'The Myth of the Spoiled Child' Author Gets Real About Helicopter Parenting​

alfie kohn book the myth of the spoiled childWe keep hearing again and again how kids these days are entitled, spoiled, narcissistic, and, as a result, deeply unprepared to handle the "real world." And who's to blame? Permissive, overprotective, helicopter parents, of course. It's these pervasive beliefs that author Alfie Kohn set out to debunk in his new book The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom About Children and Parenting.

Alfie spoke with The Stir today about what inspired him to take on the controversial topic of coddled kids and "overindulgent" parents, what parents really need to do to promote their child's success, and why we should be grooming a generation of rebels ...

What inspired you to write the book and bust these myths about spoiled children and helicopter parenting in the first place?
I'm always troubled and intrigued when common practices point in one direction, and good logic and evidence point in another. I had long noticed that a lot of assumptions about children -- how they're raised and what they're like -- seemed sketchy, and I was curious about the ideology that underlies those beliefs. And in particular, why even people who are politically rather progressive seemed to accept uncritically a cluster of beliefs that are deeply conservative.

Why do you think we're hearing so much about helicopter parenting these days?
I think there's a deep suspicion of kids. We hear that they get more than they're entitled to. We hear that failure and frustration are good for them, and there's a kind of simmering rage over the possibility that parents are helping them too much when they really need to fall on their faces. The idea here is that life is unpleasant and what best prepares kids to cope with that is to make their childhoods unpleasant too. Hence, there's a deep suspicion of parents who are too involved in their children's lives. Of course, helicopter parenting or overparenting more generally is just one of the strands I discuss in the book. I'm also keen to debunk assumptions about self-esteem and self-discipline and about the idea that children are spoiled and parents are too permissive. It's kind of odd when you think about it that parents are accused of being too indulgent on the one hand, and being too involved with their kids on the other.

What do you say to critics who argue that kids who are coddled and not allowed to experience failure will struggle to handle adversity in adulthood?
It's a reasonable hypothesis, I suppose, for which there really isn't any good evidence at all. What best equips kids to deal with challenging circumstances seems to be a combination of being loved unconditionally, having the chance to make decisions while still a child, and knowing that your parents can provide guidance and wisdom when necessary. More broadly, what best prepares kids to deal with failure is not earlier failure, but earlier success. A great deal of psychological research shows that when kids are left to fail, first of all, the main message they take away is that their parent could have helped them but didn't. And, second, that he or she is incapable of dealing with challenges, so kids come often to see themselves as failures and then they avoid more challenging situations as a result. So, the idea that if kids stumble and screw up, they're gonna pick themselves up and dust themselves off and say, 'By golly, now I have the skills and determination to try even harder next time!' could charitably be described as a conservative fairy tale.  

Where do different kids' personalities come into play? Obviously, there are kids who are more likely to pick themselves up by the bootstraps, while others may be more inclined to ask parents for help, right?
Absolutely. There is enormous variation based on kids' temperament, so I'm necessarily speaking about averages. But there's also considerable variation in the situations kids find themselves in. So, some kinds of failure are more likely to lead to unhappy results, even if we hold constant the personality of the child. For example, the worst kind of failure, the kind that is least likely to lead to a constructive result is the failure that comes in the context of a competition where kids are failing so that someone else can succeed. So, if you want to support kids who could deal with challenges in their lives, the last thing you would ever do would put them into competitive sports or any competitive encounter. The message they take way from that is that 'other people have to fail in order that I can succeed,' which undermines the idea of seeing other people as potential allies, a cooperative arrangement that is potentially beneficial to everyone.

How do you then explain competition to kids?
I would want to make sure that people trying to beat one another is not the only way that people can deal with one another at play, at school, or at work. And I would want not only to explain this to children, but give them many opportunities to experience the benefits of cooperation.

Some parents are upset about the idea that many kids now receive trophies for just participating in a contest, even if they didn't earn it by winning. What did you find in regard to that fear?
The fear says more about the people who are fearful and angry about this situation than it does about the actual effects of giving a little 'Thanks for playing!' trinket to show we appreciate their efforts. Why does this drive people to fits of rage when obviously the kids know who won the game? It is critically important from a certain sensibility to reward success and to make sure that lack of success goes conspicuously unrewarded. We can't even give them something that looks like a reward! There's no evidence whatsoever that giving out a lot of trophies -- which, frankly, I think is well-meaning but silly -- has ever had a negative effect on the attitude or achievement of a child. I think it gets back to the key word in your question, which is "earn." The idea among some people is that no one, even a child, should ever get anything desirable without it's being conditioned on the child having done something to deserve it. The irony is that good psychological evidence suggests it's conditionality that screws up kids. That what they really need is to know that they are loved for who they are, not for what they do.

You write that people who complain that kids today are lazy, entitled, and self-centered argue that instead, they should "do what they're told." Why is it so important that we steer away from that and create a generation of kids who will "push back"?
We want to raise our children to be skeptics, to be reflective rebels, to question and refuse to go along with things that don't make sense. It promotes a better society, a more just life, and a more joyous existence for everyone. Even if it were true that today's young people are too self-centered -- which, by the way, older people have complained about regarding younger people from time immemorial -- then the response to that is to help kids look beyond themselves and think about how to improve the structures and institutions around them. Too often, however, the solution that's offered to us is to merely get kids to obey. Kids who mostly comply with authority do not develop moral courage, and they don't leave the world a better place than they found it. But complying with authority is extremely convenient for the authority figure, such as parents. That's why we have to summon the strength to help kids question even what we tell them, not just what their peers tell them.


Does this change how you feel about helicopter parenting and kids "these days"?


