The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom About Children and Parenting (Anglais) Relié – 27 mars 2014
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“Kohn explains why the belief that modern parents are too permissive (or too overprotective) and that kids are entitled, narcissistic monsters is wrong. He has the research to back it up and creates a convincing argument.”
—San Francisco Book Review
“A wise and passionate book—by one of the best friends our children have today—that is also a delight to read.”
—Jonathan Kozol, author of Fire in the Ashes --Ce texte fait référence à l'édition Broché .
Présentation de l'éditeur
Somehow a set of deeply conservative assumptions about children—what they’re like and how they should be raised—has congealed into the conventional wisdom in our society. Parents are accused of being both permissive and overprotective, unwilling to set limits and afraid to let their kids fail. Alfie Kohn systematically debunks these beliefs, not only challenging erroneous factual claims but also exposing the troubling ideology that underlies them. Complaints about pushover parents and coddled kids are hardly new, he shows, and there is no evidence that either phenomenon is especially widespread today—let alone more common than in previous generations. Moreover, new research reveals that helicopter parenting is quite rare and, surprisingly, may do more good than harm when it does occur. The major threat to healthy child development, Kohn argues, is parenting that is too controlling rather than too indulgent.
With the same lively, contrarian style that marked his influential books about rewards, competition, and education, Kohn relies on a vast collection of social science data, as well as on logic and humor, to challenge assertions that appear with numbing regularity in the popular press and are often accepted uncritically, even by people who are politically liberal. These include claims that young people
• suffer from inflated self-esteem
• are entitled and narcissistic
• receive trophies, praise, and A’s too easily
• are in need of more self-discipline and “grit”
Kohn’s invitation to reexamine these and other assumptions is particularly timely; his book has the potential to change our culture’s conversation about kids and the people who raise them. --Ce texte fait référence à l'édition Broché .
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This is now my third Alfie Kohn book, plus I have read nearly all of his articles that are available online. It doesn’t take long to realize that Kohn has one basic overarching point, and that his writings simply come at that point from a variety of different angles. His point has to do with how we as a society tend to exert control and expect compliance, and how we use punishments and rewards as the main means of instilling this control. This power and control, and the punitive means of enforcing it, is actually harmful not only to the individuals subject to it but to the fabric of society. It creates individuals who are insecure, risk-averse, compliant, conventional and conforming. If we want people to be bold, analytical, critical, creative, innovative and, well, free, we need to become more supportive, nurturing and unconditionally accepting. In short, Kohn refers to this as “working with” rather than “doing to”.
This particular book, as the title indicates, comes at this paradigm by exploring current (and past) ideas that kids “these days” are spoiled and coddled; that parents “today” are both too permissive and too involved in their kids’ lives. He explores a range of typical, usually conservative bogeymen from indulged, “entitled”, narcissistic kids, to helicopter parents to participation trophies and self-esteem. He also explores the latest “ideals” promoted for child-rearing – “grit”, perseverance, self-discipline, rigor, etc.
In each section, Kohn begins by operationalizing the definition of terms like “spoiled” or “permissive” and looking at research and history to show that such alleged phenomena are not really new and that there is no current “epidemic” of spoiled kids or permissive parents any more than there ever has been. He finds dozens of historical quotes, each complaining of the same basic woes, always as if the generation in question were the first ever generation to be that way/do those things. He next analyzes research literature over time to see if, for example, college students are any more narcissistic than they were in the 50s or 70s or whenever the “golden age” supposedly was.
He comes up empty handed on any research to show that the current generation is any worse than any previous generations on any of the measures he examines, but he does find research to show how changes do happen over a lifetime, which may account for perceptions of different generations. College students today are no more narcissistic than college students of 30 years ago, but 20-year-olds are more narcissistic than 50-year-olds. So the older generation may simply be misremembering their own youth and instead attribute age-based differences to generational differences – “kids these days!”
After demonstrating that there is no epidemic of unwarranted youthful exuberance (in fact, perhaps, the opposite), Kohn, in his usual style, takes a step back to really explore what we mean when we use terms like “self-esteem” and the underlying assumptions of what children (or people in general) must be like to shape such views. In exploring self-esteem, for instance, he talks about how it too often gets conflated with arrogance or narcissism. In fact, however, narcissism is often the opposite of self-esteem – an empty boasting meant (perhaps unconsciously) to fill the hole for someone who in fact doesn’t really feel all that great about himself. And in any case, what’s so bad about feeling good about one’s self?
