Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Adults say the darnedest things

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I just re-encountered the fiction (and real-life) cliche of the child–adult exchange “He started it!”–“That is no excuse!”. This is a good example of adults telling children things that simply do not make sense,* and that are likely to leave the children unconvinced: “He started it!” is not just an excuse—it is a perfectly legitimate reason. There might be situations where it can be pragmatically better to turn the other cheek, try to deescalate, find a more constructive solution than retaliation, whatnot; however, that has no impact on the ethics of the issue and expecting a child to understand such matters is highly optimistic.** Furthermore, there are many cases where retaliation in kind is the best solution, especially when boundary pushers and bullies are concerned (which will very often be the case with children): Both being exposed to consequences for inappropriate behavior and having to take a dose of one’s own medicine can have a great positive effect in limiting future inappropriate behavior.

*I suspect that this is partly due to the answer being dishonest, that the adult is motivated by something unstated. (“What” will depend on context, but a fear of negative consequences from e.g. fights between children could be high on the list, as could a wish to just keep some degree of peace and quit.)

**And arguments in that direction are usually absent to begin with.

Note how the “adult” reply makes no attempt at providing reasons or actually convincing, and how a discussion of pros and cons is entirely absent—it is just an (invalid) claim that the child is supposed to take at face value “because I said so”. No wonder that children are not more cooperative…

The “because I said so” is, of course, a good example in its own right—the effect of such argumentation is that the child’s rejection of a claim is complemented by a feeling that the adult is an unreasonable dictator. It might or might not create compliance in action, but compliance in thought is not to be expected. Worse, it could have a harmful long-term effect on the relationship. It is true that there might be a point where a child is too young or the situation too critical for a deeper discussion to beneficial; however, the uses that I have seen (be it in fiction or in real life) would usually have benefited from a motivation.* Consider** e.g. a child’s refusal do the dishes countered with “because I said so” vs. “we agreed that everyone should take a turn—and today is your day”; the adult’s refusal to play based on “because I said so” vs. “I am sorry, but I am dead tired and need to take a nap”; or even any discussion resulting in “because I said so” vs. “I pay the bills; I make the rules”. The last example might superficially seem to offer no real difference, but most children (above a certain age) will at least be able to see the adult perspective of the bill payer and the hypothetical alternative of buying greater freedom through going hungry and homeless—but not of the more power-based “because I said so”. (Also note that “I am the parent; I make the rules” is closer to the dictator than to the bill payer.) At the same time, I advice against reasonable sounding arguments that do not make sense on closer inspection or that could back-fire.***

*Generally, even among adults, I recommend that any rule and whatnot be given some form of motivation, so that those affected know why something should or should not be done. This to increase the chance of compliance, to make more informed choices possible (e.g. when dealing with interpretation and special cases), and to allow a critique of the rule with an eye on future improvement.

**I stress that I do not consider the alternative arguments to be silver-bullets—dealing with children is hard and often amounts to a “damned if you do; damned if you don’t” situation. They are, however, improvements.

***E.g. “That is no excuse!” above. A more interesting example stems from my own childhood (pre-VCR): My mother argued that she should watch the news on the bigger color-TV and I a simultaneously broadcast movie on the smaller black-and-white one, because she had not seen the news in a week (due to a study absence). From my perspective, the negative effects of the inferior device on a movie were larger than on the news, and it might be years (not a week) before another opportunity to watch that movie arose. The result? I was left with not only an implicit “because I said so”—but also with the feeling that my mother was dishonest… (Adult me is open to the alternative that she simply had not thought the matter through.)

A sometime reasonable, but more often misguided, argument is “And if your friends all jumped off a bridge, would you follow them?!?” (with many variations). The analogy involved is usually inappropriate (notably regarding dangers) and/or too subtle (the “lemming” aspect). Normally, the only justification is that it came as a response to a weak argument from the (typically?) teenager, e.g. “but all my friends are going”. Here, however, such “smart ass” answers are not helpful. Better would be to evaluate the suggestion (e.g. going to a certain party) on its merits, factoring in both the fact that “all my friends” can seem like a strong argument to the teenager (even when it is not), and that there are at least some cases where the argument has merit through its impact on teenage life* or through giving a different perspective**.

*The degree to which adults should be concerned about this is limited, but it is not something to ignore entirely. There are aspects of popularity and networking that might be largely alien to an adult (and to some teens, including my younger self); however, they are there and showing them some consideration is not wrong.

**Notably, that something is wide-spread and tolerated by other parents could point to a too restrictive own attitude.

Generally, I caution against giving “smart ass” answers to children, and recommend using only factual arguments. For instance, my school class would sometimes be asked to explain/solve/perform/… something that had simply never been taught (especially when teachers changed). Typically, someone would reply with the idiomatic “det har vi inte fått lära oss”, which carries the clear intent of “that has not been taught” (and an implicit “so you cannot fairly require us to know”). Unfortunately, this phrase is vulnerable to the deliberate misinterpretation of “we have not been allowed to learn this” and the answer was invariably along the lines of “Who has forbidden it?”. The results on the class were never positive… To boot, this answer is doubly unfair in that (a) the students cannot be expected to guess what the next teacher considers “must haves” when the previous teacher saw things differently, and (b) traditional schooling severely limits the time, energy, and (often) interest available for own learning in addition to the official curriculum. (Note that both, even taken singly, invalidate the potentially valid angle that this answer does have—that learning should not be limited to school and that teachers usually indicate the minimum to learn.)

In a bigger picture, adults often impose constraints or obligations on children that make little sense. For instance, what is the point of a child making his own bed, should he not see a benefit for himself in doing so? There is no automatic advantage in a made bed and if no-one else is hurt by it… Indeed, apart from when I receive visitors (actual reason) or change the sheets (trivial extra effort), it might be more than twenty years since I, as an adult, made my bed.

Excursion on women as perpetrators:
While errors like those above are by no means limited to women, they do appear to be considerably more likely from women. It is conceivable that at least some of the problem stems from an arbitrary imposition of some irrational values that often occur among women (e.g. that any and all violence no matter the reason is evil, or a wish for orderliness-for-the-sake-of-orderliness).

Excursion on fairness:
Much of the above is related to the feeling of being unfairly treated. A fair treatment is by no means a guarantee for a happy and well-behaved child; however, the opposite will make things worse. Where fair treatment might be important to most adults (at least when on the receiving end…); it is paramount to most children.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 13, 2018 at 2:08 am

One Response

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  1. […] **To which should be noted that she was not very bright—others might have been more insightful even in the face of ingrained eating habits. Unfortunately, back then, I took it to be just another case of dishonest adult “argumentation”. […]


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