I imagine that educational theorist Alfie Kohn would be fun to sit next to in a bar. He’d say contrarian things and we’d mock standardized tests and parents who coo over their kid’s every exhalation, and then he’d say something like, “Kids should never be praised!” or I’d say, “Kids are like dogs! They love the crate!” And then we’d each stare at the other, horrified.
But I hope we wouldn’t storm off our respective barstools. Because in some ways his philosophy is more nuanced than he pretends when he’s in “Look at me! I’m contrary!” showman mode. And I don’t actually put my children in a crate—I just believe that kids want to feel safe and to be given limits just as dogs do. We differ on lots of things, but not all.
I agree with Kohn’s assertions (many of which he’s presented in earlier books like Punished by Rewards, The Case Against Standardized Testing, and The Homework Myth) about the yuckiness of the honor roll, our culture’s excessive emphasis on grades and test scores rather than portfolio-based assessment, and our collective irksome need to turn everything into a contest of winners and losers. But I disagree with his assertions that all homework is inherently bad, that kids should never be praised under any circumstances, and that competition has absolutely no place in kids’ sports and activities.
In his new book, The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom About Children and Parenting, Kohn takes issue with the widely held notions that:
1. Parents are too permissive and don’t set limits
2. Parents overprotect and don’t let kids suffer consequences
3. Parents turn kids into entitled narcissists through praise and grade obsession
4. What young people need isn’t self-esteem, but self-discipline and the ability to defer gratification.
First, Kohn points out that every generation has said the younger generation is spoiled and lazy. He quotes a British visitor to America in 1832 tut-tutting about “the total want of discipline and subjection which I observed universally among children of all ages.” He quotes self-regulation scholar C. Peter Herman dryly observing, “The older generation of Vikings no doubt complained that the younger generation were getting soft and did not rape and pillage with the same dedication as in years gone by.” He quotes the eighth-century B.C.E. Greek poet Hesiod: “I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders … ” Hey, Hesiod wants you to get off his lawn.
Kohn is right, of course, that kvetching about dissolute youth is a venerated pastime. But I think it’s telling that polls today overwhelmingly show that the vast majority of respondents believe parents are too lenient. As Ann Hulbert pointed out in her brilliant Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children, there’s always been a push-pull between two approaches to childrearing: the child-centered vs. parent-centered approach. The former is liberal; the latter is conservative. The former is nuzzy; the latter is Nietzschean. But these days, people of all political and parenting persuasions agree that today’s kids are overprotected and spoiled. This kind of consensus seems unprecedented, but Kohn dismisses it out of hand.
Cherry-picking research and casting generalizations far and wide, Kohn tells us that kids today aren’t spoiled; they’re getting the foundation they need to go forth and prosper in the world. Anyone who wants them to toughen up is guilty of misguided BGUTI (rhymes with duty) thinking. BGUTI, in Kohn’s terminology, means “Better Get Used to It”—a justification for making children miserable. “When I hear people complain that kids are being spared the necessity of hard work, sheltered from the inevitability of competition, deprived of the benefits of skinned knees (Hey! Do not diss Wendy Mogel!), and so on, I’m tempted to respond with satirically feigned heartiness: Damn right! And you know what else these touch-feely parents are doing? They’re reading to their kids at night! Not only that, but they’ll read any book the kid demands—because of course their precious little angels are the center of the universe, right? I’ll tell you what, though; those tykes are going to be in for a rude shock when they get out into the real world and discover that no one’s going to crawl into bed with them and read aloud while they just lie there and do nothing.”
Wait, what? How does the second half of that paragraph follow the first? When I tell my kid to remember her flute, and she doesn’t, and she texts me at 3:00 and asks me to bring it to her music lesson, and I refuse and tell her it was her own fashtunkiner fault so she should get back here and grab it and race to her lesson her own dang self, how is that a parallel to “kids shouldn’t be read to because no one in the real world will read to them”? If I’m comfortable with my kid competing in a high-pressure state debate tournament in the Bronx (which is where she is as I type this), why does that mean I’m inherently scornful of noncompetitive pursuits? Like many parents, I contain multitudes! I can think standardized tests are misused and damaging and also believe in the benefits of skinned knees and judicious praise! (I know we’re not supposed to blindly praise them for every monkey-bars-excursion, successful use of chopsticks, and time they “used their words,” but come on, we can’t even praise them for visibly controlling their temper or for perseverance?)
