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March 7, 2011 10:32 AM   Subscribe

Is there an established and credible short-hand counter-argument to "you have to have kids to understand"?

I've been involved in some conversations lately, ranging from "this generation is a bunch of spoiled brats" to "spanking is necessary for kids", and keep running into the very frustrating "you have to have kids to understand" response when I try to take a different position.

I know what the appropriate response is: insist on facts, stick to proof, and maintain a sane and respectful tone. But I'd like to find some explanation of why this is a terrible line of argument; perhaps it's got a succinct fallacy name, or maybe there's a resource that explains in clear terms why "you'd have to * to understand" has no real place in a substantive conversation, rather than having to go through a lengthy process of explaining what's wrong with that train of thought every time it comes up.

I can illustrate why it's a poor line of reasoning through parallels (is Charlie Sheen's current behaviour okay if he says "you have to be Charlie Sheen to understand?"), so I'm not really looking for *new* counter-arguments here: I'd like to know if there's an established fallacy (like ad hominem) or helpful resource (like the invisible knapsack) to help people who fall back on this as their only line of defence understand that it's not a credible argument.

Note: I am posting this for my husband--Shepherd--who already done used up his question this week so I gave him mine. Any British spellings are his fault. He's Canadian.
posted by Kitteh to Human Relations (54 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I can't remember where I came across it, but I've always been quite fond of the saying ‘You don't need to be an expert in tailoring to know that the Emperor has no clothes’.

Frankly, saying ‘you have to have kids to understand’ is about as valid as saying that you have to be part of the executive branch of Government to be able to criticise the President's decisions. However, when people say ‘you have to ___ to understand’, what they usually mean is ‘having ___ gives you a different perspective on this issue’.
posted by jaffacakerhubarb at 10:38 AM on March 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

I disagree with your position that this is a terrible line of argument; kids are a constant mental and physical strain and change the gravity of nearly all of your relationships. It's probably impossible to have a good idea of what that means without actually going through it.

People who say "you have to have kids to understand" probably mean "mind your own business" about 50% of the time.
posted by 2bucksplus at 10:44 AM on March 7, 2011 [36 favorites]

It is essentially an Appeal to Authority. That is, in some sense equivalent to "You don't have the necessary qualifications to make a judgement"

There are several reasons why this is a fallacy. One example is that experts (i.e. parents) will disagree among themselves.
posted by vacapinta at 10:44 AM on March 7, 2011 [10 favorites]

Maybe you're discrediting this line because you dislike it, but perhaps it's more true than you think. Obviously to use it as a reason why something is, or is not, ok, is a fallacy. It doesn't provide evidence in support of a particular position. However, it may serve as a short hand explanation for why the contested position is more complex than it seems to people on the outside.

Another way to frame this: I keep getting into arguments with people who know nothing about what it's like to raise kids, and think they've got it all figured out. I try to explain to them that their conceptions of the issues involved are inadequate, but it takes a long time, and I have to keep going over it again and again. They dismiss out of hand things that are a big deal to almost every parent I know, and I get sick of retreading the same ground again and again with these folks. Is there a convenient name for this kind of fallacy, the fallacy of not having sufficient experience to accurately assess a position, and yet insisting that they do?
posted by OmieWise at 10:51 AM on March 7, 2011 [19 favorites]

I agree that it's a form of argument from authority.

I disagree with your position that this is a terrible line of argument; kids are a constant mental and physical strain and change the gravity of nearly all of your relationships. It's probably impossible to have a good idea of what that means without actually going through it.

Following on from jaffacakerhubarb's comment: I think it's true that people usually just mean that having kids gives you a different perspective. What's illegitimate is not that observation, but the idea that it is a valid argument for anything other than the proposition that you have a better grasp of what it means to be a parent. And that's not really an argument, since it's just a restatement: I know what it's like to be a parent because I know what it's like to be a parent. As an argument for any other kind of position — eg., whether spanking kids is OK — it has no validity at all. If you think that being a parent has given you superior information on that topic, you should be able to specify that information, not just appeal to your status as a parent.
posted by oliverburkeman at 10:51 AM on March 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

Building on vacapinta's comment: "Well just so you know, not everyone who has kids agrees with you."
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 10:52 AM on March 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

Besides the Appeal to Authority, I would also characterize this as a Relativist Fallacy.

"You shouldn't spank your kids."
"I don't think so, therefore you are wrong."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:56 AM on March 7, 2011

"Well just so you know, not everyone who has kids agrees with you."

But this is simply another kind of appeal to authority, and may seem foolish, to boot, if you can't meaningfully talk about who those other people are and why their position is different. I'd be very surprised if these parents are suggesting that all parents agree.

