Yesterday an adherent of the Taking Children Seriously movement made a few comments here. I have for some while been toying with the idea of making a post about Taking Children Seriously. Disciples of Taking Children Seriously seldom seem to announce themselves as openly as this person did, preferring generally to limit themselves to making coded hints about their ideology. Phrases to watch out for include 'common preference', 'Popperian epistemology' and any reference to the inherent rationality of children. Another characteristic of the followers of Sarah Fitz-Claridge and David Deutsch, the founders of this movement is that however gentle they may be with their children they are like ferocious tigers when verbally defending the doctrine. I must marshal my arguments and prepare carefully if I am to say anything at all about this!
I want today just to reflect upon the wisdom of allowing children and young people to make decisions about their lives. I shall do this by talking of three adult women known to me personally and their reactions in later life to the decisions which their parents allowed them to make. This is not meant to prove anything; these are only personal anecdotes. Rather, it is to get people to think about the wisdom of allowing children too great a degree of autonomy in their lives.
The first woman is now in her fifties. She was more or less a contemporary of mine in the late sixties and early seventies, although a few years younger than me. Most teenage girls at that time had to go be pretty cunning about having sex with their boyfriends. They would tell their parents that they were going round Mary's house to revise for their GCEs and then instead go to a boyfriend's house. Because a lot of families did not have telephones in those days, the chances of being rumbled were low. The parents of one fourteen year old girl were very laid back and progressive and hated hypocrisy and underhanded dealing of this sort. The also fancied themselves very liberated and 'with it' about sex. They told their daughter that if she was going to have sex with a boy, she must tell them and not keep it a secret. There was, after all nothing shameful about sex! They even helped her with contraception. She was allowed to have a boyfriend stay over before her fifteenth birthday. This led to a succession of lovers and she became pregnant at sixteen. Obviously, because things were so free and easy, she had sex a lot more than her friends and therefore had more chance of becoming pregnant. When her friends went off to university at eighteen, she was living in a council house with what was then called an illegitimate baby.
One might think that this woman would have been grateful to her parents for their progressive and right on attitude to sex. She was not and this became the most awful grudge against them in later years as she became herself an adult. Even now, she is bitter about this and blames her parents for the fact that she did not go to university like her friends. She says that at that age she was a child and it was her parents duty to protect her. She believes strongly that they failed in this.
The other two cases are more trivial. One is woman whose dentist recommended when she was twelve that she have braces fitted to her teeth to prevent them protruding. At that time, forty years ago, braces were far less common than they are today and many girls in particular hated them passionately. She made such a fuss about the idea, that her mother told her that if she didn't want them, then she need not. As the child grew older, the teeth stuck out even more until she looked like Bugs Bunny. This led to her becoming very self-conscious about smiling, which affected her life a good deal. She had remedial work done in her thirties. Her mother told her at that time that it had been her decision not to have braces, to which she retorted crisply, 'I was a child. You should have made me'.
The final example is of a girl who was learning to play the piano. Like all children, she hated playing scales and practising. She used to moan about this to her mother, who told her that if she did not like doing it, then she could give up the piano. This was unexpected, but having been complaining so much about it, the girl felt that she could not do otherwise than agree to do give up the piano. She still, many years later, regrets that she did not continue with the piano and carry on learning. She too has a bit of a grudge and thinks that her mother should have been firmer with her.
As I said, these stories are not proof of anything. They indicate though that even when a parent feels that she is respecting her child's wishes and allowing her to make her own decisions, there might still be unpleasant and wholly unexpected consequences. Often, children get into the way of complaining about things and trying to assert their wishes. It can be disconcerting and a little alarming when their parents take them at their word and allow them to decide about things which may have serious implications for them in the future.