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When Can Parents Use Force?

Some parents aren’t sure when it is appropriate to use force with their children. Here, I explain when it is and when it isn’t. Disclaimer: I am not a parent, but that shouldn’t dissuade you.

Consider this discussion I had with someone about the importance of consent in child rearing. They wrote (bold emphasis mine):

What you’re describing is not all that far off the approaches to parenting showcased in Michaeleen Doucleff’s Hunt, Gather, Parent – in terms of respecting a child’s autonomy as far as it can be respected, and not forcing a child to do something they don’t want to. […] That said, what you have presented here is a philosophical argument versus one that deals with the practicalities of being a parent in a culture [where] every single one of the things listed feels like an existential issue requiring emergency ethics.
Eg kiddo won’t brush her teeth? SHE’S GOING TO LOSE THEM. Won’t wash her hair? SHE’LL BE SOCIALLY RUINED AND DEVELOP DEPRESSION. Won’t bathe or wash her hands? SHE’LL GET DYSENTERY. Etcetera.

This commenter is implying that these alleged emergency situations warrant force: that it’s morally legitimate, even necessary, to force a child to brush her teeth, for her own good.

Or consider this comment on the topic of how much children should eat, made after I pointed to a source explaining that children generally do eat enough without being forced to eat more. This person asked:

[W]hat about children who are dangerously underweight? They do exist, and it isn’t terribly rare.

Parents often catastrophize. They see certain situations as emergencies that warrant force so they can step in and ‘save’ their child. But usually, those situations are not emergencies at all, resulting in immoral applications of force.

By catastrophizing in these ways, traditional parenting shares a crucial element with the ethics of altruism in the Randian sense: that of reducing ethics, in this case the ethics of parenting, to emergency situations.

Emergency ethics are different from everyday ethics; emergencies warrant a different kind of response. Ayn Rand writes:

   It is important to differentiate between the rules of conduct in an emergency situation and the rules of conduct in the normal conditions of human existence. […]
   An emergency is an unchosen, unexpected event, limited in time, that creates conditions under which human survival is impossible—such as a flood, an earthquake, a fire, a shipwreck. In an emergency situation, men’s primary goal is to combat the disaster, escape the danger and restore normal conditions (to reach dry land, to put out the fire, etc.).

Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, chapter ‘The Ethics of Emergencies’

Rand aims to explain when it is moral to help strangers; I suggest using the same logic to determine when it is moral for parents to use force with their children.

Emergency situations that a parent may find himself in with his child include: his child is about to stick a fork in an outlet; his child is about to be run over by a car. These events (or consequences thereof) are unchosen, unexpected, and limited in time, and they plausibly create “conditions under which [the child’s] survival is impossible”. As such, the parent’s “primary goal is to combat” the situation, and, if necessary, use an appropriate, limited amount of force, i.e. just enough to save the child and “restore normal conditions”. This can be done, for example, by taking his fork or pulling him out of the car’s way and back to safety. Any force beyond what is strictly necessary to restore normal conditions – such as spanking the child for defying traffic rules – is inappropriate and immoral.

Compare the given examples of actual emergencies with other situations in which traditional parents often feel justified in using force. A child not wanting to brush his teeth or wash his hair does not constitute an emergency and so does not warrant any force. A teenager smoking isn’t an emergency. A child playing computer games for ‘too long’ isn’t an emergency. A child not sharing his toys with his siblings isn’t an emergency. A child not eating vegetables isn’t an emergency, be it for one day or all the time. A child getting ‘bad’ grades isn’t an emergency. Even a chronic illness does not constitute an emergency since, by definition, it is not sufficiently limited in time. The prospect of one’s child potentially getting sick at some point definitely isn’t an emergency because it hasn’t even happened yet. While it is fine to take reasonable precautions, the human condition that bad things may happen isn’t itself an emergency because it is just that: the human condition. Nor is pessimism an emergency. Therefore, none of the precautions themselves may involve force.