(I don't have kids, by the way.)
posted by OmieWise at 10:57 AM on March 7, 2011

I'm sympathetic to your point of view here - I'm a parent and I don't think kids today are spoiled, or that kids need to be spanked.

I've never said "you have to have kids to understand" but I've thought it many times. Contrary to your examples, I find myself frustrated by people without children who judge parents harshly for things that are totally well within the realm of normal and understandable.

Not sure if that makes sense, but one example I'm thinking of: my brother was like Houdini and escaped from our house constantly as a toddler. It was no big deal. I told a story about one of his escape attempts at a work event once. The parents among my audience were amused and nodded knowingly. A few of the non-parents were horrified and very critical of my parents for "not watching him more closely."

If you don't understand why it's not possible to watch a child for literally every second of the day, you probably are not a parent. (Just so I don't leave you hanging: he was stuck in the cat door between the house and garage. He made a break for it while my mom was showering and my dad was at work.)

All this to say: Sometimes "you have to be a parent to understand" is just simpler. Or it means "shut the fuck up" or "mind your own business."

I don't say that to offend, only to inform from my perspective.
posted by peep at 10:58 AM on March 7, 2011 [7 favorites]

vacapinta: "
There are several reasons why this is a fallacy. One example is that experts (i.e. parents) will disagree among themselves.

True. But it still might be reasonable to say, "I hear what you are saying, but I think that as a non-parent, you are missing a lot of relevant information."

Having one child gave me a totally different perspective than when I had none. Having TWO children gave me yet another perspective. It's a logical fallacy to say you couldn't have any opinions regarding my child-rearing, but if you haven't walked in my shoes, I think you'd be operating on less than complete data.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:59 AM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think your husband is going about it the wrong one, i.e. trying to win and prove he's right. Frankly, having kids does tend to change one's perspective, though it doesn't automatically make one right, of course.

What does he really want to do here? 'Cause if it's prove a parent wrong, I doubt that's going to happen, even if the parent actually is wrong. It'll just be an back and forth fight, with both sides more entrenched in their position.

I would agree with them and ask them to explain how being a parent has informed their position on the issue, then ask them if they've considered an alternate method, describe it, and then drop it and start talking about the weather or something.

I say this a parent who usually rolls his eyes when someone without kids starts talking about parenting should be. The truth is that there are numerous paths and the most important thing, IMO, is the personality of the parent and the personality of the child and how those two (or more!) interact. Spanking may be fine for one child and devastating for another. It really depends on the people involved and the actions they take.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:59 AM on March 7, 2011 [13 favorites]

One thing that might aid in any kind of "rational" discussion is acknowledging that facts about the kinds of topics that you alluded to are generally really summary statistics. Thus they are factual descriptions of the whole population, but grossly oversimplified if applied to any individual case. In addition, they may not (often do not) translate well into prescriptions for appropriate parenting behavior, particularly if you don't/can't place them within the context of the day-to-day realities of parenting.

tl;dr - Unless you are comfortable asserting yourself as a parenting expert, make it clear you're not disregarding the additional knowledge about child-raising that a parent has, or telling them how to do their job.
posted by synapse at 11:01 AM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Echoing peep and Brandon Blatcher, as the one of the few childless adults in my circle of friends, I have found " You have to have kids to understand" isn't used so much as an argument, but as a statement to signify "this discussion is over." At that point, it's an argument you can't win, no matter how right you may be in your position.
posted by KingEdRa at 11:04 AM on March 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

I do not agree with the quick dismissals that this is an argument from authority and nothing more.

Look, there are some things in life where going through it makes all the difference in the ability to empathize and see the problem in a certain way. Forget kids -- as part of the permanently childless I chafe a little at this one, too -- and view it differently. Can someone who is rich really understand what it's like to be someone who is poor? Can someone who is beautiful really understand being ugly, never having been so themselves?

It depends on whether you mean understand in the *grok* sense or in the by-the-numbers analytical boolean right/wrong sense.

That sort of comment is -- at least in part, and legitimately so -- usually made in the context of a complex issue and is a general statement about the degree of empathy that one has. Most conversations about the topics you are talking about are not actually about facts and there is no objective right or wrong.

Could you understand? Sure, but not with the level of effort you're going to put in.

For instance -- I am convinced that most young people, even really bright ones, even really prematurely experienced ones, generally cannot understand the attitudes that older people tend to take with regard to work, life, family, and so on. They simply lack any sort of common frame of reference (this one was a surprise to me as I aged, but it really is true). I sure as heck did not.