Kohn believes that there are three underlying beliefs or worldviews that contribute to traditional views of how kids should be raised. The first is the idea of conditionality – that everything good, including even approval and self-esteem, should have to be earned. No one should have the right to be “rewarded” or to feel good without accomplishing something. The second is the idea of scarcity – the idea that, for instance, “excellence” is limited. Kids (all people, really) should have to compete against each other to see who is the “best” because only the “best” are excellent. It is not possible for everyone to achieve excellence, no matter how good everyone is (which is why grades are assigned on a curve, even if the whole class performs well). The final underlying assumption is that deprivation is good. Life is tough. The sooner you get used to that, even starting in early childhood, the better off you’ll be.
If you’ve read any of Kohn’s other work, you’ll be familiar with his rebuttals to these assumptions. Imagine a world in which children (all people) are loved and accepted simply for being human and being who they are. Where everyone is allowed to excel and achieve in his or her own way and where everyone can define his or her own excellence by his or her own internal sense. Where children are nurtured, protected and supported through life’s ups and downs. Many people would see this as too touchy-feely, not realistic or maybe just plain unmanly. But research shows better outcomes – in terms of both “success” factors such as earnings, as well as simple mental health – for kids raised in this way. Rewards and punishment, competition and other external valuations lessen internal motivation and make people defensive and constricted. Unconditional acceptance frees people to pursue their own interests and passions, take risks and live life secure in their own skin.
Finally, Kohn concludes with a discussion about why “grit”, self-discipline and self-control may be overrated, especially if those characteristics are used in pursuit of externally mandated goals and expectations. Kohn argues instead for raising “rebels” – kids who will trust to their own internal motivations and moral guidance based on the empathy they develop for others based on having been accepted and loved themselves. Such kids, Kohn argues, are well-positioned to make thoughtful choices about how and when to respectfully question and challenge authority. And this is a good thing.
I do have some criticisms of this book, one admittedly minor. First, I wish that Kohn would have used footnotes rather than endnotes. There is a great deal of relevant information contained in the note, but it is rather irritating to keep flipping back and forth.
Second, and more significantly, as with all Alfie Kohn books, we hear a lot more about what not to do and why traditional child-rearing methods and philosophies are problematic that we hear about what to do and what does work to raise happy, empathetic, conscientious and socially responsible kids. I realize that UNCONDITIONAL PARENTING was an attempt to do just that, but again, Kohn spent more time telling us why rewards and punishments are bad than what to put in their place. I understand there is no one-size fits all, step-by-step guide book to raising kids, but rewards and punishments are so ingrained in our culture that even those of us who know better find ourselves falling into their spell. I would like a fly-on-the-wall view of life in the ideal Kohn household (or even in the non-ideal household to get examples of how to get back on track), with plenty of examples of optimal and less-than optimal strategies. What does Alfie say when he needs to leave in five minutes and his four-year-old isn’t even dressed yet? What does he say when his eight-year-old hits a home run or his ten-year-old draws a beautiful picture? What about when his twelve-year-old would rather play video games or his fourteen-year-old won’t get off the phone? What does one say once one has eliminated “good job” and “or else” from their vocabulary?
I am just now finishing up a book by Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson on “whole-brain”, “No Drama” discipline which does lay out several such examples. Their overall philosophy is very similar to Kohn’s philosophy in terms of reducing our use of controlling, punitive strategies and instead working with the child as a whole person. But they differ on some points such as the benefits of homework, perseverance and self-discipline (both books discuss the classic marshmallow experiments, but have rather different takes on them). I would love to see or read a dialogue among Kohn, Siegel and Bryson discussing their agreements and disagreements, along with examples of how each would handle various child-rearing situations.
Author: Alfie Kohn
Publisher: Da Capo Lifelong Books
Pages: (preview copy e-book) via netgalley: 282
Author Page: Alfie Kohn
[You need to read this before you take another glance at this page: the FCC wants you to know that it is imperative information that I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my unbiased review. I'm glad that's off my chest and I hope you feel better knowing it.]
