Alfie Kohn Dismantles Our Conservative Ideology Around Parenthood and Children
March 08, 2016
A Q&A with Alfie Kohn
There’s an epidemic of helicopter parenting. Young people today are narcissistic and suffer from inflated self-esteem. Kids need more experience with failure so they can learn to cope with the real world. Children need more self-discipline and “grit.” These are some of the conventional assumptions about children and parenting that have been uncritically accepted in our culture. In The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Coddled Kids, Helicopter Parents, and Other Phony Crises, now available in paperback, esteemed critic and lecturer Alfie Kohn debunks these beliefs and challenges us to reexamine this conservative ideology adopted often by liberal parents. We caught up Kohn to discuss these myths and how harmful they are to healthy child development.
Spoiled children are a myth? Really?
Well, of course some children fit the profile of “spoiled.” For that matter, we probably know kids who could be described by just about any adjective. But the claim that a lot of children are spoiled, or that this is truer today than in years past, is really not supported by good evidence. Sweeping statements about how kids or young adults are spoiled—or self-centered, entitled, narcissistic, selfish, what have you—are revealing mostly for what they tell us about the people who make these claims. And by the way, complaints about how “kids today” are the worst ever have been heard in every generation going back decades, if not centuries.
Some people think everything’s worse today than it used to be. Again, folks have been saying that for hundreds of years. But I think there’s a particular animus against children and young adults (“Millennials”), a real anger about how things supposedly come too easily to them, how they think they’re special when they’re not, and so on. And that resentment spills over into condemnations of their “permissive” parents—or their “helicopter parents” who do too much for them. The latter, of course, is actually a very different criticism. And it’s one for which, again, there’s no good supporting evidence.
There’s no evidence of helicopter parenting?
Most articles on the topic are written by people who personally disapprove of a certain style of parenting and quote other people who share their disapproval. I’ve looked carefully for data regarding the pervasiveness of “overparenting,” and I’ve come up empty-handed.
But isn’t it damaging to kids when it does happen?
That depends on exactly what “it” is: How much parenting is too much? And is that even the right question to ask, or is it more a matter of the type of parenting—and why parents act as they do? The motive matters more than the behavior. But the other thing I’d point out is that when you look carefully at what’s described as overparenting, it usually isn’t about coddling or indulging; it’s about parents who are too controlling. In other words, it’s closely related to traditional parenting, which is also about control. What kids need isn’t for parents to back off but for them to be appropriately supportive and offer opportunities for kids to make decisions...In the book, I report that, just in the last few years, there actually has been some research on college students and young adults. It shows two things. First, helicopter parenting really isn’t all that common. Sure, many parents are in close touch with their grown kids, but the idea that there’s an epidemic of bailing them out of trouble is based on snarky anecdotes dropped into a media echo chamber. Second, college students whose parents are very closely involved in their lives actually tend to fare better—and that’s particularly true for those who are the first in their families to attend college. (There’s a tendency to offer one-size-fits-all condemnations of helicopter parenting, which ignores differences in ethnicity, educational background, and gender.)
Let’s go back for a minute to the idea that things come too easily to young people. You seemed to imply that this is another complaint without any basis in fact, but aren’t kids cushioned from failure these days? There’s a lot of talk, for example, about how they get trophies just for playing...
Ah, yes. Participation trophies. Nothing makes a social conservative more furious—or unmasks people as social conservatives who might not have thought of themselves that way—than the idea of giving a trinket to all the kids on the field...rather than reserving prizes exclusively for the conquering heroes the way God intended. We also hear strident denunciations of grade inflation, of praise that hasn’t been earned, and of allegedly excessive self-esteem.
Wait—there are people who are social conservatives but don’t think of themselves that way?
Part of what provoked me to write The Myth of the Spoiled Child is the fact that a lot of political progressives suddenly sound like they’re on Fox News when the conversation turns to children or parenting. A deeply conservative ideology has somehow become the conventional wisdom on these topics. That’s why just about every article in the popular press recycles these claims—kids need to experience more failure, Millennials are narcissistic, kids are spared from competition (which is assumed to be a bad thing), parents are afraid to set limits, etc., etc.—yet the writers of these articles present themselves as brave contrarians who are challenging the conventional wisdom!
So where does that conventional wisdom come from?
It’s based on assumptions about what’s true (empirical beliefs) and on value judgments. The empirical beliefs are, first, that in order for people to be motivated, we have to offer them rewards—stickers, A’s, bonuses, praise—when they succeed, and we have to make sure that when they’re unsuccessful, they go conspicuously unrewarded. Second, it’s not enough to be successful; you have to defeat other people. Excellence is equated with winning. And third, the best way to prepare kids for unpleasant realities that may await them is to make them experience plenty of unpleasantness while they’re young.
And you’re saying all these beliefs are false?
Absolutely. There’s loads of evidence to show that people of all ages do their best when they love what they’re doing—and rewards actually undermine their interest in the activity itself. There’s also evidence that cooperation—working together—is more likely than competition to produce excellence. Finally, psychological research shows that failure and frustration often set up a spiral of defeat. But here’s the fascinating thing: You can present all this evidence about, say, the destructive effects of awards assemblies and class rank. You can show them the problem isn’t with participation trophies, but with the idea that to have fun kids must be made to triumph over other kids. And the people who made those claims just shift gears and insist that losers shouldn’t get trophies. For Pete’s sake, they lost! They’re supposed to go home empty-handed! At some point, you realize it was never about what logic or data show is good for kids; it’s about values. In the book I try to unpack the dominant ideology in our culture and also figure out what really is good for kids.
So let’s take one example: Is it good for kids to have high self-esteem?
High is indeed better than low, but studies have also found something surprising: What matters more than the level of self-esteem is whether it’s conditional or unconditional. The core of psychological health is an underlying belief in one’s own worth that doesn’t rise or fall based on how well one performs. Yet this is what drives the traditionalists nuts—the idea that kids might feel good about themselves without having earned the right to do so. That’s what I mean by “conditional”: it’s as if how parents treat their children, and how children regard themselves, were just another economic transaction, with love and self-acceptance turned into rewards for good performance. That’s terribly damaging, psychologically speaking.
The longest chapter of your book is actually not about self-esteem but self-discipline and “grit.” You’re skeptical about these concepts.
I am, yes. Once again, a deeply conservative set of assumptions has been uncritically accepted in our culture. The emphasis here is still on control—but this time training children to control themselves, and convincing them to persist with whatever they’ve been told to do. The more we focus on getting kids to show “grit,” the less likely we are to ask whether the task is worth doing, and whether kids should have more say about it.
The Myth of the Spoiled Child isn’t really a how-to book for parents, but it does contain some broad ideas about how to raise children, right?
Sure. It says, first, that kids are more likely to flourish when we work with them than when we do things to them. And the corollary to that is that sneaky forms of control, using praise and guilt, for example, are still about “doing to” rather than “working with.” Second, if we are concerned that kids will become self-absorbed or self-centered, the proper response isn’t to double-down on discipline (or self-discipline) to make them compliant; it’s to encourage them to resist whatever gets in the way of making everyone’s lives better, to question what they’re told. We should help them be reflective rebels. That stance may be challenging for us as parents, but it’s more likely to help our kids grow into good people, happy people, healthy people who make the world better than they found it.
About the Author
Alfie Kohn is the author of fourteen books—including Unconditional Parenting and Punished by Rewards—and hundreds of articles. His work has helped to shape the thinking of parents, educators, and social scientists throughout the world. A popular lecturer, he lives (actually) in the Boston area and (virtually) at alfiekohn.org. Follow him on Twitter at @alfiekohn.