As someone who is childless, it is incredibly difficult for me to appreciate just how great a distortion children are on your decision making process. EVERY decision is vectored to a different destination and as no decision in real human life is ever really independent from dozens or hundreds of others made previously, the accumulated distortion is just huge. You can't really model it in simple terms of simple yes/no facts taken in the small.
posted by rr at 11:04 AM on March 7, 2011 [9 favorites]

Look, there are some things in life where going through it makes all the difference in the ability to empathize and see the problem in a certain way.

Absolutely — but that doesn't make "you'd have to have kids to understand" into a valid argument. As others have said, it is clearly true that it might often be hugely undiplomatic and annoying, in actual conversation, to point out that "you'd have to have kids to understand" is a fallacious argument. (Apart from anything else, expecting well-structured logical arguments from your friends whose newborn baby wakes up eight times a night might be pretty harsh.)

And it may also be that in any given argument between a parent and non-parent, the parent is in the right, and that they are in the right as a result of knowledge gained as a parent. But still none of that makes "you'd have to have kids to understand" into a valid argument. It just acts as a signal that there's a lot more to discuss.
posted by oliverburkeman at 11:11 AM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Or that the discussion is over.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 11:13 AM on March 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

As someone who was irritated for the longest time by "you'd have to have kids to understand," I must admit that I have gone over to the other side since I had a child. There are lots of things about being a parent that I really just did not get until I became one. Despite working with kids, babysitting for years, growing up surrounded by younger siblings and cousins, and spending a good amount of time with nieces and nephews.

It's not a fallacious appeal to authority. If Stephen Hawking and I were having an argument about the origins of the universe, and he said "well, you'd need to have studied x, y, and z, in order to understand my position," he would say that with some legitimate authority. More to the point, I would lack the necessary expertise to evaluate his claim. While parenthood is not a completely analogous situation, it does have some similarities.

But the question Brandon Blatcher asks is a good one. What is it that Shepherd is hoping to achieve in these discussions?
posted by bardophile at 11:20 AM on March 7, 2011

"Is there a convenient name for this kind of fallacy, the fallacy of not having sufficient experience to accurately assess a position, and yet insisting that they do?"

I think this qualifies as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

I don't think the OP is going to get what she wants. It's not a fallacy to state that actual experience and knowledge are key to understanding a situation. Perhaps the language isn't perfect. I guess it could be stated, "You'd have to have knowledge and experience to understand". This can be applied to anything.
posted by stubby phillips at 11:20 AM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I could explain it, but you'd have to have kids to understand.

Juuust kidding.

But I am reminded of the time our large consultant team was sitting around the breakfast table before a presentation. We were comparing kid/war stories. One of the consultants mentioned that she didn't have kids, but that her "projects were like kids". Awkward silence followed.

Honestly, it's just a dismissal. People whip it out if they don't have the time or energy to explain, or if they want someone to leave them alone. For God's sake, don't offer parenting advice to someone if you don't have kids. Or if you do.

I don't dispute anyone's capability for empathy. I know one can imagine what it's like to have kids, and could be right on the money. But you can't know - with certainty - until you have them yourself.

The best way to counter this is to ask - with genuine interest - what it's like to have kids. You better get a chair and a fresh cup of coffee, cause it's going to take a while, and that's if the parent you are talking to has the time to chit chat about it. You'll have to understand that the stories usually aren't all that bad. Vomit, poop, blood, the hospital - and when they get older - school, jail, STDs, tattoos. But the grind is constant. It's like Chinese water torture.

The phrase "You'd have to have kids to understand" is also an invitation to have kids. Go on. You know...for the experience. I encourage young people to have kids. Then I laugh at them later. But I wouldn't trade my kids for the world.
posted by Xoebe at 11:21 AM on March 7, 2011 [6 favorites]

You could make the case that "You must be X to understand Y" is an essentialist argument. In the Wikipedia entry the most relevant section is probably "Essentialism and society and politics."
posted by itstheclamsname at 11:21 AM on March 7, 2011

Absolutely — but that doesn't make "you'd have to have kids to understand" into a valid argument.

It does from some parent's viewpoint. Doesn't mean they're technically right, but damn if they don't believe they are.

As a counter argument, would you really argue with a plumber who's had 12 years experience? Would you really expect him to distill to you in 2 minutes, let alone 20, why he knows X plumbing solution is mostly the likely the best one in a certain situation?

These arguments are always as easy as A is right and B is wrong.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:22 AM on March 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

It does from some parent's viewpoint. Doesn't mean they're technically right, but damn if they don't believe they are.

