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The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom about Children and Parenting Hardcover – March 25, 2014
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"Splendid....Kohn's analysis is incisive, witty, and fun to read. In a manner that reminds me of Voltaire, Kohn brings clear and profound social criticism to a topic of great contemporary importance."--William Crain, author of Reclaiming Childhood
"An insightful, well-informed, thorough analysis of the many false and hostile claims made about parents and children today. Kohn patiently dismantles myths about 'helicopter parenting,' every kid getting a trophy in every endeavor, and parents allegedly inflating their kids' self-esteem, and shows the myths to be not just without merit but destructive. Then he goes beyond the critique to provide a positive vision of parenting for our time, 'working with' kids rather than 'doing to' them. It's a vision that should be heeded."--Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, coauthor of When Will My Grown-Up Kid Grow Up?
Kirkus Reviews, 4/1/14
Kohn attacks the status quo on child-rearing and parenting Via research and interviews, Kohn closely examines the current media-backed perceptions of permissive and controlling parenting and contrasts them with actual data, deflating popular beliefs that children are now more spoiled and unruly than ever A thought-provoking, semicontroversial scrutiny of modern parenting practices.”
Calgary Herald, 3/3/14
[Kohn] tackles many modern parenting assumptions head-on in his latest book.”
Boston Globe, 3/30/14
With his trademark blend of skepticism and idealism, [Kohn] dismantles most of the hype surrounding motivation and competition, failure and success.”
The best parts of Kohn's book are in the breathing spaces between the bouts of contrarinessthe 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 that we should encourage kids to develop thoughtful skepticism, a reflective rebelliousness, a selective defiance based on principle' rather than simple rules-following.”
The Metro, 4/15/14
The heart of Kohn's philosophy all comes down to unconditional love. Whether you agree or disagree with his parenting methods, that's something everyone can get behind.”
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 4/30/14
Kohn picks apart the script that today's kids are coddled and lazycomplaints every generation makes about the succeeding one.”
Huffington Post, 5/7/14
[An] important new book [Kohn] debunks many decades of nonsense about undisciplined, entitled, lazy, selfish, needy children who are the products of permissive parenting and schooling, rooted in the misguided progressivism of the 60's and 70's. His research is comprehensive, his logic compelling, and his prose accessible and witty The importance of Kohn's treatise cannot be overestimated.”
If you're well-versed in current parenting and education discourse, you know that Alfie Kohn is America's gadfly on these topics, consistently challenging the popular views with solid evidence to the contrary The Myth of the Spoiled Child is a point-by-point response to the common but baseless social criticism of modern American parents and their children [Kohn is] highly convincing as he meticulously discredits prevalent assumptions about falling school standards, pervasive narcissism, and the overly touted benefits of self-discipline and failure.”
Hudson Valley News, 5/14/14
This book will calm your fears and help you to feel good about your own methodology of parenting.”
Portland Book Review, 5/21/14
Kohn dispels the notion that we're raising our kids wrong' [A] well-researched book This is not a how-to parenting book, but will certainly provide insight into raising good world citizens.”
Bookviews, June 2014
One hears so much about today's kids being spoiled that it was enlightening and pleasurable to read a book that says it's just not true For the parent who needs a bit of advice, this book will prove helpful.”
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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.
With the Myth of the Spoiled Child, Kohn has impressed me again. While a few of his suggestions, political statements, and interpretations of research were unconvincing, the overall message of the book is outstanding, and his contribution is significant.
This book made me re-evaluate everything I've previously thought and taught, and made me a better parent, a better author, a more careful researcher, and hopefully a more considerate person.
Highly, highly recommended.
Justin Coulson PhD