There’s nuance hidden in parentheticals, asides, and footnotes in his book. Kohn warns that making children feel that parental love is conditional on grades or other achievements is bad. (Well, duh. And I think it’s a more widespread problem than Kohn acknowledges in this book.) He offhandedly says, “If parents are overly involved because they’re unwilling to let go—if, that is, they’re cultivating a child’s dependence to meet their own emotional needs—then yes, that’s a problem.” Uh, yes dude, that is what most of us are saying when we bemoan bulldozer parenting.
At one point, he acknowledges: “I’m forced to conclude that no one has any idea how many parents could be considered permissive, how many are punitive, and how many are responsive to their children’s needs without being permissive or punitive.” Again, doy. Because it’s social science research; you can make data show whatever you want them to. As my husband, the statistics geek with a doctorate in communication theory and research, has always said, “Give me the finding and I’ll design the study.” Doesn’t stop anyone from writing books (or parenting articles—hey, I’m complicit) either.
Of course every parent tells researchers she’s not the helicopter parent. We aren’t all honest or self-aware, and we all know we’re not supposed to cling like lichen. In theory, we all agree with “Working-With Parenting,” Kohn’s ideal: “Collaboration more than control, and love and reason more than power. It also includes accepting children unconditionally and providing opportunities for children to make decisions about matters that affect them, focusing more on meeting needs than eliciting compliance, regarding misbehavior as an occasion for problem solving and teaching, rather than as an infraction for which the child should be subjected to punitive ‘consequences.’ ” Unfortunately, Kohn offers no examples, so it’s hard to say how working-with parenting works in a real world of ethical challenges. Life is full of hard choices, and that means collaboration and reasoning sometimes need to fall by the wayside in favor of compliance.
When, say, your kid is rude to a relative, you do not excuse it by saying, “Oh, little Shia is living his bliss.” When a kid is raging in the supermarket and tossing organic fruit hither and yon, a time-out (which Kohn abhors) is a necessary consequence. It can be hard to let a kid experience consequences for not doing his homework, for being nasty to another kid, for failing to pack a sweater, for losing the $20 bill Bubbe gave him for his birthday. Kohn would tell us to rescue the kid and not be a BGUTI bitch. I say, let the kid learn from the mistake.
Children want the crate.
And some things—like the chess team and the debate team—do require competition. My nephew, the star soccer player, would be far less enticed about playing if every game ended in a draw no matter who scored more points. And there is abundant evidence about the benefits of team sports for kids. Kohn approvingly quotes George Orwell, who called competitive sports “war minus shooting”—but Orwell went to a World-War-I-era British boys’ boarding school where he felt like “a goldfish thrown into a tank of pike.” Terrifying. Rather than banning competitive sports, can’t we emphasize teamwork and collaboration, insist on the rule that everyone gets to play, bench kids who are domineering or rude, encourage good sportsmanship, and eliminate the win-at-all-costs mentality? You can stab someone with a pen, but we don’t ban pens. (Do ban dodge ball, though. There are life lessons to learn from kickball, baseball, football, soccer … but dodge ball is the Lord of the Flies of children’s games. I’m with Kohn here.)
Finally, Kohn’s insistence that kids aren’t more coddled today falls apart when you look at the anxiety parade on display at sites like Lenore Skenazy’s brilliant Free Range Kids. Never let your kid drink from a garden hose! Ban the child with prosthetic legs from ballgames because of safety concerns “for himself and the competition”! Sue your kid’s school for serving eggs and milk if your kid is allergic! Get arrested for leaving a 13-year-old home alone with younger siblings! You’d think our world was a dystopian hellscape, but in reality it’s much safer now than it was when we were kids. Your kid is far more likely to be kidnapped or killed by you or your spouse than by a stranger. But we freak at giving kids independence, and they walk to school alone far less than we did. I let Maxie take the bus home alone from Hebrew School (she’s 9) and people act like I put a live grenade in her My Little Pony backpack.
Look, I’m sympathetic to my fellow parents—everyone’s trying to terrify us in order to sell us child-protective shopping cart liners and magazines that tell us that being ethical parents is a luxury we can’t afford. The best parts of Kohn’s book are in the breathing spaces between the bouts of contrariness—the acknowledgment that it’s vital to pay attention to your kids’ desires and interests, that depending on “grit” as the answer to all social ills is wrongheaded (his analysis of the way the famous “marshmallow test” has been misreported—with the genius subhead “S’MORE MISREPRESENTATION OF RESEARCH”—is terrific), that we should encourage kids to develop “thoughtful skepticism, a reflective rebelliousness, a selective defiance based on principle” rather than simple rules-following. (These values seem awfully Jewy to me.) And he recommends we talk through our own moral dilemmas with our kids, modeling the process of decision-making we’d like to see them engage in. Bravo to all that. It’s the question of how we get there about which Kohn and I differ.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.