The Myth of the Spoiled Child

Author: Alfie Kohn

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Full title: The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Coddled Kids, Helicopter Parents, and Other Phony Crises

Published: 2016

I read it: May 2017

the myth of the spoiled child

We live on a busy street, with all the constant dread that fact brings when our children are quite small and adventurous. Cars and motorcycles blaze by too fast, and I come to wish that my sole superpower was driving a telekinetic spike into the tires of passing vehicles. The scene from our front yard turns me misanthropic quickly.

So whenever we let the kids play out front there’s a vigilant dance required to let them have fun while also preventing our 20-month-old from bolting into the street. The driveway pavement brings its own potential for cracked teeth, so I’m more comfortable if they choose to run circles around the large trees—but those are within a few quick leaps of the street itself. As such, I’m often circling them playfully yet watchfully… “hovering” a bit, if you will.

What do other adults glean from these scenes? Do they see a father hanging out with his kids, or an overprotective parent trying to create a futile bubble when the kids should just be left to explore on their own? I recall some lines in Erika Christakis’ The Importance of Being Little where she called out the fact that in the modern view, it seems that the “overprotective” parent is frowned upon, as if wanting your child to survive is somehow an aberration. And her book specifically mentioned Alfie Kohn’s intriguing The Myth of the Spoiled Child.

Kohn’s book is based on figuring out how to react “when we hear sweeping claims about how children nowadays are spoiled because parents fail to set limits.” He kicks off the work by outlining the strange case that, regardless of a people’s conservative or liberal political viewpoints, there is a rather large consensus that today’s children are woefully spoiled. He points out the subtle ways that our language has shifted, with a more pointed tone in words like “permissiveness” and “coddle,” the latter of which “once meant ‘to treat tenderly’; now it means ‘to overindulge.'” How did we come to this point, to have such a cynical stance that claims the way parents are doing things is wrong, and that their kids are taking advantage of the scenario at every turn?

Amazingly, Kohn is able to rely on a couple straightforward (that is, rational and methodical) approaches to uncover what’s really going on. And what he finds is a warehouse of emptiness—there are no real studies that show that parents are “coddling” their “overindulged” kids. What exists is a nauseatingly self-serving blog culture that folds in on itself. Partial surveys, far from scientifically decisive, plant a seed for an often-conservative writer to latch onto. That person’s views become a meme that endless magazines and websites can copy. The latest thinkpiece just needs to call out buzzwords that reflexively makes most people think, “yeah, young kids are spoiled, aren’t they?” and the cycle continues. Kohn outlines scenarios where articles were simply referencing each other to support their claims. It’s eye-opening.

The other fundamental flaw he points out is that to truly make a claim that today’s childrearing is somehow different in a way from past childrearing, you’d have to be able to reasonably compare different decades, or at least generations. This not only hasn’t been done in any comprehensively relevant way, but in the few areas where comparisons are made, the findings simply show that in every era ever studied, older citizens have been worried about the way that younger citizens have been raised and/or the way they act. Tally up the “phony crises” from the subtitle, and they each amount to a monumental (and utterly predictable) version of “kids these days.” It’s almost too crushingly simple an explanation. The writing is fact-based but often funny: Kohn amusingly mentions an opportunity to “call attention to the vintage of our whines—or, if you prefer, how long our gripes have been fermenting.”

Kohn exposes the lazy thinking by BGUTI, or the “Better Get Used To It” response to a kid’s inquiring mind. He claims that BGUTI “is by definition a way of teaching children that the status quo cannot be questioned, only prepared for.” I feel some sympathy for the parents who invoke BGUTI when they are stressed, because at its core lies a bitter realization that their lives are harder than they expected they’d be, and they may not see a path to more fulfillment. But to place all of that weight on a kid by essentially saying “life will always suck” is a terrible non-solution.