Image via Da Capo Press



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nonmember avatar Emma

I think the reason so many kids feel like they are entitled to every thing is because parents don't teach them responsibility and morals. When my son grows up I hope he will want to be a responsible and not be one of these youngsters that think they should have everything.

the4m... the4mutts

No, it doesn't. I completely disagree, and there are many professionals that disagree as well. I don't base my parenting on what professionals on EITHER side of the fence say. I base it on what I see of other kids, of their parents' parenting habits, and by what feels natural to ME.

My SIL was a permissive helicopter parent. Meaning, she was up her kid's asses, making sure they didn't get hurt, or into an altercation, and also gave them whatever they wanted. They were rarely punished for anything. They grew up thinking that everything the world did was wrong, and they were right, and entitled to whatever they want.

The teens have ALL been in jail, 2 of them twice. The 17yr old is a prick. The 20yr old never graduated HS, and sits around all day blaming the 17, because 17 gets whatever he wants, and there's nothing left for him. 15 seems to be the best so far. He learns from bad experiences. He got in trouble, and turned his game around. But not because of his mom, because he SAW his 2 brothers go right back to jail, drop out of school and get into other kinds of trouble.

17 uses the car whenever he wants, even when drinking (which his mother allows them ALL to do), 20 has never had a job, lives off his mom... the list goes on.

I have seen first hand what permissive helicopter parenting does, and I will be NO part of it.

nonmember avatar Emily

@the4mutts, that's not helicopter parenting especially someone who allows their kid to drink. You see something different and see them spoiling their children horribly and then automatically think that its helicopter copter parenting. I'm a teen and I have to say my mom has been parenting me with helicopter parenting. I'm a girl as well. I have all A's and I have gotten honor roll for the past two years. My mom "spoils" me. I have an ipad, computer, an iphone, nice clothes, live in great neighborhood, my mom cooks dinner, and I do get a lot of things I want. I haven't been to jail EVER. I was disciplined and my mom would still be considered a helicopter parent. What I'm basically saying is for everyone who says helicopter parenting is bad, there is someone to defend it and say there's nothing wrong with it. Just like you said many professional disagree but as many as there are disagreeing, there is the same amount people who agree with his theory. I would like to point out that you said your SIL has been a permissive helicopter parent. "Permissive", that is exactly the key to why her kids turned out that way. When you add permissive parenting and helicopter parenting that's the type of kids you will get. Permissive helicopter parenting isn't exactly the same as helicopter parenting.

nonmember avatar Emily

@the4mutts, I also just wanted to say that I don't mean to bash your experience and opinion because it probably looks that way. Also, I do understand why you would want no part in permissive helicopter parenting because of that experience. If you're wondering why a teen is on this website its because I enjoy the articles and find the parenting advice and debates interesting.

the4m... the4mutts

The helicopter parenting was when they were toddlers/big kids. It taught them early on to expect mommy to handle their problems, and to let them do what they want in the mean time.

There IS no parenting now that they're teens. it's all permissive. The permissive helicopter, just let to unruly teens that she literally gave up on. The youngest, who is 8, is well on her way to being in the same boat.

Blues... Blueshark77

I don't scream at or spank my daughter, and I've seen a lot of comments on this site that says people who don't do that are raising spoiled brats. That doesn't mean there aren't boundaries. If she throws a tantrum she doesn't get her way (she's not quite 1 1/2). She runs around, falls down, gets dirty while I watch from a distance unless I'm playing too. She is tough though, she doesn't even cry over a scraped knee. I grew up around a lot of yelling and spankings (it always hurt more when one of my siblings was on the receiving end), and I knew it wouldn't be my parenting style. How can I teach her to behave if I can't behave myself? I'll just try to remember that as she gets older and we butt heads more and she tries my patience. :) 

Saphi... SaphiraJFire

My mom was that type of parent.

I never lost never had to deal with loosing and now to this day have such a rage when I do loose I get so furious. its not healthy. I also have no sense of team or anything. I do not understand the concept at all.

Its something no one wants to talk about but trust me its not healthy. 
I have hard time playing any game. I get so damn mad. I almost feel like if I loose someone cheated me idk I can not explain it because the thoughts at the time are so irrational.

I have been working though it and can lose some games now but it took a lot of hard hard work to get to that point of not trying to strangle someone for loosing a card game. 

Mom was always their for anything. I literally did everything with my mom. I was with her every second of my life till I moved out and she called me every day till I moved close to her. I still talked to her every day of my life before I went to bed to say good night till the day she died.

We were very close yes but it had its draw backs I could not be honest with her about stuff. I should do an ask me anything about this lol

jcjs10 jcjs10

SaphiraJFire - i think it's amazing that you are able to recognize and admit that. You should be very proud of yourself, that shows a lot of maturity and courage. Good luck to you in your future.

Jozemom Jozemom

I don't know about all the research this man has done, but I know what I've seen in my life. My younger brothers were spoiled in every sense of the word. They never knew failure, my mom was always there to bail them out. Now they are adults and completely incapable of living a normal life. They both moved away temporarily (living with girlfriends who took care of them) but they are both in the process of moving back to my moms house because they just couldn't hack it. 

Furthermore, failure is not a bad thing, it's how we view failure that shapes who we become. Take for example riding a bike. Yes, a parent needs to be there to teach the child but they eventually need to let go. The child will fall a few times, but this is how they learn balance (once they know that leaning too far to one side will make them fall, they will know not to do that again). Almost every single one of us can ride a bike, are we all horribly resentful of our parents for letting go and letting us fall? Of course not! How ridiculous would we all look with our aging parents holding onto the seat of our bikes every time we wanted to go for a bike ride. 

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