Love and Assertiveness

Love and Assertiveness are two sides of the same coin; one necessitates and depends on the other. Loving yourself requires asserting your rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Loving a partner requires assertiveness in creating and protecting an environment of honesty and communication. Loving a child requires asserting certain boundaries or limits around their behavior.

Assertiveness requires some grit; courage in the face of the constant temptation of a more comfortable life now. Surrendering a right is easier than fighting for it, avoiding a tough conversation with your spouse is easier than finding time for it, and giving in to every whim of a child is easier than saying No in the moment. The costs are instead deferred to a later date, and accrue in all manners of tragedy.

Many of us grew up with one “loving” parent and/or one “assertive” parent. An imbalance of the two poles, whether within the individual or between two parents, is all too common. Failing to balance and coordinate effectively, the traits manifest as The Pushover and The Dictator, or a swing from one to the other.

“How can you love me if you won’t be assertive and set clear boundaries with me?”, the child wonders, and/or “And how can I respect your assertiveness and boundaries if I don’t feel like it’s coming from a place of love?” Both situations represent a threat to the child’s primal need for safety, so this conflict is born in his mind even before formal language develops. We may put on a good face for the world, by demonstrating our combined strength and care in the workplace for example, but our children see us in our most natural state. There is no hiding a deficiency of love or assertiveness from our children.

Loving Assertiveness is a mindset (heart-set?), or guiding principle that we make clear to our children. We’re focusing more on the assertive aspect here. The thinking and conversation, obviously tailored to the development of the child, is as follows:

I love you, I want you to be happy, I care about your feelings. If you’re ever in doubt of any of these things, let me know, I’ll make it my highest priority, and I will correct myself or do what is necessary to resolve it.

I wish your experience of schoolwork or healthy eating wasn’t negative, and I’m committed to working with you to make it more positive. But you gotta eat your veggies, and you gotta learn to write, for your health and wellbeing. Not doing these things will cause you greater suffering over time. I understand that you don’t have direct evidence of that, and I know that’s hard too. You’re having to take my word for it, and I want to show my appreciation for your trust.

Sure we can have a break, a vacation from our responsibilities now and then, and we can schedule that first. But most days, we all need to accomplish our work. I’m sorry but neglecting it is not a sustainable option, or one that I can allow. Enabling you to develop unhealthy habits would be neglectful of me.

So what can I do to help you get through it? How can I help you shoulder the burden of work required to live happily and healthily? We’re calling any unpleasant action with a future payoff “work”. Brushing teeth is another example.

I’m willing to shape your environment, to create incentives and disincentives, to bend our world to meet your preferences where I can. Your input is crucial, let’s be creative and have fun with it together. Let’s also be scientific about it. If the goal is to reinforce healthy habits, let’s find out what I can do that is reinforcing.

Let’s work together to make a list of things you really want to earn. You really want to go to Chinese Buffet this weekend, or to borrow my tools to work on your treehouse? Ok, that will be the reward for the work during the week (outlined clearly). This is a special privileges you won’t receive if you don’t put in the effort with your work. Contracts, however informal, come in handy here.

The choice is yours to make, and I won’t add guilt and shame if you make the “wrong” choice. If I’m disappointed I’ll be honest about my feelings, but I’ll share in the responsibility there, and look forward to re-visiting our agreement. We’ll go back to the drawing board to find something that works better for you. Let’s set things up just right so that we’re all encouraged to work hard and play hard!

Of course you WILL get what you earn. If I promise you buffet, I’ll get you there. If I promise not to share my tools, I’ll do that too. I won’t be manipulated into being overly indulgent any more than I will be swayed to become miserly and petty.

The potential for variation here is endless, we’re just describing the mindset / theory. We stay within the bound of the NAP by never threatening the child’s body, freedom, or property. The NAP forbids us to withhold food, or confine the child to her room or the home, or to confiscate toys that she owns.

Instead, the negative consequences are simply lost future opportunities or earnings, mirroring the “real world” that we’re preparing them for.

Though we’ve spelled it out explicitly here, actions speak louder than words. Children raised by parents with this attitude don’t need it explained. You won’t have to say “I don’t break my promises” if you never break your promises, and you won’t have to say “I care about your feelings” if you’re never dismissive. You won’t have to nag or threaten a child if negative consequences are consistent. We spell it out for ourselves, to check our own behavior by. For anyone not raised this way, becoming fluent in this mindset requires regular reflection.

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Can You Explain Why Slavery is Wrong?