Yes of course. I'll stop at this comment, and I hate those people who are always strenuously insisting that people "answer the question! answer the exact question!" on AskMe, but... well, the questioner didn't ask whether it was polite to challenge this ubiquitous phrase, nor for other ways to respond when it comes up; he didn't even suggest that "you'd have to have kids to understand" is a bad thing to say. He asked why it is an invalid argument. It may be the most wise comment in the world, and challenging it may be the stupidest move ever, but it's still invalid as an argument!
posted by oliverburkeman at 11:31 AM on March 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

I think there is a difference from a fallacious appeal to authority and legitimately having a wealth of experience from which to draw your conclusions. Doesn't make you automatically right, but it does lend more credence to your arguments.

For example, suppose someone said, "In France, almost everyone wears a yellow hat!"

And another person said, "Look, I lived in France for eighteen years and have rarely seen people wearing yellow hats." Who would you believe?

But now suppose that the first person spent one day in France and that particular day was national French Hat Day with the centennial theme of "yellow". In his very limited experience, he was absolutely correct. So, in his opinion, he was "right."

But his experience counts as nothing next to the person who has lived there for eighteen years, right? Who has seen hats come and go and knows that people either wear or don't wear them, and when they do they don't all wear yellow, etc. His argument is essentially, "You don't know because you aren't actually French." And he is also right.

That's the difference between someone who has observed kids, and someone who has actually parented them. Actually lived among the little savages in their natural habitat, if you see what I mean.

So I think the logical argument in response to a parent would just simply be, "In my experience with kids (teaching, observing, etc.), this works. YMMV."

Because, really, that's all you can attest.
posted by misha at 11:39 AM on March 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

"Well then, I guess we should change the subject to something we can both discuss."
posted by hermitosis at 11:41 AM on March 7, 2011 [8 favorites]

These arguments are always as easy as A is right and B is wrong.

Where "always" should be "never", ha!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:44 AM on March 7, 2011

I think I have an example that better illustrates why the "you have to have kids to understand" argument is sometimes a fallacy.

I used to have a job that meant I left my house for work shortly before the school bus picked up kids for elementary school on the corner of my block. Everyday I saw the same thing, around five kids waiting on the corner for the bus and five cars with at least one parent in them parked and watching the kids.

There are a couple of interesting, relevant facts. The city where I live is an upper-middle class suburb with almost no crime. Children are almost never abducted by strangers. By far, the most common abduction is one parent kidnapping them from the other parent. The school itself is about half a mile away. The parents are waiting for at least as long as it would take them to drive the kids to work.

Now, when I was that age, I walked farther to get to school because that is what the school guidelines called for. When changed schools and rode the bus, I managed to survive without getting murdered or kidnapped every day and the neightborhood I grew up in had far more crime.

My assertion was the the parents should drive their kids to school, relax and trust their kids won't be kidnapped while waiting for the bus, or at the very least, assign one parent to watch the bus stop.

I too was met with, "You don't have kids so you don't understand." In this case, it would seem that having children has led to irrational decision making. As I think about it now it occurs to me that I could have countered by saying, "My parents never watched us at the bus stop." They had kids so they must have understood.

N'thing the appeal to authority. Having all those qualifications isn't what makes an argument valid. You could be the world's leading mathematician but if your answer for x+2=6 is x=5, you're still wrong.
posted by VTX at 11:44 AM on March 7, 2011 [6 favorites]

There are some good answers so far, but I would say that arguments like this are arguments against the existence of empathy or any real communication between people.

Because if you want to start going down this path, no one *really* knows what it's like to experience anything that someone else has experienced. If someone doesn't believe that humans can truly ever relate to each other, fine, I guess. But otherwise they shouldn't say things like this.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:48 AM on March 7, 2011

Is there an established and credible short-hand counter-argument to "you have to have kids to understand"?

"I am sure we both have had many different experiences in life but surely you can understand why this would seem unnecessarily dismissive?"
posted by A Terrible Llama at 11:49 AM on March 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

Even though I do not personally have kids, I believe that I do understand kids, and the process of raising them, on the basis of two other types of experience that I do have: first, I actually used to be a kid myself (many years ago, but I remember it well) and second, I have had the opportunity to observe other people's kids to a substantial extent. Doubtlessly my understanding is not perfect, but then, neither do parents necessarily understand their own children perfectly - if they did, there would far fewer unhappy families. There is something to be said for being an objective outside observer.
posted by grizzled at 11:50 AM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't use, "You have to have kids to understand," because I don't always understand other people's parenting decisions. I tend to say instead, "Well, everyone's the perfect parent until they have kids," which is probably far truer to discussions of that sort.

