits in the chair indicated by his captors, he moves it an inch to the right. It's his way of preserving his own sense of freedom and his belief in his free will.

Meanwhile, a six-year-old is being kept in time-out until he will say sorry. It's been an hour and he finally gives in. But he will only say it in the world's quietest voice. His parents send him back until he can say it "like he means it."

The two situations are very different. One is truly "cruel and unusual" while the other one is just a time-out. But the goal is the same: to force someone to do something they strongly do not want to do. One person uses some form of punishment to override another person's will in the hopes of making it choose what they want it to choose.

I don't believe in doing this to kids. It just rubs me the wrong way. Maybe it helps that I have a very good memory. I remember exactly how it felt to be put in situations like this. It was like being between a rock and a hard place. My own sense of morals and self-respect demanded that I follow through with what I had said I would do. If I'd refused to say sorry, I had to stick with it or I was being dishonest and inconsistent. I knew I would hate myself for saying it, if I gave in, and I felt kind of like a hero for not doing it. But at the same time, I also knew I was supposed to obey my parents. I wished so hard they had asked for something different, or asked in a way that would let me save face. Instead I would eventually give in, but with my own twist: I could say sorry quietly, I could write it instead of saying it, I could say it in a tone of voice that would make it clear I didn't mean it. That way I could live up to my own convictions and get out of time-out sometime before I turned eighteen.

What seems odd to me is that parenting books that go on and on about how coercion is bad still tend to recommend tactics like this. Parenting With Grace, which I otherwise enjoyed, recommends a time-out procedure that includes never getting out until the child re-does to the parent's satisfaction whatever they did wrong. I'm sure there are lots of compliant children who would wait out their time and then do what their parent asked, because they asked it. But the "strong-willed" kids, like me or my siblings or my son? We would stay in that time-out for ever, and if we ever capitulated, we'd hate ourselves and our parents for it. That anger would end up coming out in other incidents later in the day or the week, and our parents wouldn't know why we had so much bitterness stored up.

(As far as I remember, this didn't happen all that often. My parents didn't often try to go toe-to-toe with me, and anyway I did try to please them in general. And my vaunted willpower that I was so proud of usually caved after ten minutes of time-out. Time-out was the worst punishment for me. I hated it so much. Spankings weren't so bad, because once they were over, they were over, even if you didn't say sorry.)

Now I'm not saying coercion is equivalent to torture, or that it's immoral, or that it makes you a bad parent. I just think it's counterproductive. Don't we want to raise children who would withstand torture rather than give up their faith or tell where the Jews are hidden? Don't we want our kids to listen to their inner voice over any outer voice that tries to pressure them into something that they know is wrong? Besides, coercion inspires so much anger and bitterness. Kids of all ages consider it a virtue to stand up to someone who tries to coerce them. If they can't manage that, they'll try to get back in other ways. There's no winning once you get into that kind of battle. Either you lose it, or you find yourself in a full-fledged war.

So what sorts of things count as coercion?

*Spanking a child until they confess to something. Yes, even if you know they did it. (Much worse if you later turn out to be wrong!)
*Making a child repeat, word for word, a phrase we think they should use until they do it in the tone we want.
*Repeating a punishment over and over until some magic word is said or action done. Of course, with spanking or withholding food or shutting out in the cold, this could be terribly dangerous, as well, and we've seen that in some recent child-abuse deaths. The punishment was to continue until the child "gave in" -- and the child's will was, in a few cases, stronger than their life. It doesn't matter how minor the original issue was. For the child, it's a question of their personal integrity, and they completely lose sight (as the parents seem to have) of how minor an issue it is.

Pretty much any time you say, "I will keep doing X to you until you do Y," you are coercing a child. On the other hand, logical or natural consequences don't seem coercive to me. I'm thinking of things like this:

*I will not pick you up if you are hitting me.
*Until those chores are done, we won't be going to the store.
*As long as you have no pants on, we are not going outside.

It's still an "until" kind of thing. I spent an hour with Marko once trying to get him to put his pants on. Sure, I could have just grabbed him and stuck his pants on. But I thought I'd give him a chance to learn about choices, so I said, "We will go outside when you are wearing pants. If you are not wearing pants, we will stay inside." It took him about an hour, during which he cried occasionally, but mostly just played with his inside toys, until he came up to me and asked for his pants.

It just doesn't seem like coercion to me because he had a choice, and both choices were okay. Playing inside naked was okay, and playing outside with pants was okay. I didn't insist he say or do a certain thing a certain way ... I just wanted to let him play outside without flashing the entire neighborhood. (Not that it would shock them, at this point.) I was trying to make a framework in which he could exercise his will freely, but only in ways that were acceptable to me. So I was limiting his will, but not forcing it one way or the other.