We have been using the slavery analogy to support the validity of the Non-Aggression Principle. In a serious oversight by the writers here at NAP Parenting, we assumed that because that particular debate was over, we could use it as precedent to pursue the rights of children next.

When explaining the NAP, we often ask, “Why is slavery wrong?” and expect or provide the answer: “Because you can’t own people. They have sovereignty, they have autonomy, they own themselves.” Then we would argue: “Children are people, so they have the same inalienable rights. With the same personhood and self-ownership, they deserve the same protections. Like adults, they have the right to live free from aggression.”

Apparently we’ve spent too much time in an echo-chamber of NAP-followers, as we assumed that “self-ownership” was a well-accepted premise. We were wrong.

If Google is any indicator, this argument is not at the front of people’s minds. Try for yourself by searching some combination of the following: “Why is/what makes slavery wrong/immoral/unethical?”

Fortunately, the top results are at least regarding Philosophy, so we’re in the right field! People know that the question is philosophical in nature, as opposed to material or political or ideological. The answer should be derived through a process of reasoning and logic, and the results should be consistent throughout human time and space.

But beyond that, when it comes to the application of philosophy and its methods, the results are completely chaotic! We can’t present every argument, but we’ll list the few broad categories they tend to fall into, in order of approximate prevalence.

Our Informal Internet Search Result Census: “Why is slavery immoral?”

Most common, and most surprising, are the “Just because” answers. Literally no grounding at all. “It’s wrong because it’s wrong.” That ain’t philosophy, folks. Can we even call it circular reasoning? It’s tough to make a circle out of a single point…

Then we have the dreaded argument from outrage: “SLAVERY! ARE YOU SERIOUS HOW CAN YOU ASK THE QUESTION?? WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU!” That’s a lot like the first one, except typed angrily. We’re tempted to rebut: “NO! SLAVERY IS GREAT WHATS WRONG WITH YOU!!”, but we have the feeling they wouldn’t pick up on the sarcasm.

Next most common would be the argument ad populum: “Because the people of the world say so.” There’s some truth to that, that morality is a human convention, subject to our experience. But the people of the world accepted slavery for thousands of years. So was it right then? What is the role of philosophy if we settle everything by voting anyway? Surely we can do better than “might makes right”.

There are economic and other consequentialist arguments. “Slavery is wrong because it’s inefficient, free people work better.” If slavery was efficient would it be ok? Are they saying they’d be fine with slavery if Jeff Bezos was running the sale and distribution, and he promised to plant a tree for every slave sold? The ends don’t justify the means.

There are religious answers, which don’t start from principles or rely on logic, and so are not philosophical. This God says we should have slaves, that God says be nice to your slaves if they praise him, but then on a different page says free your slaves… Who can keep up?

Then we come across “The Golden Rule” and “How would you feel?”, which get us a little closer, but are still shaky and subjective. Not all slaves were miserable or subject to pain and hardship. Health care, housing, and they were exempt from being drafted to war… A lot of people are terrified of liberty. Or talk to people who are pro-spanking and pro-genital mutilation, they’ll tell you they couldn’t be happier with their abusive childhoods! We’re also back to the argument ad populum, that because most people would feel bad about something, it’s immoral. We can’t rely on people’s feelings to make moral claims.

Compiling this short list, we could be accused of straw-manning, or not presenting the best arguments. For what it’s worth, we’ve been pushing back on these same arguments for decades. When we hear them, we engage, we inquire, we study them. So although we’re presenting them casually and summarily, it’s not from a lack of understanding or willingness to grapple with them. We WANT to hear the best argument! Post it below if you got it!

Finally, we’ll discuss the elusive “People are sovereign, own themselves, can’t be owned by others” premise, which accounts for maybe 5% of the top Google results related forum responses.

We’ve encountered some reasonable refutations of this premise, with the biggest critique being around the claim that it’s “self-evident”. In that way, it looks like the other weak arguments. When I’m asked to prove that I own myself, I don’t have a quick and easy answer, I can’t produce a receipt. But I am responsible for my actions, and I chose how and when to use my body. These are qualities of ownership. And even with a gun pointed at my head, the decision to cooperate is still ultimately mine. I couldn’t forfeit control if I wanted to.

The critics say that “I own/control my body” is circular, convoluted word-play; that there is no “I” other than the sum components of my body, so the former can not be said to control the latter! Admittedly, it’s hard to prove that there is any such thing as the self, or ownership, or right and wrong at all! And this is where the conversation can become painfully abstract. We’ll attempt to untangle things.