It is really, really, really easy to Monday morning quarterback parenting decisions, and not having kids can put those particular Monday quarterbacks at even more of a disadvantage. Now, there are people who know a lot about parenting and a lot about kids who do not have their own children. But those people have other training. An elementary school teacher is likely to be able to tell me if my kid is reading at grade level than my instincts as a parent are. He or she would also be more likely to tell me if this is of major concern, a little concern, or nothing to worry about at all. A child psychologist is going to be far better at telling me if my child is on a normal developmental path than other parents, etc. These people may or may not have their own children, but they do have training and understanding of far more kids than I ever will.

I only have my own to understand, but as a parent, there's a deeper level of understanding I have of my child that even those professionals won't have.

So while I don't think most people have to have kids to understand what having kids is like or to understand parenting or to even assist in parenting decisions, but I'm going to want to see what else you bring to a discussion of this sort if you don't have kids.
posted by zizzle at 11:51 AM on March 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Also: that argument assumes that parents as a group are equally knowledgeable and have come to the same conclusions, but they're not and they haven't.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 11:51 AM on March 7, 2011

If the issue isn't parenting techniques but wanting something for one's child or pubilc policy involving children, you can always say, "I understand that as a non-parent, I might not be able to understand the ferocious protectiveness parents feel towards their parents. But just because you want something for your child doesn't mean that what you want is best for society, for non-parents, or for other parents and their children."
posted by hhc5 at 11:54 AM on March 7, 2011

When I hear that line I just think it means, "You'd have to be me and have MY hellspwan kids to understand."
posted by zephyr_words at 12:01 PM on March 7, 2011

Imagine that your husband were talking to people who didn't know he didn't have kids. He'd make his comment about spanking or whatever, and they'd say, "you have to have kids to understand." What if he replied, "actually, I do have kids." Will they suddenly change their opinion and agree with them? I doubt it, because they're not arguing from logic (and it's thus a fallacy, as you said). That is, your husband isn't going to be able to present ANY credentials that will make him a sufficient authority (in their eyes) for his contrary point of view to be accepted as valid.

Point being, I don't think logic will help your husband. Even if he were to get them to abandon the idea that one has to be a parent to have opinions on parenting, they still disagree with him. And since they're approaching him from the (assumed) perspective of authority, they're also reducing his agency in the process. It's not just, "you're not a parent so your opinions aren't valid," it's, "your opinions are naive but one day when you have kids you will agree with me and understand that I was right all along."
posted by davextreme at 12:07 PM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

If and only if the parent initiated discussion of the topic:

"If I couldn't possibly understand, why are you wasting both your time and mine trying to get me to understand?"
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:27 PM on March 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Anybody talking about children or about parenting, whether their own or others', is an unreliable narrator. Childless people have never done it before, single-child parents had never done it before, and multiple-child parents are trying to account for their mistakes of the past. This is why conversations about child development are always pointless: nobody has clean hands.
posted by rhizome at 12:44 PM on March 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

"Well, certainly having your kids is incomprehensible!"
posted by thinkpiece at 12:49 PM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

The name "logical rudeness" might be what you are looking for, at least to help you define to yourself one way the "you must have [EXPERIENCE/ASPECT] to understand" argument bothers you.
posted by brainwane at 1:04 PM on March 7, 2011

This reminds me of a recent exchange between myself (agnostic/atheist) and my sister (recently converted Christian).

Her: Well, I believe in God because I have kids. You just don't understand because you have never given birth.

Me: There are many atheists in the world that give birth and remain atheist.

Her: Well, a lot of people kill their babies too.

Me: ...

So, I understand parents being defensive about this question, but under some circumstances, it is definitely a logical fallacy. Certainly, as people point out, experience raising children is important to understand the situation. But if someone says, "Parents have to spank their kids, else they'll be too spoiled. And don't question me, you don't know, you don't have kids," then indeed, that's a logical fallacy.

This is a commonly pointed out logical fallacy used on atheist/religious debate boards - "If you haven't experienced God, then you just don't understand." There really should be a succinct way to describe this argument, but I haven't been able to find one.

What they are doing is attempting to argue from authority, but being a parent does not make you an expert in parenting, so the authority is misplaced. It doesn't matter what one parent's opinion is, what matters is if there's a consensus among parenting experts on the subject. I think appealing to the consensus can be useful, i.e. "There are many people who have kids that don't spank them, how is your experience different from theirs?" Or, "All parents think they're experts, but they often disagree, what makes you more correct?"

Although either way, it doesn't seem like the person is being rational, and there's no point debating irrational people.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 1:20 PM on March 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

I don't think the phrase means that people with kids feel like experts. I think it means that there are so many issues you don't even know about until you have them, it's impossible to explain to somebody who hasn't been through it.