The same goes for the hitting thing. Up with no hitting and down are both viable options. I'm not trying to control him, but trying to respect myself. I can't let myself be hurt, so I have come up with two ways for him not to hurt me: down, or up while being gentle.

Meanwhile, when trying to teach something -- and this is more with older kids, like my students -- I try to leave an "out." In other words, I leave a way for the child to cooperate with me while saving face. For instance, if they ask for something in a rude way, I say, "Gee, that sounds rude. Can you try another way?" I might suggest another way, but anything they come up with that isn't rude is fine. If they can't come up with a way that isn't rude, I just say, "Well, I just don't feel like doing that for you when you ask that way. Why don't you try again later?" Putting it off till later gives the child a chance to think of a better way to ask, get out of the rude mood they're in, or maybe even decide they don't want what they originally asked for. (And that's fine too.)

Sometimes, especially when I feel the child didn't know they were doing something wrong, I don't correct at all. I just say, "Sure, I will do that for you. Next time, though, you should try a more polite way, like 'Please would you sharpen my pencil?'" In other words, I don't bother trying to fix this time. They did their best for this time, but they get a suggestion for next time. That way, they have a chance to learn the right way without ever being "wrong." I mean, wouldn't it be awful if the only way to learn a math problem was to do it wrong first? Wouldn't we rather be shown how first, and then have the test? A wrong answer can really make you feel dumb, even after you learn what the right answer is.

It just seems to me that, even if you are giving a child a consequence for something, it's much better to just give the consequence and let it speak for itself than require a behavior change immediately after. Punishment makes you feel bad. Right after one isn't a good time for learning. You don't feel like cooperating, so you do it in the least cooperative way you can. I'd rather just punish a child for hitting and then let him get back to playing than try to force him to apologize. (Though my usual method is just to separate the child so he can't hit anymore.) That way a consequence is really a consequence -- a result of past action -- rather than a form of coercion, intended to derive some further action. Kids aren't dumb. They can still use the experience of the unpleasant consequence to shape their actions next time. But they can do it on their own time, in their own way, with their own will.

What do you think? I picked a harsh word, "coercion," because I don't see another word that quite fits what I'm trying to describe. Even so, is this something you do or would do? What do you do instead?

4 comments:

Sarah Faith said...

Ah, yeah. Been there, theory wise. It all sounds so neat and pretty in the books.
Not every child is the same and you may find you have one who responds extremely well to coersion and ignores all your "gentle" tactics. You have to figure this out on an individual basis and go with it. I know a lot of melancholic moms who specifically remembered how horribly they reacted/ felt with "normal" punishments as children, vowed not to do the same, and ended up with little monsters until they finally realized something had to give. (I don't think Marko sounds like a monster.)

I eventually decided that I don't care if I coerce them, I'm the parent and they need to figure that out or their life relationships will be seriously hampered. Sometimes no is just no, there are authorities who don't agree with you, there are times your 'whys' can't be answered, and that is just part of life.

The overarching relationship we have with our children should be based on love and respect rather than fear. Feed emotional bank accounts with kind words, acts of service, quality time, really enjoying their company. This is emphasized in the Popcaks' book and it's not only the basis for obedience, but it's also the grease that will oil all the squeaks (mistakes and foul-ups) in your parenting styles ('cause nobody gets it 100% right!). Popcak even puts the time outs and other remedies in a much later chapter, because the bulk of the discipline is in building the relationship and BEING a good example. Of course a time out won't work if the child doesn't want to please you or be with you.
Sometimes we have to make a child regret what he did by enforcing a consequence such that it's more painful for them to do it, than the pleasure they get from doing it. Jail isn't the optimal solution to crime, but it is sometimes necessary for whatever reason. It's much better to have a citizenry that obeys the laws due to mutual respect of others, but a person is more likely to drive the speed limit if he knows there is a cop ahead with his radar gun. Just a fact of life. A ticket is more painful than driving a little quicker is fun or necessary. Sure we should drive safely for the main reason of honoring the fifth commandment(thou shalt not kill and the stewardship of life that implies), but we can't count on everyone everywhere to always do things for the best interests of themselves or others.
I don't have it perfectly figured out, but when I have consistent behavior issues with the kids I know to look at our relationship and fix that first. It doesn't mean that in the meantime, I won't be sending them to their room or to bed early or without dinner for whatever infraction. I need sanity, too, and sometimes you just can't wait until someone's worked through it on his own. Things in a large family are urgent and emergent quite often. One person's misbehavior doesn't just affect him.
Maybe it's easier if one's children are normally spaced but I sorta had to give up some of my strong ideals when I had 5 5& under and couldn't catch a breath. :) Still trying to recover a bit from that portion of my life and the lack of good solid training for basic things like care of our things, etc - but it's getting better.

