Coercing Children Without Meaning To

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From Patrick Farenga

I’m bringing out a new edition of John Holt’s book Freedom and Beyond, which is full of ideas about how to put philosophical and moral concepts into practice for adults who want to live and learn with children in less authoritarian ways than school and social conventions encourage.


Freedom and Beyond also explores the tensions caused by free schools and open classrooms and how giving children choices often results in just bending the children’s will to the desired course of action the adults want.

But this passage about the subtle coercion children and adults get from the social atmosphere they live in really gave me pause and I want to share it. We often forget how easy it is to make people feel guilty or ashamed of their choices just by our reactions to them.

This is not just about schools; homeschoolers struggle with this issue too, but most adults simply don’t acknowledge it as a real problem. What do you think?

Many of us may coerce without meaning to.

The question is, what kind of influence do we exercise over other people, what kind of open or hidden pressure do we put on them, what chance do we give them to say No, what do they risk if they do say it?

Many years ago I rode in a car with two eleven year olds. They were in the front seat with me, talking—not including me in their conversation, but not excluding me either.

At one point one asked the other, “Do you believe in God?” After thinking a bit, she said, “Yes, I suppose so,” and then, after a pause, “After all, what choice do we have?”

They lived in a culture in which no one would have threatened or punished them for not believing in God. In that sense they were not coerced.

But they were surrounded by people who believed or talked as if they believed in God, and as if it was important that the children too should believe, and who would have been most hurt and disappointed if they did not. In effect, they had no choice.

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