Google+ Authentic Parenting: The case against coercion

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The case against coercion

Definition of coercion

  • The act of compelling by force of authority
  • The practice of forcing another party to behave in an involuntary manner
The force used can be physically, intellectually or morally, it can be actual or treathened. Coercion can be used to obtain action or inaction. 

Coercive parenting
"Coercive parenting puts children down, draws undue attention to children's weaknesses and failures, and leaves children feeling unsafe in their own home and family."(1)
Coercive parenting uses shaming, bribing, threathening, tactics like reward and punishment. Latham lists eight common coercive behaviors (1):
  1. Criticism
  2. Sarcasm
  3. Threaths
  4. Questioning (f.e. having a child explain why he/she misbehaved)
  5. Logic
  6. Arguing
  7. Physical or verbal force
  8. Despair

Coersive parenting abuses the overwhelming physical and emotional power parents have over their children.
"Yet attempting to coerce a child to do something she doesn’t want to do neither works effectively in the short term nor supports our long-term needs." (2)
The reaction one obtains is one of frustration. Coercion makes a person want to escape, avoid and cointer coerce (in other words 'rebel').
Breaking with coercion means we treat our children as real thinking human beings with their own set of feelings and needs. Non-Violent Communication is a good way to start banning coercion out of the language we use on a daily basis.
As many gentle parenting ways, breaking with coercion means a lot of introspect and means breaking with the way in which we were raised.
If you are still not convinced if you should include coercion in your parenting toolbox, or not, then ask yourself upon what motivation you want your child to act. Is it out of guilt? Because he feels shame or fear, to obtain reward, because he senses an obligation? Or out of pleasure? Because he wants to?

Read on
(1)Latham, GI. (2008) Coercion: The Real Parent Trap. In: Behaviorology Today, Vol II/I, pp 36-38.

Taking Children Seriously



  1. I get the case against coercion. However, how do you parent on an everyday level without coercion? It's a serious question because honestly, I don't know. For example, my 3 year old daughter has a habit of running off and putting herself into danger. I react to this with explanation (logic) but also with questioning or even verbal force if she ran off after my request not to do so - or with negative consequences that were previously announced (e.g. end of shopping trip=threat) or I use positive coercion (a treat if you eat your dinner yourself=reward, also a form of coercion in my view).
    How do you parent without any of these? I'd sign up for that any day!

  2. I get your point. I wonder if parenting can truly be coercion free. It is so easy to coerce a child, and often, that is what we've been modelled to do.
    Punishment, threats and rewards are indeed very obvious forms of coercion/manipulation, and they can be avoided.
    When they are in immediate danger, it is only normal that you would take action. You would do so for an adult too; right.

  3. I'm also really questioning the "logic" point - why is it coercive to talk logically with a child?
    I agree that coercive parenting does not take the feelings/needs of our children into account. But I use logic (as much as I can with a toddler, anyway), because I respect the fact that he is a thinking individual.

  4. We've made a lot of efforts to sustain consensual, non-coercive practices within our family. It is hellishly hard, because the rest of the world isn't built consensually.

    Money and administration of large groups of people (for example, state and country laws) are two largest sources of coercion in our lives. Physical dangers were never important, but then we won the genetic lottery and got a poster "Continuum Concept" child who understood "hot" and "sharp" and "high" at five months of age. I know quite a few impulsive, high-pain-threshold kids for whom the idea of "not running into the street" is as foreign at five as "not playing beyond the invisible line in the grass which divides the property of our friends from the property of their neighbors" was to our daughter at the age of one.

  5. I am currently working on myself not to be this parent. I grew up in an alcholic household, where physical violence amongst the adults was norm and corporal punishment and humiliation for the children standard.

    I do my best not to reward. I worry that the word reward is confused with due praise and appreciation. When my toddler pulls out all the spoons from the drawer, I say nothing (no harm from this action). However, when she begins to put them back, I say "thank you so much for helping momma" repeatedly. I also say, "I am so glad they are not on the floor. Now we will not fall over them or get hurt.". Which, the second statement is using logic to get a desired result.

    Logic, even a positive sense, is coercion. However, I love knowing WHY I can or can't do something. What is worse, simply saying NO without an explanation?

    I don't understand the word logic in the context of this post today. I would love your views of it.

  6. Great article! In response to Cartside's comment above:
    Some great books to read with help on parenting without coercion would be:
    Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn

    How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish

    and Connection Parenting by Pam Leo.

    Hope this helps!

    Emma :)

  7. How is questionning and logic coercitive ? (unless it is done in a mean or false way, like asking a child questions he is not able to answer or using twisted logic to outsmart the child with "lies").

    Explaining the logic behind an order is not coercive in my mind. Nor is questionning a child gently to understand his motivations when he did something he was not suppose to.

    So obviously I missed something ?

  8. Your post has really made me think and I'm reassessing my behaviour towards my daughter. I guess there are degrees of coercion and manipulation. For example, I would see it as preferrable to reward and to explain/discuss than to be sarcastic or use verbal force. I'm also thinking along the lines of clear choices - to have a consequence and let the child choose which consequence is preferrable. It gives power of decision to the child (though still manipulates, because the parent sets the choices) and at least the child won't feel out of control or subject to decisions made about him/her.

    I think you've given me food for thought for a long time yet!

