Tuesday, June 17, 2014

No Spoiled Kids on Father's Day?

Lenore Skenazy, aka Free Range Mom, reviewed Alfie Kohn's new book "The Myth of The Spoiled Child" in the New York Times this weekend. I had trouble understanding the logic of the op-ed he wrote a couple months ago so I haven't tackled the book yet and based on Lenore Skenazy's review I'm not sure I will.

From what I've gleaned from several articles, Kohn feels parents are overly concerned with controlling their children's lives and should be loving and affectionate. Fine, anyone disagree yet? He also argues parents are too concerned with competition. Agreed, at least for now as I'm recovering from another school year of travel sports, contests, tests, charity challenges, tournaments, prizes, awards, honor rolls, etc. but might feel differently in a month when my kids can't remember 2 + 2.

Kohn also feels it's okay that every kid gets a trophy because disappointment and failure hold no benefits and teach nothing of value. In this view, children are fragile, sensitive souls who crumble in the face of criticism and lost soccer matches without medals and other plastic made in China. Really? On Saturday my 8-year old son's soccer team lost two games in a row in the World Cup (seriously?) and while two kids came off the field in tears, the other ten didn't seem to care very much if at all. My kid didn't get a trophy and I do think he gleaned something about resilience in that brief moment if only that sometimes he will win and sometimes lose and that life goes on and he will be okay regardless of the outcome however minor or significant (though I don't know the exact mechanism, Mr. Kohn, resilience and related concepts are well-documented).

If it's not clear by now Kohn dares question grit, the golden child of twenty-first century parenting (paging Angela Duckworth). He doesn't think kids learn anything beneficial from facing disappointment? Or is disappointment in general okay as long as it doesn't come from mommy or daddy?

As much as I love a rebellious, countercultural stance, I'm not clear how a parent provides only affirmations (but not praise) while also instilling certain life skills and traits. It sounds a bit like positive discipline, great, but are there any consequences in the Kohn household? I'm not sure how Kohn plans on getting his children out the door and into their own apartments and jobs (or did he already?). Maybe that's in the book.

His comments from another article might clear it up for some people:

What kids do need is unconditional support, love with no strings attached. That’s not just different from praise – it’s the opposite of praise. "Good job!" is conditional. It means we’re offering attention and acknowledgement and approval for jumping through our hoops, for doing things that please us.

 This point, you’ll notice, is very different from a criticism that some people offer to the effect that we give kids too much approval, or give it too easily. They recommend that we become more miserly with our praise and demand that kids "earn" it. But the real problem isn’t that children expect to be praised for everything they do these days. It’s that we’re tempted to take shortcuts, to manipulate kids with rewards instead of explaining and helping them to develop needed skills and good values.

So what’s the alternative? That depends on the situation, but whatever we decide to say instead has to be offered in the context of genuine affection and love for who kids are rather than for what they’ve done. When unconditional support is present, "Good job!" isn’t necessary; when it’s absent, "Good job!" won’t help.

I don't see praise as the opposite of unconditional love. Nor do I see providing consequences for poor behavior as incompatible with unconditional love. Perhaps this is where Alfie and I part ways. I suppose we have different conceptions of unconditional love. You?

Surely Kohn knows that Baumeister, the psychology researcher who placed self-esteem on the pedestal also subsequently knocked it down? I'm still confused about how it all "works" in reality and by that I mean his home. Does he have older children? Does he have children who like competition? We all know kids who thrive on competition or challenge and ones who don't care a whit and I'm pretty sure these differences are present early on suggesting there's something in the DNA. David Epstein didn't address that in The Sports Gene, a great book that I bought for my husband but ended up reading myself.  Like so many parenting books and advice, I'm not sure how this one works in reality.

Speaking of parenting books....bless Lenore Skenazy, who delivered the best lines in her opening:

It is entirely possible, if you sit down on a comfy couch with a plump pillow, a good reading light and a crack pipe, that you can read a bunch of parenting books and not feel terrible.


And I say that having written one.

Enough said.


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