Non-coercive parenting

IssueJuly - August 2010
Feature by Rachel Sanger

Let me describe the satisfying joyful way of life which is non-coercive parenting.

I grew up in the 50s and 60s. My parents were not typical of the time. I have no idea why not, it was just the way they were. My mother only recently in fact said to me, “We never thought of ‘bringing up’ we were just people living together and doing what we could”. They never smacked us, never made us eat or wear anything we didn’t like. I never went to the dentist until I chose to age 13. I never took any medicine.

We chose our leisure activities and practised them or changed them as we chose. They listened to us; I never had the idea that you would prevail because of your age or status. They were pretty critical but only based on reason and logic and you could say anything and be as assertive as you liked.


Of course when I went to school I felt I had entered a madhouse of no values but random rules and arbitrary justice. Because of this and because I was good at the “3 Rs” it was always clear to me that the real purpose of school was “the hidden agenda” of teaching people to conform and obey. In fact I thought everyone knew that and I was astonished to realise years later that the supposed purpose of primary school was to teach English and Maths!

Sadly, my parents never thought of home educating, either they didn’t know about it or they had an exaggerated idea of the value of school as they’d both been taken out of formal education against their will.

I was also amazed by other families where children were talked down to, told patent nonsense and made to eat horrible food. I didn’t see why they didn’t resist. My mother explained to me, if you dominate someone’s will early enough and thoroughly enough they don’t any longer know they can resist. I remember saying to one friend, “If you just said ‘No’, your mother would have to give in eventually”.

When I went into secondary school teaching years later I realised that I have no wish whatsoever to tell anyone what to do. If a girl doesn’t want to learn maths, I respect that choice, who am I to tell her she must? My teaching career was obviously pretty short!

When I had my own children I never decided to be non-coercive, it was just the natural thing to do. I was very uncomfortable with the way other parents managed their children and told them what to do. They seemed to have an absurd fear that their children wouldn’t grow up unless they were pushed. Surely the reverse is true, children have an innate overwhelming urge to walk, talk, and generally attain maturity and to learn what they need to become part of the community of people around them. Finally, the greatest value each individual has is to be themselves. If someone else makes your decisions and shapes your life, what is the point of being you?

How to

The key element is treating your child with respect and giving them freedom of choice, so our children are in charge of their own lives. They decide what they do, what they wear, eat, learn, join, watch, play etc. We do not give instructions but help and support.

Conventional child-rearing assumes that the adult knows what is best for the child and has the right to impose it on them against their will. How do they do that? Here are a few methods in common use: violence, shouting, threats, humiliation, cajoling, nagging, emotional blackmail, bribery, restrictions on social and personal life, or the removal of love, money, toys, activities, food and so on.

The damage done by all this to the child’s integrity, authenticity and sense of value exceeds any gain. Children, like adults, will certainly make choices which they regret later, perhaps they don’t learn French, they offend someone, and they don’t eat spinach, but whatever is lost is trivial compared to what you lose as a person by losing charge of your own life.

Essentially, your child will learn all they need from playing and copying and exploring what they see around them. They spend time on what has meaning and value for them.

What about me?

So, what do we do as parents? Listen and respond to children. Show them the diverse places, beings and activities in the world, nature, science, art, and so on. Allow them to express a view and make a choice. Facilitate their plans and projects. Help them to try anything out. Allow them to give anything up. Respect their privacy and inner thoughts. Pursue your own interests and activities and include them in your life so that they get to see work, leisure, social occasions, different places. DON’T make plans and impose them; don’t criticise their changes of plan or make them stick to anything; don’t make them justify themselves; don’t scrutinise them when your attention is not required.

How do you know things are going OK when people tell you your children are running wild, wasting their time and will lose out in adult life? Be patient. Self-directed growth is in the end highly efficient. We don’t have to know exactly how it works inside at every moment, like growing plants. Don’t judge what the children do so long as it has meaning and value for them. Don’t feel under pressure to tick other people’s boxes but rely on your sense of a whole person developing. So what about “discipline”? This question usually means “can you apply yourself to someone else’s goals?”, but the only discipline worth having is self-discipline and the only goals worth pursuing are your own. Our children are able to pursue their own set goals very effectively. The crucial point is that the goal comes from their own inner motivation and it’s their responsibility to carry it out, not yours.

Childhood is the right time to play, experiment and reflect, to try things out, abandon them or pursue them. Through this freedom children explore themselves. They grow up with a secure sense of themselves and anything they want to learn can be accomplished easily and naturally.

The “respect” issue

Does this just produce a spoiled brat? No, because it’s a relationship of equal and mutual respect in which we also assert our right to make our own choices. You give respect and set the standard of behaviour which will be copied and reciprocated. Outward displays of “respect” (really servility) are not demanded. Manners do not need to be drummed in, because if politeness is customary and normal among adults children will learn it because they want to join us in the adult world. Treat your children like honoured strangers in your country who want to belong but don’t yet have all the skills and knowledge they need.

We, and our time and attention, are their main resource but don’t cast yourself in the role of “educator”. Offer information without requiring a response. Have real conversations, not ones with a manipulative adult agenda. Don’t ask a question except if you actually want to know the answer; never ask questions to test your child. Answer questions simply, whether it’s spellings, facts, opinions and ethics or anything else. Give the help that they ask for but without querying their reasons or necessity.

It’s quite frightening at times to simply trust your child to mature. Parental panic can set in. Then set aside the immediate problem that’s bothering you. Relax. Look attentively at your child, think lovingly of their uniqueness. Abandon any plan or idea in your mind to change them into another person. The answer to the problem will probably just occur to you. Equally often you realise there really wasn’t a problem. Sometimes, you will set some limits that seem good to you, preventing your toddler walking into traffic for example. But keep it to the essential minimum. These children grow into strong, bright, lively, well-functioning adults confident in themselves without being overbearing to others. We aren’t aiming to turn out compliant workers and consumers. We aim to nurture diverse, undamaged human beings in whom we take delight. Ironically, we then find that employers and academics are also drawn to them. So in those practical terms, too, non-coercive parenting is very successful.

Topics: Education