With due respect to the Zen tradition, we’re not going to solve the violence of the world by refuting the existence of an “I”, or of categories, or of the ancient and ubiquitous concepts of good and evil. It’s true that by zooming-out or in, we all appear to be mere stardust, or it could be said that we’re “all one”. Those frameworks aren’t incorrect, but they also don’t help us solve problems, or direct our action. Spend 40 years meditating on the conclusion that “there is no conclusion!”, and you achieve precisely nothing for the world. You still feel awful when you hear your neighbors throwing plates at each other, and you’re no closer to solving that problem. Philosophy without action is meaningless, or self-defeating. Any philosophy that leaves us all shrugging our shoulders and doing whatever we feel like doing, is less of a philosophy and more of a justification for hedonism, effectively nihilistic. In that way we consider moral philosophy like the study of nutrition: it should be prescriptive, challenging, but also possible to actualize.

So our first axiom appeals to convention, linguistics, and the way our common experience is framed. We start with the conventional assumptions that “I exist”, that “I” am not just my body, and that I have some responsibility and choice for my actions. We presume that “I” have a relationship with my body and my actions.

Examining the relationship “I” have with my body and my actions, we would say that I generate, inhabit, possess, control, am responsible for… Ownership, the act or state of possessing, is a fitting description of that complex relationship.

Self-ownership, which implies behavior and property ownership is something that even toddlers and dogs have rules around: “Hey that’s mine! Try to take it again and I’ll defend it.” And if they don’t understand, we teach them, “Baby, don’t try to grab Fido’s chew-toy! It’s his. You have your toy. And Fido, stop trying to eat baby’s Cheerios!” This isn’t a proof of its validity by any means, but it does indicate that we’re biologically primed for it, and we could and do work within this paradigm. Self-ownership is a concept that does not require any further “uber”-evolution to grasp now.

We also argue that it’s useful and ethically correct to attempt to identify and act on virtue; we should do what’s right compared to what’s wrong, if we can understand the difference. We have the ability and drive to distinguish and categorize actions, shouldn’t we attempt to use that power consistently and for a good cause? When critics ask “Who are you to judge?”, we reply, “We’re human! We have the greatest capacity to judge the world has ever known! Let’s hone it and honor it and use it wisely and consistently! Let’s study the science of judging behavior, which we would call moral philosophy, and let’s elevate that field to the highest regard! How can we get anything right without using our judgement?”

Yes, there are assumptions in this approach. But without them, there’s no moral philosophy at all — no standards, no categories, no direction, no ability to compare behavior and intention. If we’re “mere stardust”, if the self and free-will are illusions, why have any discussion at all? If all choices are morally equal, our lives lose all relevance and meaning, and there can be no prescription for virtue.

Self-ownership makes morality tenable, and naturally gives rise to the question: what does it mean to violate the principle of ownership? The Non-Aggression Principle simply defines aggression as a violation of ownership. Adhering to the NAP means respecting others’ ownership rights. It’s prescriptive and entirely possible to achieve, you’re probably following it right now!

The concept of self-ownership and the resulting principle of non-aggression concisely prohibit slavery, murder, theft, rape, assault, fraud, and yes, spanking. But making the argument that we own ourselves is just half of the battle. Universalizing the concept, and explaining that it means you shouldn’t hit your kids, is a very different fight.

A simple explanation for the current philosophical disorder is that people are just not philosophically grounded, and that can be disheartening. People “play” philosophical by having some reason for their position, but do they demand that the reason meets any consistent or rational standards? And here we are, dreaming of saying the magic thing that brings about world peace, but who is listening? And do they speak our language? When we push for philosophical rigor in conversation, we probably lose at least 90% of our audience. And even the philosophical folks are often just tuning-in for the stimulating conversation, unwilling to stake their future decisions and lifestyle on its conclusion. We’ve met liberty-loving parents who understand our argument and concede entirely, who will chat with us for hours about it, and still go home and hit their kids.

The good news in all this: the masses don’t have to get it. We don’t all have to be philosophers! Slavery is over, and it’s wrong in people’s minds. Why? Because schools teach philosophy so well? Of course not. The truth is people actually don’t know why slavery is wrong! Let that sink in…

It’s wrong in people’s minds because abolitionists gave their lives to make it so. They applied the right pressure to the right people at the right time, and that’s the whole story. A small group of passionate people with pen and paper, a powerful argument, and a more powerful will.

Today the masses have forgotten the premises of the argument, but they swear by its conclusion. Maybe the best we can do is get people to the same place regarding aggression with children. A place where they know it’s wrong, but don’t know why. We’d settle for that.

