a careful look at some of the sacred cows of child raising

by Alfie Kohn - The Perseus Books Group, 2014
in / parent + teacher books

Sometimes, as we lurch from one parenting crisis to another - and from one attempt to be a ‘good’ parent in the eyes of other adults to another, there’s a nagging feeling that something is amiss.

In The Myth of the Spoiled Child, Alfie Kohn looks carefully at some of the current sacred cows of child raising  - nailing down what is amiss and what we can do about it. The ‘sacred cows’ include:

Permissive parenting results in aberrant behaviour.

Coddled kids are lazy, selfish and spoilt.

Helicopter parenting is detrimental to development of the child.

Set clear standards and stick to them – reinforcing with rewards and punishments as needed.

Let your kids fail. It’s a tough world so kids ‘better get used to it.’
self-discipline if the key to success – so best be making kids self-disciplined.

Kohn suggests that instead of simply asking how we can achieve compliant children – the sort who do well at school, listen to adults, do what they’re asked and focus on the task at hand – we should instead be asking why we would want compliant children. 

And then he presents an overwhelming array of evidence that suggests we don’t want anything of the sort.

He systematically debunks the idea that: 

“anything desirable should have to be earned (conditionality), that excellence can be attained on by some (scarcity) and that children ought to have to struggle (deprivation)”. (p.7) 

He asks:

"Does it really make sense to demand that children earn everything they get, or is that an unnecessarily sour and stressful way to live? Should they have to strive against others, or is cooperation generally preferable (so that those they meet are more likely to be potential allies than rivals)? Is the prospect of a feel good childhood really so worrisome that we need to contrive unpleasant and frustrating experiences for our kids?" (p.116)

After going through the research that debunks the sacred cows and the research that is relied up on by those who seek to support them, Kohn asks the very relevant question: who benefits? That is, who benefits from having a society of compliant children? 

Noting that “Overcontrolled individuals may lead lives of quiet desperation, but they probably won’t make trouble.”(p. 173), Kohn suggests that our efforts to produce well-behaved, compliant children are rooted more in maintaining the status quo than in helping children explore and understand themselves and their world in such a way that they can make their own decisions and value judgments.

In the last chapter, Raising Rebels, Kohn proposes that we:

"Encourage young people to focus on the needs and rights of others, to examine the practices and institutions that get in the way of making everyone’s lives better, to summon the courage to question what one is told and be willing to break the rules sometimes." (p.178) 

Now that’s not just what I wish for my children – it’s also the kind of people I want to be around. That last chapter is also full of practical ideas. Not the "what-chores-should-my-two-year-old-be-doing" stuff.  But the ‘how do I change my thinking and the way I talk and act to line up with what my real desires and values are for my children and for myself’ stuff.

Ultimately, I appreciate Kohn’s statement about the meta-goal for child raising:

"We want them to be thoughtful enough to formulate meaningful goals for themselves. And whatever they come up with ultimately must supersede our goals for them." (p.193)

This could be an unnerving book in some ways, but it’s important and invigorating. Because ... is there anything more invigorating than a new idea that helps to settle that nagging feeling that something is amiss? The kind of idea that has potential to change the way we conduct some of our most important relationships?