Synopsis: Every generation thinks the one behind it is full of spoiled, entitled, lazy kids, prompting parenting advice that research shows is actually harmful to children. An expert discusses why conventional wisdom about raising kids is often all wrong.
- Alfie Kohn, author, The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom About Children and Parenting
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16-33 Spoiled Children
Reed Pence: Ask the average person to describe kids these days, and you’re likely to hear any number of unflattering adjectives: spoiled, entitled, lazy, coddled. But if you’d asked the same question of a parent from a previous generation–even 100 years ago–they likely would have answered in a similar way.
Alfie Kohn: People have been making those kind of claims just about forever. We have these claims laid out before us about kids who are self centered and entitled and parents who don’t set limits that let children fail, unlike the good old days. And then I go back a generation to find that people were saying exactly the same thing and invoking times before that and I go back and find out they were saying the same things again.
Pence: That’s Alfie Kohn, author of “The Myth of the Spoiled Child: challenging the conventional wisdom about children and parenting.” Kohn says spoiled children do exist, but he claims they’re not any more common today than they were in previous generations. Still, if you’re a parent, that may be small comfort. There’s a good chance you’ve found yourself bombarded with all kinds of conflicting opinions about the best way to raise a child. And the people making these claims always seem so sure of themselves and speak in very strong terms. But Kohn says very little of it is backed by scientific data.
Kohn: We don’t even have any good nationally represented evidence to talk about how many parents today raise their kids in one way verses another. That’s why all the articles you read lambasting parents for being too permissive on the one hand, coddling kids, and on the other hand, hovering too close and being helicopter parents notice that those accusations are kind of hard to square with one another but can never see any evidence for this, you just see carefully chosen snarky anecdotes and then quotes from people who agree with the author.
Pence: Kohn says a lot of parenting practices get unfairly criticized. For example, “helicopter” parenting, where moms and dads “hover” over their kids and quickly swoop in at the first sign of trouble. It turns out… Helicopter parenting is actually quite rare.
Kohn: When it does occur, it’s not always a bad thing. So for example, studies of college age students find that those whose parents are very closely involved in their life tend to do better psychologically and academically. There’s much more to worry about in terms of kids who don’t have adequate support from their parents. So it says a lot about our culture that there’s so much emphasis instead on calling out the parents who are supposedly too involved which may say more again about a certain ideology that you have to become independent as soon as possible or the kids have it too easy and they should have to make it on their own. So again, it says more about the grouchiness of the people saying this then it does about what’s really in the best interest of the kids.
Pence: And although so-called parenting experts always seem so sure of their advice, Kohn says there’s a danger any time people make sweeping generalizations about the best way to raise children.
Kohn: It’s not one size fits all, either. With young adults, how much support is appropriate and useful varies depending on ethnic background and gender and class and whether the kid is the first in his or her family to go to college. Some people may need more support then they’re getting but you never tend to hear that in the articles that just assume all the parents are like this and it’s bad for everyone.
Pence: A lot of people also think that tasting a little failure can be a good thing for a kid. But Kohn says that’s just not true.
Kohn: Failure is vastly overrated in terms of its benefit. What tends to predict the future’s success is experiences with success. When children fail at a task, all else being equal, they’re more likely to see themselves as failures and it becomes that much harder to help them develop the necessary confidence to want to persist.
Pence: So does that mean we should make everyone a winner? Give a prize to every kid who simply shows up so he doesn’t feel like a loser? Kohn says no. We should absolutely celebrate our children’s participation, but he’s leery of a system where kids get rewards at all.
Kohn: Because this reward approach where you treat kids like pets, here’s the goodie you get for living up to my expectation and jumping through my hoops, turns out to undermine interest in and ultimately excellence at whatever the task is. So people who say kids are rewarded too easily and we should set the bar higher so they have to do more before we give them a pat on the head or sticker or whatever, I think have it exactly backward. The problem is with this whole bribe and threat or carrot and stick approach to raising children, to make it harder to get some goodie makes the experience more conditional and that’s exactly the opposite of what children need for healthy development.
Pence: Critics also warn that outpourings of unconditional support will lead to excessive and unwarranted self-esteem, but Kohn says their fears are misguided.