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What is the Truth, Anyway?

Some Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my door and opened the conversation with, “What’s the most important gift you can give some one?”

“Easy,” I thought. “The truth.”

“Interesting,” the young woman said, “we haven’t heard that one before.”

I can’t say I was genuinely surprised; it’s not a very popular subject.

This is where the world is, philosophically. You can make it your job to visit people’s homes and ask such an important question, and never get this answer. We see people everywhere spreading the word of their various gods, but the idea of spreading and discussing the truth isn’t so common.

So it’s no wonder that when we try to have a conversation about the truth and validity of moral principles, or the hypocrisy by which the world sees children, we’re wading into territory that most people are perfectly comfortable ignoring. It’s not uncommon for us to talk to people who will scream at their kids, or take their toys because the children aren’t more helpful around the house, but who are certain that paying them to do chores meets the definition of coercion! In a case like this, the truth is literally a click away:

It’s easy to define coercion, to define aggression, and to see that the NAP offers a tidy summary of them. The NAP simply states that initiating force upon one’s body or property is an act of aggression, and that aggression is wrong. People may have their disagreements, which we want to hear, but this is not a very complex principle to understand and argue for. I know some under-five-year-olds who make the case quite succinctly: “Ok just don’t break it, and give it back when you’re done… because it’s mine.”

The hard part isn’t understanding the truth of the principle, it’s getting people to look at it in the first place. Being a living example of someone who adheres to the NAP is an obvious first step, but any further strategy for winning hearts and minds is itself a life-long exploration. But with the current state of things, with people’s fuzzy relationship to truth, consistency, rationality, it’s selfish to simultaneously know it, enjoy the fruits of it, and withhold it from the world.

And that’s why we can say, “We didn’t chose NAP Parenting, it chose us.” The truth of the principle, and where it is most often disregarded in practice, and where we can have the greatest effect in spreading peace, are all out of our hands. So the order of the day is to dust off those dictionaries, get familiar with the concepts of life, liberty, and property, of aggression, coercion, and theft, and take the message where it’s needed most, starting with the people in your life who already listen to you, and then beyond. The cure to any affliction will require some courage and will cause some discomfort, let’s not be deterred by either.

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Whose “Principles” are We Talking About?

Aren’t ethics ultimately subjective? Are we just picking the principles that we like? Shouldn’t we encourage individuals to find their own relative truth and ethics?

Ethics, or moral principles, are those principles concerned with Right and Wrong behavior.

Many people assume that what’s right for one person may not be right for another, and therefor claim that ethics are relative. For example, in the US it’s wrong to cut in line, but in China it’s normal and accepted (so I’ve heard). So we often hear “Ethics are simply cultural norms” or “To each his own…”

But consider a “higher crime”, like murder. We’re not talking about self-defense or accidents, which have different moral categories. Premeditated, cold-blooded murder. Ask yourself: is there any place or any time in history when this would be considered right?

Setting aside what we might do in time-machine scenarios, most of us generally agree that there are not situations when murder is condoned; that it is wrong everywhere for everyone. It’s just plain wrong.

But why is murder wrong? What would be the “explain-like-I’m-five” answer?  We would say “Murder is wrong because the victim owns himself. His body belongs to him. So nobody else can just choose to destroy it.” If this argument is reasonable and rational to you, we’re on the same page. There are plenty of counter-arguments to this central tenet of self-ownership that we will address elsewhere, but we find that most people are satisfied by this simple explanation.

But murder is an easy one; it’s illegal and discouraged just about everywhere, and we don’t get much pushback on that ethical standard. The purpose of this website, and a study of the NAP, is to identify and act in areas where this concept of self-ownership is openly violated by people and cultures.

A lot of us here in the West shudder when we hear of female genital mutilation, or child-marriage, or the stoning of the non-religious practiced elsewhere. Although not as universally rejected as murder, we can safely say that these things are simply wrong as well. Even with the consent of the gods and governments of other people, we know in our hearts that these aggressive practices are not only harmful, but morally wrong. And we can make the same argument, that they are wrong because they violate one’s self-ownership.

To summarize: our ethical standards arise from our personhood and its inherent self-ownership. They are self-evident. Not created by governments, not from some “social contract” or norm, and not from any god. So in answering the question “whose ethics?”, we respond “those with self ownership; humans.” Ownership of the self and property determines the morality of its treatment or use.

