The “non-aggression principle” (NAP) is, for the uninitiated, a life’s philosophy in which adherents view any initiation of force as morally wrong. I have personally committed myself to living by this principle to the best of my ability. It has brought me a much greater level of happiness and joy in my life and, since I want my children to also be happy, I teach my children about the NAP and encourage them to abide by it as well.
Last night my oldest son slammed his bedroom door.
Upon hearing this, I knocked on my son’s door and asked him if I could talk to him for a minute. He agreed, so I went in and calmly — with no anger in my voice or demeanor — asked my son why he slammed his door. He admitted that he did it in order to let everyone else in the house know that he was angry (which is one of many unfortunate things he learned from me because I used to do it).
We talked about why he was angry, and I told him that being angry in and of itself wasn’t a “bad” thing. However, anger is a strong emotion that often tempts us into doing things that we normally would not do. Anger comes not from the logical-thinking frontal lobe, but from the animal part of our brain. As such, the angrier we get the more we give up control of our human self and hand it over to our animal self — the part that lives by instinct rather than rational thought. In other words, anger (as well as other strong instincts and emotions) can lead us to give up control of ourselves. So the trick, then, is to not become angry in the first place.
So we talked about ways to prevent anger from rearing its ugly head. Because I was once a very angry person, I have lots of experience in this regard. A blog post for another time
After that, we turned to talking about what the NAP means and how, for us to be able to effectively live by that principle, we must define what “force” is. Defining “force” is something we had never talked about. And in that moment, I realized I had put very little thought into it myself. But now, it seemed, was a perfect opportunity to discuss it. Where is that line where we cross over from moral behavior and into immorality?
We started with the obvious. Physical violence, such as punching someone, is using force. Then we gradually moved down to things like blackmail, verbal threats of violence, slamming doors, yelling, name calling, angrily stomping our feet as we walk around, giving a stern look, etc. I was impressed that my son was able to provide such rational insight to my scenarios.
When I asked if name calling is force, he replied, “Well, sort of. It’s a person’s choice whether they get upset or hurt by someone calling them names… but it’s wrong to call names because you’re usually doing it to try and get them to do something.”
We also talked about whether or not slamming a door can be considered initiation of force and, thus, a violation of the NAP. We talked it out and my son decided that it violated the NAP because physical manifestations of anger are typically meant to intimidate others into a specific behavior.
My son came to recognize on his own that intimidation is a kind of force and therefore a violation of the NAP. Although not everyone would agree with us, that’s the moral stance that we decided to take by injecting some of Immanuel Kant‘s philosophy into it — specifically the categorical imperative which, in a tl;dr summarization, states that if we aren’t okay with something being done to us then it’s not okay to do that thing to others (that is a gross over-simplification of the categorical imperative, but works for the lesson here). Since my son and I don’t like being intimidated, we determined that it’s not okay to intimidate.
Three years ago, the conversation would have been very different, and I’m so grateful for the influences in my life that have opened my eyes to how wrong my previous parenting philosophy was (which was, “If they don’t respect you, they should fear you.”) My children are a thousand times more respectful to me since I committed to living by the NAP and started trying my hardest to show my children, through example, the kind of life that we should be living and the way in which we should treat others. I’ve handed out an awful lot of apologies during those three years due to many slip ups. The latest apology came last night.
“Wait a minute Stu. Your son slammed his door in a show of anger, and it was you who ended up apologizing? What backwards parenting are you practicing?!”
Now while many parents would yell at or demean their child and possibly even hit them (whether spanking, slapping, whipping, or some other form of physical violence) or implement some other punishment (grounding, taking away privileges, etc.), I did none of these — though there was certainly a time when I would have without hesitation. But the me of today spoke calmly with my son, never berating him for his actions, instead helping him to understand why he acted the way that he did. And in treating my children this way, I have come to learn much about myself.
(The reason I try to never berate my children for their actions is due to my understanding and acceptance regarding the philosophical branch on free will known as the lottery of birth. I can’t blame my children for their actions, but only try and influence them with mine in a way that doesn’t violate the NAP. Rather than berate, I try to help them recognize why they chose the course of action they chose, discuss with them more appropriate behavior, and show them by example.)
Back to the apology. During our discussion about what constitutes “use of force”, I remembered that earlier in the day I had attempted to convince my son to get a haircut. I told him he had “a mop on his head” that was getting “out of control” and that he should at least get it trimmed. I later told him that, because of my commitment to live by the NAP, ultimately the choice of whether or not to get a haircut was his and that I wouldn’t force him to do so. Upon saying this I realized that my demeaning — no matter how innocent or harmless I thought it to be or how I tried to convince myself that “it’s for his own good” — was in fact meant to try and shame him into getting a haircut.
And that’s why I apologized. I realized that I had violated the NAP and, by crossing that line, I had committed what I consider to be an immoral act. I recognized that I had committed an immoral act against my son, and that’s why I apologized.
Through calm, rational discussion my son was able to deal with the anger and “put it to bed” so to speak. I see all three of my children starting to take control of themselves in this way, and it makes me incredibly proud of them, to see them growing into better human beings than I ever was at their age.
Now many who read this will immediately reject my parenting philosophy. That’s fine for you (unfortunate for your children, but that’s another discussion). To that I can only say there’s nothing more I can do or say to influence you. But no judgments. I used to be exactly the same way. When you open your mind some, I hope that you’ll revisit this. And, if you are one of the 80-90% of parents in America who hit their children (which I consider to be a blatant violation of the NAP), I hope you’ll eventually decide to do as I did and put an end to that barbaric behavior.
For those who are better parents than I am, I thank you deeply for being a good example to me.
For those who are inspired to change, please keep in mind that it’s not easy. It’s taken me three years of practice to reach this point, and I admit I have a LOT of work to do still. I’ve slipped many times, and I suspect you will too. Sometimes a slip will result in a very hard and painful fall. But, just as you can’t become an NBA-quality basketball player by simply deciding to be one without any of the hard work that goes with accomplishing such a difficult goal, adopting a new attitude will require practice in addition to making a commitment to change. The more you practice, the less you’ll slip and the closer to perfection you will reach. And the better off everyone around you will be as a result.