Saturday, May 10, 2014

Myth of the Spoiled Child

Alfie Kohn has a new book on child-rearing, titled The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom about Children and Parenting:
Somehow, a set of deeply conservative assumptions about children--what they're like and how they should be raised--have 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. Young people, meanwhile, are routinely described as entitled and narcissistic...among other unflattering adjectives.

In The Myth of the Spoiled Child, 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, John argues, is posed by 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. These include claims that young people suffer from inflated self-esteem; that they receive trophies, praise, and As too easily; and that they would benefit from more self-discipline and "grit." These conservative beliefs are often accepted without question, even by people who are politically liberal. Kohn's invitation to reexamine our assumptions is particularly timely, then; his book has the potential to change our culture's conversation about kids and the people who raise them.
You can listen to the author explain his thesis in this interview (mp3).

In short, he favors permissive or indulgent parenting. He is not just against spanking, he also opposes time-outs as being even worse, as that he says that is just substituting emotional suffering for physical suffering.

He was particularly critical of NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. I had been impressed by that book because it is the most evidence-based parenting book I've seen. It recites a lot of academic research, and then explains the implications for parenting. Kohn contends that it misrepresents the research, and particularly distorts the Stanford marshmallow experiment.

Kohn views these parenting style differences as being mostly political. He says right-wingers want to discipline their kids and left-wingers want to boost their self-esteem. He agrees with the left-wingers, and laments that even the NY Times mocks self-esteem promotion, and suggests that the NY Times must have been influenced by Fox News on this issue.

Okay, my skepticism is aroused when someone with a Jewish name complains that the NY Times is too right-wing. But Kohn says that the research backs up what he says.

Not having read the book, I am not sure who is right. Child-rearing style may well be more a matter of politics than science.

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