'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 bootstra