I think most parents went through an epiphony when they had their kids. That's why you hear phrases like this. So many childless people are vocally judgemental about parenting when it's impossible to know just how complicated things get until it happens to them. But it's also impossible to explain to somebody who thinks he or she knows.
posted by stubby phillips at 1:42 PM on March 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think it means that there are so many issues you don't even know about until you have them, it's impossible to explain to somebody who hasn't been through it.

Agreed. Impossible, or perceived as being too time-consuming to try to communicate given the current context of the discussion.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:14 PM on March 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yeah, there's a couple of ways it's used. One is in the "I need you to uncritically validate my worldview or STFU" way, as seen in the God thing above, or in a hundred thousand other situations. The other is "No, actually, having kids is complicated, and it really does rearrange your priorities in ways that I wouldn't have expected before I had them and I don't think you'd expect either."

I've used it -- I like to think in the second way -- when a now-sadly-former friend was pressuring me to ditch my three week (!) old baby at home and go out for a girls' weekend. I'm sure it was going to be a lot of fun, but I didn't want to leave her, and my protestations to that effect fell on deaf ears, so finally I pulled out the "You don't have kids, you don't understand" bomb. I felt guilty about it, but, well, clearly she didn't understand. "You can't let your role as a mother define your life!!" "Not only can I, I really want to right now."
posted by KathrynT at 2:16 PM on March 7, 2011

peep: If you don't understand why it's not possible to watch a child for literally every second of the day, you probably are not a parent.

The reason this is frustrating is because it implies "No people who are not parents understand you cannot watch a child for literally every second of the day." That's bullshit. Just because an individual doesn't understand does not mean that some (or even all) of the rest of us without kids don't understand, either.

It's also a flawed argument. I know plenty of parents who turn on the other parent when their child has an accident, operating out of anger from the premise that the other parent should have, in fact, been watching the child at all times.

Constantly being told that I do not understand love, or exhaustion, or joy because I am not parenting is patronising. And being told I cannot understand specific realities of parenthood because I am not a mother is frankly a vast underestimation of my imagination, empathy and life experience. It's like there's a parental equivalent of "smug married" - sort of a TSA Dingo Lady club you can be admitted to when you have a child.

Kitteh/Shepard, the approach I take depends on how much I care about the offending party. "Really? Do you need to be childless to understand how patronising that sounds?" is saved for people I don't particularly want to speak to again. Otherwise I go with a variation on Tooty McTootsalot's Appeal to Authority argument: "There are many people who have kids that don't spank them, how is your experience different from theirs?"
posted by DarlingBri at 2:26 PM on March 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

I think the answer to the question at hand is no, there is no established shorthand for countering the argument that if you don't have kids you won't understand.
In my experience, this phrase is usually brought out when asked a question, or given a suggestion, that a parent would never bring up; so it's really a signal, as others have suggested, for 'ok, you're clearly out of your element, lets move to another topic'.
posted by OHenryPacey at 2:29 PM on March 7, 2011

Another answer to, "You don't have kids, you you wouldn't understand," might just be, "I might not understand how your kid is, but not all kids are the same." Which is a definite winning argument because it also appeals to parents who just know their kids are special snowflakes. :)

Please remember, too, though, that rudeness goes both ways. Telling other people how to raise their own kids is also impolite. And while you may think you are having an objective discussion on, say, the merits of time out vs spanking, the parents may feel you are passing judgment on them. People naturally get defensive when they feel judged.

Then it becomes not a case of empirically weighing what is right or wrong, but deciding how much you value the friendship with the people you are debating with. For the same reason, they should try their damnedest not to be patronizing when they are trying to explain to you what it is like for them as parents.

(i.e. Everybody needs a hug)
posted by misha at 3:09 PM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't understand why the OP wants to use a logical retort (or expects a logical response rather than something like "You have to have kids to understand") to questions of value. Whether or not you should spank your kids, or whether kids these days are spoiled brats, or whether the helicopters should stop hovering at the bus stop, are not questions with a logical, objective, empirically verifiable answer. Granted, some have MORE room for logic than others, like why the bus stop really needs FIVE helicopters watching for axe murderers, but nonetheless the "best" use of someone's time is not something that can be completely objectively evaluated--consider that what factors into "best" is not just most time- and resource-efficient, but also what gives the most emotional satisfaction and peace of mind. It's these latter sorts of things that childless people are less likely to be able to understand (and, really, parents are not going to understand either, because they'll differ between situations, but I personally expect someone with a single toddler, like I have, to understand my point of view better than someone without children, or someone with 5 kids...).