There’s an even darker underside to the pattern of critics blasting parents for being too involved or too, well, nice to their children. Kohn quotes a professor of behavioral health sciences who points out: “If you want to see just how much involved parenting matters, track the lives of young people who don’t have it. . … In obsessing about helicopter parents, we’re focused on the wrong end of the spectrum.” When you stop to consider how many vulnerable children have no reliable adults in their lives, or have only abusive or deceitful ones, it makes you want to scream that we waste cultural conversation on the instance of a parent caving in and buying their kid an extra toy at Target.

Aside from debunking the myth, the book also makes use of Kohn’s expertise in other areas of how we raise children. There are some clear philosophical agreements between Christikas’ book and Kohn’s in regards to their criticisms of modern education. Christakis focused on valuing the concepts of play and unstructured time, and Kohn also expresses concern that school is designed to “make students comply with rules that they almost certainly had no role in helping to formulate. The emphasis is not on promoting moral development but on eliciting compliance.” If kids are expected to conform at every turn, it’s because the adults have fallen back on a tired system of rewards and punishments, neither of which are particularly helpful. Punishment in particular just sets everyone up for misery:

What [punishment] does tend to promote are intense feelings of resentment, a concern with figuring out how to avoid being caught (rather than with doing the right thing), a belief that power allows one to get one’s way in life (by making weaker people suffer), and a nearly exclusive attention to self-interest.

Punishment, grades, mindless testing, and all the rest brings Kohn to ask a recurring question, “Cui Bono?” He uses it like a refrain, and it means “Who benefits?” The answer, in most cases, is adults. Of course, adults themselves are the product of society, and it’s a tall order to question (and eventually change) the systems that dampen creativity and snuff out a pleasurable life. I didn’t necessarily expect it from this book, but Kohn eventually goes to the heart of something that’s been on my mind a lot recently. He argues that most of the fault we find in children, and even their parents, should be redirected at the structures around us. He discusses how we place far too much responsibility on the single human being who sits at the very end of a long chain of causal events. This is worth reproducing in whole:

It’s quite common to attribute to an individual’s personality or character what is actually a function of the social environment—so common, in fact, that psychologists have dubbed this the Fundamental Attribution Error. It’s a bias that may be particularly prevalent in our society, where individualism is both a descriptive reality and a cherished ideal. We Americans stubbornly resist the possibility that what we do is profoundly shaped by policies, norms, systems, and other structural realities. We prefer to believe that people who commit crimes are morally deficient, that the have-nots in our midst are lazy (or at least insufficiently resourceful), that overweight people simply lack the willpower to stop eating, and so on.

We are not our own masters, which is a large pill to swallow. But it should give us pause that we place so much blame on individual parents or children—it would be better to focus on the broad patterns that make us do what we do. We need social safety nets, not snarky articles about kids these days. In our education system, we need far less competition and fewer arbitrary measurements, and more ways to instill “a thoughtful skepticism, a reflective rebelliousness, a selective defiance based on principle.” Kohn’s championing of skepticism and developing a child’s early sense of civil disobedience is refreshing.

My enthusiasm for this book isn’t to say that I think there is no such thing as a spoiled child. Of course some exist. It’s similar to the boring opinions about millennials. While I’m sure one could think of a particular example of an insufferable young person who just does not seem to get it, they are probably small in number compared to the millennial-aged youth who are perfectly pleasant and reasonable. What Kohn very clearly argues is that the spoiled child idea is not occurring as a societal phenomenon. We just think it’s occurring because it’s easy to think that.

Last night we took the family to a nice outdoor evening at a local winery, where we met my brother and his family. There, all of our kids mixed with the other kids running around and just having a good time. (My one thought related to a vintage whine was how I enjoyed seeing not a single kid holding an electronic device. There are always some gripes that keep fermenting.) But really the scene was a very simple one: parents standing around talking, or drinking, or listening to the music; the kids keeping close here, or chasing each other back and forth within parents’ eyesight there, or straying a little too far down the rows of vines and someone getting up to corral them back. I imagine this general scene has been the more or less the same for many previous generations of parents. The only helicopter on the scene was one lifting in the distance against a pink and purple evening sky.

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