We 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