December 13, 2007

Responding on Pester Power

Matt's response about pester power is a very interesting one. He misreads my post, or perhaps I miswrote it, because he assumes I was accusing him of backing corporate punishment, I wasn't at all. My argument was that the power of pestering had grown because parents had become more unwilling to exercise discipline against their children. That unwillingness stemmed from an increased sympathy with their children. Symbolised by campaigns against smacking and caning. Matt thinks that this represents the rise of relativism- I don't see that it does. I think it represents the rise of a sympathetic morality as against the principle that the parent's authority justifies them doing what they want to to their own children. What I take issue with Matt on is him calling this phenomenon relativism- and maybe I wasn't clear enough about that. It isn't that parents or government are losing their moral sense- it is that their moral sense is changing- and that that undermines their authority. That isn't relativism- strict relativism is an idea that moral principles are all much of a muchness and that there is no such thing as right or wrong. If I beleive that hitting my child is wrong, how is that relativistic.

I think that this discussion has really started on the wrong foot. Let me lay out two alternative things to discuss- one of which I think Matt was interested in and the other of which I am more interested in. Should parents have authority over their kids to stop them buying sexy dresses et al? In Matt's view and my view they should. I can't see any argument there against that authority- and like Matt I agree that parents should stop their children dressing up in these ways. But there is a second and more interesting question, that in a clumsy way I was trying to get at? Why have these trends happened- why is it that parents are under pressure and feel themselves to be coerced by their kids to buy these things- I think that's a much more interesting question and it shouldnt' be conflated with the first issue. I think that question comes down to two related factors- one of which is the growth of different kinds of moral understandings of childhood and its relationship to adulthood and the other to economic conditions which strengthen the position of children in relation to adults.

The moral conditions are the increase in the notion that kids themselves should be respected as autonomous agents. That means that if I hit a kid or behave authoritarianly to a child in some sense I am hurting it. That leads to me being more cautious about the way that I behave to my children, becoming less authoritarian, less willing to quickly shut them up with a clip round the ear. I don't think that that is neccessarily a bad thing- neither do I think Matt thinks it is. But I don't see it as a rise in relativism- it is a rise in moral sentiment if its anything. The argument is a moral one, you should respect the child as an autonomous being- it isn't a relativistic one. Ultimately if I say that smacking is wrong, I am not being relativistic because a relativist doesn't believe that anything is wrong. Rather I am arguing that the moral conditions of punishment have changed. And I think that argument is strong- but it has consequences and one is to shift the balance of power within a relationship between parents and children towards the kids.

Secondly we have the economic conditions. Advertising here is key because it gives the child an advantage in terms of knowledge. So too are other features of modern society. One of which is the length of time parents work and hence their guilt about how their child is being parented. Its quite frequent for both parents now to need jobs in order to maintain a standerd of living and also to maintain self esteem- again that is a wider trend in society which has to do with all sorts of other economic and social developments. It leads to parents attempting to buy their child's affection- so consumption becomes an indicy of how much you love your child and hence the power of the pester, which in this case is the child calling out for attention and for love. The diminished time that parents and children have together is a vital and ignored factor in all of this because it strengthens all the other trends.

What I accuse Matt of here is not moral error- I think that he is right that we should resist kids who demand the latest video game- what I am accusing him of is not understanding the processes which lead us to this point. I think that they are much more complicated than just the growth of moral relativism. I don't see that growth. Rather I see the roots of this lying in the growth of the idea of a child as an autonomous agent, so the adoption of restrictions on parental authority and various economic conditions (both in terms of advertising and decreased parental time spent caring for kids) which lead to that development. There are good reasons why those three developments have happened. There is a too simplistic conservative point of view that suggests if only we were more authoritarian the problems of the world would be solved: I think that conservatives need to think more about both the moral and economic reasons why authority has eroded before discussing what should happen to bolster it. Perhaps I didn't express myself clearly enough in my last post, but this is the argument that I was trying to get at.


Verlin Martin said...

Don't you think that the 'moral' change in punishment to children has led to the increase in said children turning into violent and/or generally non-mature adults?

Gracchi said...

Yes for crying out loud of course it could and might- I don't know the statistics but it would be a rational conclusion. But that's not what this is about- this is about why this has happened, what are the trends behind it which is a separate question to its effects. Now it may have had bad effects- but it was done for these reasons and that's what I wanted to get at.