I was warned about Alfie Kohn when I was in graduate school. I was warned that his ideas are somewhat 'naive', that they sort of controvert the 'mainstream,' and that they are not compatible with 'reality.' So I began the reading with not a little nervousness and apprehension. Yet, as I went deeper into the book I found myself nodding in agreement, highlighting in agreement, and sort of shaking my head in disbelief at the depth of common sense I was discovering with each turn of an electronic page. I was warned that Kohn is a little out of the mainstream; I was not told that I might actually find what he is saying useful, helpful, and sensible.
I was trained at a university in the finer points of Applied Behavior Analysis and I am a strict student of the tools, techniques, and trials that accompany such a method of educating students who have special needs. I am a special education teacher, an Intervention Specialist, and when I think about a typical day with my students, I think about the words I have used throughout the day: "Don't ask me why;" "The goal of this exercise is so that the student will learn to comply;" "These students will not always have us around to guide them on every step of their lives, they need to learn how to do on their own without all the hand holding, mothering, and coddling;" "Good job!;" "Because I said so;" "Prize box at the end of the day if...." And so it goes, on an on. These are the words that accompany other interventions (such as time-outs, various rewards, Class-Dojo points, deprivation of recess for misbehavior, and so on and so forth). All of this is designed for one purpose, and that is to elicit compliance--a word, as I have reflected on my teaching practices, I use entirely too much. Kohn writes:
In reviewing popular books and articles for parents, I'm struck again and again by how their focus is on how to elicit compliance. There's considerable variation in the strategies they propose, from bullying to bargaining, from techniques frankly modeled on animal training to subtler forms of manipulation. But the animating question in such texts is rarely 'What do kids need, and how can we meet those needs?' Rather, it's 'How can you get your kid to do whatever you want?' (37)
Kohn's book caused me to pause and gasp quite a lot--not because it is necessarily deep, but because it makes sense, more sense, in any number of ways, than Applied Behavior Analysis. It also caused a great deal of reflection, deeper reflection, about the way I work in my classroom. It made me think long and hard about what my ultimate goal is with my students who have various disabilities and it made me think of the various ways that I attempt to motivate them to those ends. Frankly, the book made me question a lot of things about a lot of things: what was the purpose of my own education from elementary school to graduate school? What is the overarching purpose of today's public education system? It seems to me that perhaps more people ought to be asking some of these questions too--people who are in positions to ask them and bring about necessary changes. The more I think about what Kohn wrote the more I am convinced that a larger portion of the things we teach kids each day in school would be better off consigned to the rubbish heap.
One of the more important points that Kohn makes in his book is that we give way too much emphasis and enthusiasm to competitive pursuits as parents and schools. I have written about this as plank in my own ideas about education reform, but suffice it to say that I didn't take it to the ends that Kohn did--but armed with his analysis I am ready to do that very thing. I won't spoil all of the fun of reading through Kohn's analysis, but suffice it to say that I believe he is correct: there is far too much emphasis on competition in families, in schools, in life and when competition is introduced at an early age, well, what can we expect when our children view life through that lens?
Something I don't particularly care for is his heavy lean to the left of things--to the extent that even though he claims the current president extended and intensified the education policies of the former president one still gets the sense that it is still the former president's fault for initiating them to begin with. Now I don't particularly care one way or another if Kohn is liberal or conservative or Martian.What bothered me is that at the beginning of the book that 'an awful lot of people who are politically liberal begin to sound like right-wing talk-show hosts as soon as the conversation turns to children and parenting' (2). He goes on:
Have a look at the unsigned editorials in left-of-center newspapers, or essays by columnists whose politics are mostly progressive. Listen to speeches by liberal public officials. On any of the controversial issues of our day, from tax policy to civil rights, you'll find approximately what you'd expect. But when it comes to education, almost all of them take a hard-line position very much like what we hear from conservatives They endorse a top-down, corporate-style version of school reform that includes prescriptive, one-size-fits-all teaching standards and curriculum mandates; weakened job protection for teachers; frequent standardized testing; and a reliance on rewards and punishments to raise scores on those tests and compel compliance on the part of teachers and students. (2)
He goes on to note that liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans all sound the same when it comes to education (and parenting). My point is that even though he says the two sound alike, it is the conservative side of this conversation that receives the majority of Kohn's verbal aggression. All of our problems with parenting and education date back to an appalling sense of devotion to Puritanism and the so-called Protestant work ethic and their perpetuation in our current day. He says that it was left-leaners who sounded like conservatives that prompted the book (2) and yet there is nary a word of criticism for those left-leaning folks who cannot make up their minds one way or another. In other words he uses words like 'right-wing', 'Puritan', 'religious', and 'conservative' all in a pejorative sense and, frankly, it just gets tired after the first 100 repetitions.