I do respect your point of view and don't really disagree in theory, but still it kind of makes me chuckle since you are the mom of a single child who is still a toddler. I hope you never have to coerce your kids, but I'll be here to NOT judge you when it eventually happens. :)

Sheila said...

I always listen to you, because you've got so much experience behind you! Whereas everything I say is subject to change as I do this longer. If you read all my "discipline" posts, you'll see blatant contradictions right and left as I changed my mind about stuff!

I hope you don't think I said I had a problem with punishments or consequences. I don't. It's just one thing to say, "You were rude to your sister, so you will be in time-out for 10 minutes," and another to say, "You were rude to your sister, so you will be in time-out till you say 'I love you' to your sister in a kind tone of voice." With the one, you teach your child about consequences, but with the other you might end up in a battle of the wills that lasts all day. Of course it depends on the child's temperament. Marko's, at least, dictates very clearly that any attempt to make something into a battle will result in absolute misery for both of us. That's just how he is -- and how I am -- and now his dad is. It would kind of surprise me to get a different kind of kid than that, with the genes we've got going into the mix, but you never know.

My general opinion is that there's stuff you do for the good of the kid himself, and stuff you do for the common good of the family. I don't think a lot of punishing and strict rules are necessary to raise a good kid. But sometimes they're necessary for the good of the family, and I think it's good for each child to learn, "I would love for you to be able to work this out on your own, but the family NEEDS you to snap out of this now." But at that point, I hope to stick to things that I need, rather than getting into the ring with my kids *just* to win and "teach them who's boss." That's not what it's about for me -- it's about respecting the others in the family, myself included, and saying, "Sorry, I won't let you do that. I know you don't understand and maybe you're not developmentally ready to understand. But I still can't let you do it." The net effect is the same, but it seems to put me in a much better head-space about the whole thing.

I am probably making absolutely zero sense. But we'll see how it all plays out over the next ten years, hm? I'll keep posting and we'll see where my opinions are then.

The Sojourner said...

I had never really thought about this before, possibly because I was one of those children who is anxious to please, provided it's made clear to me how I can do so. (If you--parent, teacher, other authority figure--display a pattern of NEVER being satisfied, I will give up and do whatever I want. But I did and do WANT to please people. As I get older I just have less and less patience for people who are determined to not be pleased.)

The thing that has always bothered me is the false choice. I'm trying to think of a good example. Let's pretend you have company over, and you don't like the fact that your kid is not talking to people. So you say, "If you can't be nice you can go to your room until Aunt Phyllis leaves."

I'm an extreme introvert. In the scenario above, I would pick my room every day of the week and twice on Sundays. (Note: I don't remember that exact scenario ever actually happening, but the dynamic I'm describing is similar.) The problem comes after Aunt Phyllis leaves, when the child in question gets a long tag-team lecture from the parents on the virtues of being sociable. When I was a child that sort of thing would drive me insane. "You gave me a choice," I would think, "So why are you yelling at me for picking the one I wanted?"

I don't think your post is totally crazy, though, and I can see what you mean. I love reading these posts where you sort of work out your thoughts in front of us. It helps me to work out my own thoughts on things I've never thought about, rather than suddenly encountering them 5 years from now (or whatever) and reacting on raw instinct.

Sarah Faith said...

You're right, a good thing to remember is that we can get lost in the "battle of wills" and just trying to win - rather than focusing on the relationship and being on the same side. Or even to get lost in the urgency of everything and forget to ever remember to discipline for the CHILD's good. Your focus is good. I think you will do fine no matter which way you go. You seem to be really purposeful about your parenting which is a huge leg up. I have just read lots of literature that I thought sounded really neat (like Parent Effectiveness Training, plus a LOT of unschooling gurus tend to write against coercion of any kind) but for me, it didn't work out in reality.
For instance, I have a strong choleric who cannot be forced to do anything. However, cholerics respect a brick wall, and I do things like, continue to put her back in my bedroom until she calms down and apologizes. She needs that space to be alone and calm down. She's never been able to be talked down, as any interaction fuels her flame of anger. At the same time, I can't allow her to 'save face' to the point that she never apologizes for her faults, because I'm letting her calm down and just slink back into family life without any responsibility for her words/actions. I have found this approach always works (as does threatening a spanking, oddly) and so while it might be a 'battle of the wills,' I think some kids do need to have that, just so they can have the security of knowing that there are real boundaries. I guess I'm just saying keep an eye on your kids, and their temperaments, and don't let your own personal feelings about how you were raised/treated/ how you felt about punishment inform how you treat them, too much. Everyone is different and if they need something different than you did, you aren't doing them any favors by treating them like you want to be treated.

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