Autonomy and discipline

This op-ed, which is number one on the NYT's most emailed list, is the just the latest blossom in a bouquet of impracticable advice to parents based on specious reasoning. As with most such articles, I can't imagine that parents who read it will come away with having any idea what to do with their misbehaving children. They will only feel that whatever they are doing is wrong.

While the author is ridiculously unclear about how parents should deal with children, the funny thing is that I'm pretty sure that under similar circumstances, we would probably perform the same actions. At least, I can only infer this by what the author says not to do. I am a big believer in positive discipline. I never spank, yell, or use punitive time-outs or star charts. Since I only praise actions, and never character traits (e.g., "I like the way you tried several different options until you found the right one," rather than "You're so smart!"), it's not that I'm withholding praise when my son does something wrong, it's just not the kind of situation which calls for praise. I never withhold requested affection, even if my son has just done something of which I disapprove. I do always try to understand why he is feeling angry or frustrated, when he is, and usually there's a pretty good and sympathizable if not exactly justifiable reason for it. And, where practicable and not too terribly inconvenient, I allow him to choose his own actions and request his help with household chores.

The question is why we would perform the same actions. The author suggests it has something to do with having respect for the child's autonomy. But the Kantian conception of autonomy is predicated on a person being a rational being. It is in virtue of rationality that we are to grant each other autonomy. Children simply do not have the either the cognitive equipment or the information necessary to make rational decisions. Decisions that are totally inappropriate to make for another rational adult - such as what to eat, where to be educated, what medical treatment to receive, with whom to associate - must be made for children. Autonomy is not something one can respect in a child - he doesn't have it in any meaningful sense. What parents can ethically do is respect that they are helping to create someone who will be autonomous one day. Therefore, they can insure the health and well-being of their child, nurture their self-reliance, and defer decisions that can wait until the child can make them.

The author suggests that children who have expectations placed on them by their parents report resenting their parents. Contra the author, this is not a conclusive argument that the parents did the wrong thing. I resent being pulled over for speeding, but it is still for the best that a government monitors traffic behavior. Children require education in how to behave in a socially appropriate manner, and require help and attention to develop intellectually. One can do this while still loving the child for who he is. I have to completely disagree with the author that expecting certain behaviors from a child, that may not be the first to emerge from the child, is disrespecting who the child is or means that one loves the child conditionally. One can tell a child what is inappropriate behavior -- because one is teaching someone who is not born already knowing how to get along with people and how to be self-reliant.

So why perform this kind of parenting, then? Why not punish, etc? Entirely for pragmatic reasons. Empirical data show that punishment is not effective, that praise for actions rather than traits is more effective, etc. When my child helps around the house, he feels more invested in the condition of the house. He also learns how to do all these things on his own - and thus is trained in self-reliance. On and on. This kind of treatment is not in itself required morally - it is required morally only because it is effective in creating the rational, self-reliant being that he will become.

1 comment:

  1. I don't agree Elizabeth with this one size fits all approach. I have 3 boys (the one year old, of course, does not get punished) but for my 5 and 7 year old I use different strategies based on their personalities. My 5 year old responds very well to praise and encouragement to brush his teeth, etc. but my 7 year old (even when he was 5) responds very well to the TV being turned off (the 5 year old would sit there staring at the TV even though it were off). And conversly if I tried to praise my 7 year old to brush his teeth, he would simply roll his eyes.
    Different kids, very different approaches. I also realize I am lucky because my two older boys are (so far) really sweet kids. Now I also have no idea if my children are well behaved because I have stumbled upon the best approaches or they are naturally tend that way with minimal encouragement or punishment.