  9. The logic thing... what I think they mean with it is the logicing (totally not a word) children out of behavior. Applying too advanced 'logic' to situations. In the sense of reasoning with the child. Which eventually comes down to arguing, I think.
    Our logic is not the sae as a childs logic.
    I do not think that explaining the consequences of his actions are a form of coercion, as long as these consequences are stated in a neutral manner.

    Murielle, questioning here is meant in the way - as you said - that you block your child: like: why did you misbehave/why did you do that/...
    When a parent asks these questions, a child feels shamed and feels like he has to answer to you as a parent thus coercion.

    Anyway, coercion is a tricky bitch

  10. Murielle
    I just reread your comment and I saw this:
    "Explaining the logic behind an order is not coercive in my mind."
    How is an ORDER non-coercive?

    PS you know I love you, but these things just creep into our reasoning and it is by questioning what we take for granted that we become better parents

  11. I try so hard not to use coercion, but some days I just fall into it. But the one area I have such a hard time with is my one dd just will not get into her carseat. I have tried everything from games and songs, and letting her drive or play in the trunk for 5 minutes (up to 45) before it's time to go, but she just does not want to get in.

    In the end I resort to coercion - b/c there is nor argument when we have to go somewhere in the vehicle, she must be in her carseat. It is for safety and the law - I can't afford to risk loosing my child, and I cannot afford to pay the ticket.

  12. @chaosftw: When my daughter was a toddler, we did experiments with her out of carseat, in our cul-de-sack, and me using brakes suddenly. She claimed she could hold on, but of course she could not. You need to be a very good driver to do that, go very slowly, and watch where your child actually is and what she does to avoid real hurt. Of course, you also need to use your best judgment about the ability of the child to make sense of the situation. We did this closer to two years old, and it only took one live demonstration, though we spent a lot of time playing with toys and momentum before and after, and watching relevant videos. We are geeks and love physics, our baby was well-coordinated, YMMV, be safe, etc.

  13. A lot to think about. Non-coercive parenting is something I agree with- and yet, like many of the commenters, how does one keep a child safe without some containment (which is usually met with resistance). My son is less than 2, but he is very exploratory. He would easily put himself in danger if I did not place limits, which he dislikes. It ends in a meltdown and me "winning", which I dislike.

    How do we handle this? I will read some of the recommended books. I want to be a loving, gentle parent.

  14. I completely agree, Witch Mom, non-coercive parenting is a big effort. The first place to start, I think, is to investigate if the 'limits' you set are really necessary. Some things/situations are only dangerous if the child is not supervise, but when well supervised, they are completely feasible.
    E.g. playing with medication is a big nono when the child is alone and unsupervised, but if you sit down together, touch it, look at the images and words on the bottle, there is no problem. It just takes a little time and presence.
    You have to asses every situation as is, instead of just making general rules.

    And indeed, sometimes we just need to act instead of being gentle and peaceful (the thought of a child running into traffic comes to mind). But these situations, where the child is really in immediate danger are actually very rare. And I am not sure that this even qualifies as coercion, more like swift action.

    Generally we put boundaries on what we think is expected. Often we don't think twice about the specific situation we are in. Thinking twice should become a second nature.

    The main goal should be to achieve a state in where you are equal human beings ad where you cooperate with each other, respecting each others needs, desires and character. This can be achieved through non-violent communication and the art of negotiation. And I strongly believe that the grains for this kind of interaction are already laid in early infancy. (Which doesn't mean that if you didn't start when your child was a baby, you should just give up. There is always room for atonement and growth.)

  15. Witch Mom, I found this strategy working at two:

    - Save the kid in unexpected dangerous situations and apologize for coercion.
    - After everybody calmed down, roleplay the situation with toys, model with objects, or play it out with your bodies in a safe way (depending on what it is). Also, watch videos about the dangers of the situations, or the consequences of it.
    - Once the kid understands the reasoning, practice safe behavior to prevent impulsive, random dangers.

    For example, my 2yo claimed she can hold onto the seat in an accident, so she does not need the seat belt. We watch training movies of accidents without seat belts(so she saw the consequences), but what really worked was experimenting with sudden application of brakes in our cul-de-sac. Once the kid fell out of the seat (at something like five miles per hour - safe, but unpleasant) she believed she was not strong enough to hold onto it.

    I also remember, around the same age, my daughter not understanding "probabilistic dangers" - how the fact she did something once and was fine does not mean it is a safe behavior. We spent a lot of time rolling glass objects down some stairs (cheap glasses, old bulbs and such). Sometimes some of the objects would break, but most of the time, they did not. As we did the experiments (which are fun by the way), I talked about us being like glasses: sometimes we do something a few times and it seems fine, until it breaks us. Which we know happens sooner or later, from observing others.

    So, to summarize, the idea is to educate your kids about the physics of the world, through models and roleplay.

  16. Hi MariaD, these are great exercises, I never thought about doing something like that. Worth the effort and does seem like fun

  17. mamapoeke, in my experience (with my kid and my young students), kids would rather play these "physics games" - they ARE fun - than just argue with grown-ups and fuss. You still have to offer non-coercively, but once they get the taste of the experience, it usually becomes a common preference whenever offered. "Remember how we experimented last time? Well, let us do something cool again..."

  18. I am really in awe of the idea! Would you be willing to write a guest post about that? you could mail it to mamapoekie at yahoo dot com


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