Someone above talked about becoming a parent realigning your priorities in a way you could never have predicted. It realigns your automatic responses, your emotional needs, and personally, I thought I could imagine how, but I cannot overstate how wrong I was (in positive ways as well as negative ways--in fact, probably more positive than negative). This is not a failing of imagination. This is just a change of life that so completely permeates EVERY part of your life, day-to-day and future, that it is impossible to predict all of the ramifications. Assuming you can imagine what it's like to be a parent is like saying you can imagine what it's like to be diagnosed with a terminal illness, or became disabled, or had some other major change that affected literally everything you do and plan to do--you can think about what that would be like, how you would respond, what your actions and emotions would be, how your relationships with other people would (or would not) change... but you couldn't know unless it happened.

Anyway, my point was supposed to be you can't argue logic with a question that isn't logic-based.
posted by amberwb at 3:17 PM on March 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

amberwb, to be clear, what I am saying is that I can imagine that, for example, becoming a parent is a change of life that completely permeates everything and changes who you are. I do not need to have my own experience of parenting to accept that premise. That is not the same thing as me saying I can imagine what it's like to be a parent.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:39 PM on March 7, 2011

I have kids. They changed the way I think and feel about pretty much everything. But that doesn't mean that what I think is right, or that a person who doesn't have kids couldn't feel the same way (or feel a different way and be right). As was mentioned way up the top, the fact that parents disagree on a great many things is a sure sign that having kids doesn't really have anything to do with the extent to which you have the necessary authority to talk about children. You couldhave ten kids and still be a fucking idiot about a lot of things, including parenting.

What it usually means, I find, is "Go a couple of weeks without sleep or any time for yourself and see if you feel the same way about [issue]." And that's fine, except that how you feel has sweet fuck all to do with what's right. A parent in a mall might feel tired and exasperated by a screaming fidgeting toddler and smack them out of frustration. A person who held that such conduct was wrong before they had children may well behave the same way when they do have children. But that doesn't make it right (or, if you'd like to avoid moralising, the best way to handle the situation). The 'rightness' or 'best way' exists independently on whether or not you've got kids.

Occasionally, though, I suppose it could mean "You can't know what it feels like to be a parent if you're not a parent", and I have some sympathy for that point of view. To use the Charlie Sheen metaphor above, this isn't like saying "You can't judge Charlie Sheen if you're not Charlie Sheen" - it's saying "You can't really know what it's like to be Charlie Sheen if you're not Charlie Sheen."

And so to those who don't have children and find themselves on the defensive againt what is apparently called the TSA Dingo Lady Club: no, you don't know what it's like to love your own child, to be afraid for your own child and so on, because you don't have a child. I'd say that's pretty much indisputable - how can you possibly know what it feels like to do something you've never done? Focus on why the other person thinks that makes you a less feeling or capable person rather than trying to deny it - or just accept that you'll never persuade a parent that the love or fear you feel for your parent / significant other / niece / cat / vase is anything close to what most parents feel for their own offspring.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 5:41 PM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, I looove these kinds of discussions.

VTX's post about the practice of waiting for the bus stop is such a totally perfect example. His/her assumption is that the parents' practice is due to overprotectiveness, fear that the child would meet violence or harm while walking to or waiting at the bus stop.

As a parent whose kids take the bus to school, I read that anecdote and can easily think of a dozen or more reasons *completely* unrelated to possible abduction or violence that would explain and justify that practice. Suffice to say that they generally cluster into categories like "parent-child relationship", "attaining independence", "relationships between neighbors", etc.

I won't speculate in more detail because I think the particulars of this example are irrelevant and I don't want to derail that far. But this really resonates for me as an example of what childless people may think parents regard as overridingly important (the vanishingly remote possibility of the most awful outcome) versus the incredibly broad, multivariate demands of everyday life that parents need to cope with every day (nondramatic but important things like time managment, teaching responsibility and interpersonal relationships, navigating increasing independence, etc, etc.)
posted by Sublimity at 7:08 PM on March 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

As a non-parent, I totally recognize that the experience of having kids of your own profoundly changes your life. I would never say that I know how it feels to be a parent.

However, extending this experience so far as to assert that no-one without children of their own can have an opinion on parenting at all? Pfft. Of course I have opinions about parenting. Of course they come from experience -- my experience as child (with parents!), and as an adult who has children in her life.
posted by desuetude at 8:37 PM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think some of the answers above don't really grasp what the argument from authority is.