In my opinion, Kohn made a lot of good points--points that I fully agree with and intend to implement in my own work as an educator. Kohn has a way of stripping us of our blinders and forcing us to look at our own prejudice:
We Americans stubbornly resist the possibility that what we do is profoundly shaped by policies, norms, systems, and other structural realities. We prefer to believe that people who commit crimes are morally deficient, that that have-nots in our midst are lazy (or at least insufficiently resourceful), that overweight people simply lack the willpower to stop eating, and so on. If only those folks would just exercise a little personal responsibility, a bit more self-control! (170)
He also has a biting sense of humor--as a fan of sarcasm, I appreciate his efforts.
Finally I will say this. I really do not know what to make of his analysis and critiques of newspaper editorials, blog posts, and peer-reviewed papers. He could be correct, it could just be his opinion of those things. For every point he brings up, the skilled researcher can probably find a counterpoint, for every yin he slings, someone will sling a yang. Kohn writes from his contrary, against the mainstream, point of view and most folks in research are aware of that so I'm sure there will be plenty of peer-reviewed critiques of the book. Nevertheless, the book is meticulously referenced and footnoted (37 pages of end notes) and referenced (26 pages of references) and even if one happens to disagree with his points and his ultimate conclusion (of which I am a bit skeptical to be sure) it cannot be denied that he has stirred the pot--frankly, for the better.*
It is time to strip the pretenses we have as parents and educators of children and dial back some (all?) of our antiquated ideas about how children should be raised and how they best learn. I may not be on the bandwagon for every jot and tittle of this book, but by and large I have been challenged to reexamine my own value system, my own educational practices, and my own care and concern for children--my own and others'.
The bottom line is that kids learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions. If we want kids to take responsibility for making the world a better place, then we need to give them responsibilities. That means dialing back our control, whether of the flagrant or subtle variety. (189-190**)
Well said. It requires courage, but I think it can be done. I think folks who are willing to have their presuppositions challenged, who are tired of the status-quo, and who are tired of people in the media telling them how (and what and when and why) to raise their children will appreciate Kohn's frankness, the depth of his research, and his skillful analysis of the myths perpetuated by those who have more of an agenda than an actual valid point.
*The book will also, in its finished form, contain an index.
**I previewed a pre-publication copy of the book. Page numbers may have changed in the actual published book.
Kohn’s the rare author who breaks down real-life arguments into their components and doesn't just cite but, rather, pores over the original research pertaining to each of them. He dissects several important studies whose so-called results get thrown around quite often in parenting books and articles—e.g., the marshmallow experiments, research on narcissism in young people, studies on children’s self-esteem and the importance of grit—and surprises us with what the research actually shows (and, at times, the disparity between how the authors of the studies interpreted their results versus how others typically report them).
It’s all too rare that an author walks readers through such conceptual and research heavy lifting that they come away with new understandings about topics with which they thought themselves already familiar. Kohn has done a tremendous service for us parents and our children by writing such a book. That he does so in a way that is both enjoyable to read and at times evokes a chuckle with its incisive wit is all the more valuable an accomplishment! I’d say that even exhausted parents whose intellectual life at home extends no further than reading for 20 minutes before bedtime will benefit from, and have no problem absorbing, this book’s clearly presented ideas and evidence.
Whether you’re liberal or conservative, traditional or progressive, well-read about parenting and developmental psychology or generally too busy parenting in real life to read many books about it, The Myth of the Spoiled Child will get you thinking whether the parenting beliefs and practices you apply every day are leading where you really want to go. Even if you already consider yourself relatively well-informed, self-reflective and evolved as a parent, this book is almost sure to challenge you in the best ways. As Kohn shows so powerfully, some of the basic tenets we all take as parenting common sense are unlikely to truly meet our long-term goals or lead to a better world for our children, both now and as adults.