Rand continues:

   By “normal” conditions I mean metaphysically normal, normal in the nature of things, and appropriate to human existence. Men can live on land, but not in water or in a raging fire. Since men are not omnipotent, it is metaphysically possible for unforeseeable disasters to strike them, in which case their only task is to return to those conditions under which their lives can continue. By its nature, an emergency situation is temporary; if it were to last, men would perish.
   […] [A] man who values human life and is caught in a shipwreck, should help to save his fellow passengers […]. But this does not mean that after they all reach shore, he should devote his efforts to saving his fellow passengers from poverty, ignorance, neurosis or whatever other troubles they might have. Nor does it mean that he should spend his life sailing the seven seas in search of shipwreck victims to save.


Likewise, a parent should help to save his child in a true emergency, but this does not mean that after the emergency is over, he should use force to save his child from any non-emergency troubles he might have. Nor does it mean the parent should spend his days fretting about the potential problems his child may face one day (“DYSENTERY”). It is understandably worrisome whenever one’s loved ones face difficult situations, but this worry itself is not an emergency.

I am not saying that parents shouldn’t help their children outside of emergencies – only that parents shouldn’t use force outside of emergencies. Don’t misunderstand my stance as advocating neglect.

Refusing to eat when not hungry is healthy; not wanting to brush one’s teeth when one isn’t persuaded of the benefits is normal, even rational. More generally, not doing things one does not want to do is as healthy and natural as everyone’s innate desire for freedom. Yet parents often seem to say, in effect: Help! My child is crazy for not doing things he does not want to do!

Parents who catastrophize in the ways I have described suffer some of the same consequences as those who subscribe to the ethics of altruism. While Rand attributes these consequences to humans generally, for our purposes, we can attribute them to traditional parents specifically. Rand describes these consequences as, one, a “[l]ack of respect”, in our case on the part of parents for their children, whom they regard “as a herd of doomed beggars crying for [their] help”. Two, traditional parents share a “nightmare view of existence—since they believe that [their children] are trapped in a ‘malevolent universe’ where disasters are the constant and primary concern of their lives.” And lastly, these parents share “a lethargic indifference to ethics, a hopelessly cynical amorality—since [their] questions involve situations which [they are] not likely ever to encounter […]”. On this last point, consider once more the hyperbole of the commenter who claimed that a child may “BE SOCIALLY RUINED AND DEVELOP DEPRESSION” if she doesn’t wash her hair.

Since emergency ethics warrant some amount of force, and since authoritarians rely on force, the ‘trick’ of traditional parents is to reduce ordinary situations to emergency situations. You may recognize a parallel to governments which sometimes declare fake emergencies to extend their powers.

I don’t think traditional parents use this trick maliciously. They do it out of genuine concern; thinking everything through in case something goes wrong. The emergency usually only occurs in their minds: it’s an emergency of the pearl-clutching variety, of saying to oneself ‘but then something bad might happen to my child!’, and, more deeply, ‘but then I would have been completely wrong about children all along!’, of losing the ground one is standing on because one needs a new worldview. It’s not actually about an objective emergency their child might be experiencing.

The appropriate response to danger, real and potential, in non-emergency situations, is to reason with the child – to use persuasion and empathy to explain the danger. Those who think children cannot be reasoned with are mistaken. I was persuaded as a young boy that brushing my teeth, showering, washing my hands, getting shots, and even going to the dentist, which many children dread, were useful and necessary and nothing to worry about, and then I did those things happily. Of course, even as a parent, you should be open to being wrong, so if you fail to persuade, you cannot simply fall back on force to get your way.

Catastrophes, by definition, are not the norm for anyone, including children, and it is neither the child’s nor the parent’s job to constantly ward off any potential disaster. Parents should base their ethics on children’s normal existence rather than hypothetical (non-)emergencies. Neither child nor parent can “live his life by the guidance of rules applicable only to conditions under which human survival is impossible” (Rand, ibid.). In non-emergency situations – i.e. 99% of the child’s life – the parent’s proper role is not that of protector, but, as Lulie Tanett from Taking Children Seriously has said, that of helping the child by his own lights.

In short, parents should use force with their children only in genuine emergency situations, and only in the amount necessary to return to normal conditions. Outside of that, they should not use force.


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