To take the Stephen Hawking example above: yeah, Stephen Hawking is far more likely to be right about some obscure fact about black holes than I am. But he's not right about a lot of things because he's an authority on astrophysics: he's an authority on astrophysics because he's right about a lot of things. If, tomorrow, he published a paper stating that every black hole in the universe is actually one of God's infinite, glorious, puckering arseholes, he'd have to supply as much evidence as anyone else on the matter for people to take him seriously. The fact that he is Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge has no bearing on his rightness or wrongness.

So, in the strictest sense, yeah, it is an argument from authority, which is indeed a logical fallacy. To present a logically sound argument regarding some aspect of childrearing, a parent would have to present some premises, the truth of which necessarily entail the validity of its conclusions, just like anyone else. Their experiences and knowledge of childrearing may well make it far more likely that they'd be able to do this than someone who doesn't have children, but if they want to be completely rigorous about it, they can't say "I am a parent, so I am right".

Of course, in reality, what they are actually saying is "I think you're talking out of your arse and I don't want to talk about this any more". Which is a perfectly okay thing to say.
posted by dudekiller at 5:25 AM on March 8, 2011

I usually just make some crack like "And do I have to be a woman to have a valid opinion about abortion"?

Really, when someone trots out this fallacious weak sauce during a discussion it's generally an indicator that you're winning the argument.
posted by Decani at 7:21 AM on March 8, 2011

I think the initial question was a bit poorly framed (my fault) but resulted in better answers than if it had been better-explained, so... general win?

This hasn't been coming up in specific parenting-related matters -- I'm not dispensing parenting advice, or trying to tell people "how to raise their kids," in which case yeah, not being a parent means I'm missing a lot of valuable context about child rearing. Totally.

It's more in general circumstances; exchanges that were true-to-God like this:

"Kids are all spoiled these days; nobody under 25 has any work ethic or sense of responsibility."

"Really? I know a lot of great, motivated, hard-working people under 25. I don't think that the younger generation is any worse than ours was at that age."

"Well, you don't have kids, so you can't see what it's really like when your kid is raised right and all the others have parents who just go in and argue with the teacher until they get good grades anyway."


"Teachers are greedy. Why do they want additional pay if they're assigned to watch kids at lunch? They should do it for free."

"That's not really their *job* though, is it? They didn't sign on for it, and maybe they deserve a little extra money if they're taking on that additional responsibility."

"That's easy for you to say. You don't have kids."

"I don't think having kids in school is necessary to understand that if you're asking people to do work that's not in their contract and in their free time, they should be allowed to ask for compensation."

"Well, if it was you being blackmailed over your own kids going unsupervised at lunch, you'd feel differently."

And the inspiration behind this question, which I swear I am not making up:

"Old-school methods are the best way to raise my kids. My kids know if they ever get disrespectful, they're going to get a fist in the mouth."

"Threatening to punch your children in the mouth if they get out of line is kind of messed up."

"I'm not really going to punch them in the mouth, but I will spank them, and if you have a problem with me spanking my kids, well, you don't have kids so you don't understand."

In all three cases, the party in question isn't using children-to-understand as any kind of real argument. It's a cudgel that cuts off any ability to continue a conversation.

I get the "you have to be a plumber to understand" argument above, but this feels more like "you have to be an alchemist to understand" kind of reasoning, which I'm finding very hard to deal with.

In all three cases, there have been long and cautious responses like "I'm not going to get into the whole spanking thing, because I'm really not in a position to comment on that, but saying that you're going to punch your kids in the face is really not the same thing as saying you're going to spank them, and it's a pretty horrible thing to say."

Which generally leads to more yeah-but-you-have-to-have-kids-to-understand statements.

In the future, I think I'm just going to avoid the people in question -- which is a bit difficult, because I'm not generally of a nature to let things like "all teachers are greedy" or "I'm going to put a fist in my kid's mouth if he gets out of line" go unchallenged. And I live in a small, and conservative, community where stuff like this flies around a fair bit.

But it raised the question: when people bring up the have-to-have-kids defense as an end run around something that's pretty tangentially related to an issue, is there a term for that? "I understand that your viewpoint as a parent might be different than mine, but are you sure you're not [Vlenking the Schmeewod] here?"

There doesn't seem to be.

I'm definitely going to be more attentive in the future as to how or when the card is being played, though, and use it as an opportunity to look at what I'm saying and doing to see if I'm pushing into how-to-raise-your-kids territory.
posted by Shepherd at 7:26 AM on March 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Parent- "You really have to have kids to understand".

Non-parent- "I hope you don't really mean that. How do you propose to teach your kids the meaning of empathy?"


Non-parent- "You know....empathy"
posted by xm at 12:26 PM on March 9, 2011

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