We argue that a person is a person, no matter where or what time they live in, and no matter their age. To initiate aggression towards a person is wrong if they are 100 years old, if they are mentally handicapped, if they lived in ancient times, or across the globe. And our laws generally reflect this: that it’s wrong to aggress against someone because they’re old, or female, or of a different skin color, or of a different religion. According to our laws and cultural norms it’s wrong for us to aggress against anyone… except children.

NAP Parenting is about examining the peculiar relationship between parent and child, and to explore the ethical ramifications therein. We’ve heard every argument under the sun for why one can/should hit or threaten their children, but they all must, in doing so, redefine children as non-persons.

We are here to wave the flag of personhood for children. To demonstrate that consistent ethics are fundamental to living a happy and just life, and that these fundamental rights should be extended to all people.

Finally, we are here to offer help and support for people dealing with this epic struggle. We are fighting the momentum of history, and often that of our own behavior or our parents’. To permanently abandon the weapon of aggression against children requires courage and creativity in finding new solutions.

This is the group for whom the sun of equal rights has yet to shine. These families, our friends and neighbors, are the people whose lives we can help the most. Let’s help each other stand up and do the work required for a peaceful future.

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The Case for NAP Parenting

We all have principles that guide our decisions.

A principle usually defines what someone won’t do, like “I won’t shop there because they don’t pay their employees well” or “I won’t go on another date with that guy because he was so rude to the waitress”.

In the Western world, the most primary or important principles are generally shared, and commonly, our law is in agreement with these shared principles.

Murder, theft, assault, etc… Our laws are consistent with the position most people share that these acts are wrong.

What these moral and legal crimes have in common, is that they are acts of aggression, defined as the initiation of force against someone else’s body or property.

An act of force is non-voluntary or non-consensual. For example; consensual transaction of property is called trade, whereas non-consensual transaction is called theft or fraud.

The “Non-Aggression Principle” (or NAP) is a way of summarizing this key moral principle we share. It also prohibits fraud or threats, while permitting self-defense.

Self-defense does not meet the definition of aggression, as it is not the initiation of force, but rather a reaction to it with the goal of protecting life and property.

The NAP, though given that term in recent history, has been at the heart of common law and western culture for millennia.

All of this is to say that even if someone has never heard of the NAP, most of us generally abide by it in our lives. Of importance to this discussion, it should be noted that we also instruct children to abide by the NAP (don’t hit, don’t steal, etc…)

Principles are Universal..

A crowning achievement of philosophy is that principles, by definition, are universal; meaning they don’t discriminate by race, sex, etc.

“It’s wrong to steal from people, unless they have red hair” or “It’s wrong to solve your arguments by hitting, unless you’re arguing with a woman” are invalid or inconsistent principles, as they are not universal. These positions are racist or sexist, by discriminating based on physical features. We also have universal standards for aggressors; if you’ve ever thought, “The judge was only lenient with that person because of their identity” then you are pointing out a violation of the universality of a principle. Valid moral theories oppose these inconsistencies.

…except for Children?

We live in a society where parents and guardians promote and use aggression towards children that would be considered immoral and criminal if inflicted on other adults.

Studies show that the majority of American parents have hit their child, and believe hitting their child is sometimes appropriate. Using ‘corporal punishment’ in the home is legal in all 50 states. A quick internet search of “how to discipline a child” returns articles describing three strategies that are most commonly proposed for controlling children’s behavior: time-outs, confiscation of property, and spanking. Amongst adults these would be considered illegal confinement, theft, and assault.

The popular moral position of our society is inconsistent, a hypocrisy.

Take the above examples and substitute ‘child’ for the victim. “It’s wrong to steal from people… but it’s ok to confiscate toys from a child” and “It’s wrong to solve arguments by hitting… but it’s ok to spank a child”. This is the status quo. These acts meet the definition of aggression, and discriminate based on age.

Being consistent in the NAP and in the pursuit of equal rights means committing to working peacefully with children, just as we work peacefully with other adults. Children deserve the same, or better, legal and social protections that adults enjoy.

As with adults, the use of force should only be used in defense, or as a last resort to prevent more serious harm (such as pushing someone out of the way of oncoming traffic). Aggression toward children, who are defenseless, should be considered a more serious wrongdoing than aggression towards people capable of self-defense.

This is a moral argument, meaning we shouldn’t stop hitting kids simply because it’s ineffective; we should stop because it’s wrong.

We wouldn’t argue that slavery is wrong because it’s economically inefficient, the stronger position concerns the inconsistent moral principle.

(Download the one-page .pdf here.)

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