I can count the number of parenting books I’ve considered life-changing on one hand. The Myth of the Spoiled is one of them, up there with the classic How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. I cannot think of a higher compliment than that.
For a long time, my husband and I have described our approach to parenting as such: We know we don't want to do it the way our parents did it. But that's really the only thing we know for sure. The rest of it feels like we're winging it, like there is no blueprint.
The truth of the matter is this: Raising kids is hard, especially if it's being done in the contemporary American context where there is no courtyard or neighborhood or extended family to pick up some slack. The only "Me Time" some parents get is when their kids are at "activities", sports, camps, extracurriculars... Having a kid sit and practice an instrument for hours and hours is another good one. As long as the kid is busy (as evidenced by the sound of the piano or violin coming from the other room), the adults get "Me Time". This stealthy attempt at maximizing parental "Me Time" has to be bolstered by the need for kids to develop a competitive edge, so that it is justified.
So, having kids be compliant, controlled, responsible (there's a good one), and obedient is the solution, and it's backed by centuries of "conventional wisdom" that these are the kids who grow up to be well adjusted, productive, and pro-social. Don't get me wrong. These are all good qualities for parents to strive for in their kids. The problem is that traditional and conventional ways believed to produce such individuals really doesn't work. If you do end up with such an individual, it is probably by accident, or after many years of psychotherapy to undo the damage, or because the individual rebelled or escaped the system as soon as she or he could.
Alfie Kohn convincingly challenges conventional wisdom, saying there is nothing significant to substantiate it, and a ton of evidence to the contrary. So what's a parent to do? Suck it up, that's what. Yeah, it's a reversal. And in the meantime, work to dislodge conventional wisdom, first in yourself, and then in others. Resist the temptation to believe that all those fabulous extracurriculars are going to enhance the college application or future success and happiness. If your kid isn't passionate about something, it becomes a joyless exercise in busywork, which, to my kids at least, is tantamount to torture.
The only other thing I can say is that I realize our "working with" approach is, in many ways, experimental, and only time will tell. Experimental, in my mind, is preferable to unsubstantiated conventional wisdoms that seem to be future focused (to produce successful, productive members of society, you have to put kids through trials and tribulations in the here and now), and for the good of the child, but really only end up being tools for control in the hands of (and for the good of) the adults who brought them into the world and are charged with their care.
I'll end by saying this: If I hear another reference to the benefits of developing "grit" in kids, I'm going to scream!
Kohn rightly chastises liberal/left media and interests for dispensing the same anti-youth myths as right-wingers but does not dig much into why the myths are so appealing. Put simply, American adults don't like children and (especially) adolescents much and mistreat the young far more than other comparably affluent societies, a hostility that has been widening as the demographics of younger generations (now approaching 50% nonwhite) diverge from those of whiter elders. Further, aging adults derive a great deal of our own self-esteem from disparaging young people, as well as a greater claim to society's resources based on our superior morality and citizenship. I would love to see a poll showing German elders actually enjoy hearing bad things about young people redone in the United States; I suspect the results would be stunning.
In short, Kohn fails to appreciate that the reason anti-youth myths are so popular and intractable across the political spectrum despite a wealth of research and common sense refuting them is because these are not ideologies at all; they are deeply rooted in the tribal fears and resentments of aging adults against emerging, more diverse younger generations. You can't refute visceral fears, such as those displayed by screaming mobs against frightened refugee children, with facts or research -- but Kohn is right to try.
Second, Kohn adopts some of the same bizarre mythology on the second-to-last page of the book -- in fact, he all but wrecks the points he carefully constructed in the first 191 pages! Suddenly, Kohn (without providing a scrap of evidence) declares: "many-- too many--of our children's values and attitudes are formed by the mass media" (p. 192). What values are these? "Violence, competition, sexism, and consumerism," he writes. Suddenly, Kohn is conceding that the left-right anti-youth mythmakers are right to argue that today's young people are a one-size-fits-all mass of dangerous, crazy robots stuffed with bad values. This is complete baloney. "The media" present a wide variety of values (not just negative ones), plenty of research shows that young people are selective, choose diverse media tailored to their individuality, and learn values primarily from the adults around them. Kohn's simplistic outburst shows what a damaging influence the moralistic "culture war" has had even on skeptical, progressive thinkers. So, x-out page 191, and most of the rest of the book is excellent.