Kohn: Psychological evidence very clearly shows that what’s even more important than high self-esteem is unconditional self-esteem, which means you feel a core of faith in yourself, a belief in your own value even when you screw up or fall short. What they need is, in order to support excellence as well as mental health, is unconditional support where we give kids the message that they matter to us and we care about them for who they are, not for what they do and they shouldn’t have to feel that there are strings attached to our acknowledgment and love.
Pence: But if you take rewards and punishments out of the picture, why would a kid bother to work hard at anything? What would motivate them?
Kohn: A lot of us operate on the basis of a belief that motivation is a single thing. You can have a lot of it or you can have a little of it, and we want kids to have more of this stuff called motivation. So we try to motivate them. And the two ways we think of to do that are to bribe them. If you do this, you’ll get that. And by the way, the corollary of that is that it’s critical that rewards be held from kids who haven’t lived up to expectations. Otherwise, they won’t be motivated to get the rewards because they can get them too easily. And then the other technique is punishment or threat, which we call consequences, which means if you don’t do what I want you to do, you’re going to be made to suffer. Those might make sense to raise the level of motivation if there were one kind of motivation. But psychologists have known now for a long time that there are different kinds of motivation and the kind matters more than the amount.
Pence: Kohn explains that rewards and punishments decrease what psychologists call intrinsic motivation. That refers to the drive to do something for its own sake.
Kohn: If I can now summarize more than 80 studies in a sentence, the more you reward kids for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. And that of course is something that seems unfamiliar to all the people talking about how we have to reward kids more or be more sparing in our rewards so that they’ll be more motivated.
Pence: Most parents may deny it. In fact, they may not even know they’re doing it. But Kohn says many of them practice conditional parenting, where kids are made to feel their parents won’t love them… Unless they earn it.
Kohn: That’s at the core of many recommended parenting practices like positive reinforcement. “Good job, I really like the way you…” is a way of saying that you get attention and approval and care from me only when you jump through my hoops when you’re well behaved or when you’re impressive. And conversely, we withdraw our affection and attention especially with little kids in a practice that should be called “forcible isolation” of toddlers but is in fact called “time-out” because that sounds more, I guess, innocuous so we can feel better about making kids feel bad.
Pence: A great deal of parenting mistakes, Kohn says, stem from our assumption that life is a competition. We have to compete to win. And the sooner kids learn that, the sooner the competition breeds excellence.
Kohn: Competition actually tends to hold people back from doing their best because they’re so worried about defeating other people or avoiding becoming defeated that they’re not able to attend to the task in the way that’s most optimal. What really tends to lead to excellence on most tasks is co-operation, where a group of people are able to think and work and play with one another, learning from one another, because a well functioning group is able to achieve levels of excellence that go beyond what the most talented member of the group could do on his or her own.
Pence: But if there’s no competition… Doesn’t that mean no winners… and no losers? Kohn says… Exactly!
Kohn: That’s based on a hidden assumption, one that’s almost never identified, put out on the table. It’s the assumption that excellence is a scarce commodity. So if I reach it, you can’t. and too many people can’t be successful. That’s the American myth at its core. There always must be losers so that all of us can succeed and once you unpack that myth, a whole bunch of practices and other assumptions begin to fall away. That deals not only with how we raise and teach kids, but also with our workplaces and our society as a whole.
Pence: Now all of this may be hard to swallow for parents who were raised themselves believing in the value of competition, or on the flip side, the value of rewards to raise self-esteem. You may be wondering – am I doing everything wrong? Well Kohn says the first thing you need to do is sit down and think.
Kohn: When I give lectures and workshops for parents and teachers, I begin by asking, “What are your long term goals?”, “How would you like your kid to turn out?” and wherever I go, I get the same kinds of answers. “Well, I’d like my kid to be happy, to be ethical, to be compassionate and caring, but also to be independent and self-sufficient, responsible, life-long learner…” Those are the terms I hear everywhere. So, what I basically say is, “Don’t change your parents because I say so, rethink your parenting because your own goals are actually not being furthered by conventional parenting practices.” There’s a gap, there’s a dissonance between what we say we want for our kids and what we’re doing with them.
Pence: Kohn says many of us have a set of unquestioned assumptions about how children ought to be raised. Maybe it’s time to challenge them. Once we do, we may be on our way to raising happier, healthier kids.
You can find out more about Alfie Kohn and his book, the myth of the spoiled child, on his website, alfiekohn, that’s k-o-h-n, dot org.
Our show this week was written and produced by Christine Herman. I’m Reed Pence.