Thursday, April 21, 2016

Review: The Myth of the Spoiled Child

It seems like every day I see another angry "these kids today!" type article appearing in my facebook feed. Millennials and their younger brethren have been accused of being spoiled, lazy, materialistic, entitled and so on, to a nauseating extent. It's amazing that our parents' and grandparents' generations seem to despise us so much. What's more, as a parent now myself, I get bombarded by articles and comments from other parents on how to avoid spoiling my own daughter, since everyone knows children are in imminent danger of spontaneous human combustion if we coddle them in the least. Perhaps this is one reason that Alfie Kohn's book, The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom about Children and Parenting, felt so wonderfully refreshing. I found it at the library, and since I'd admired one of his earlier books (Punished by Rewards), I decided to check it out.

Kohn reveals that ample evidence indicates that most children are not spoiled, and dire media warnings about so-called "helicopter parents," are dramatically overstated at best. In fact, there's not indication that children and young adults are more spoiled or narcissistic than they were fifty years ago. Kohn makes a good case that the rage and anger directed at supposedly coddled children has less to do with evidence about how children thrive, and more to do with deeply conservative ideas about how families should behave. For example, there's plenty of evidence that parental involvement, including keeping in touch with college-aged and young adult children, is actually helpful for most people. In fact, harsh and neglectful parents do far more damage to their children than loving, attentive parents.
The few studies that show a negative correlation between children's happiness and "helicopter" parenting often have chicken and egg flaws. In other words, are children unhappy because their parents are hovering, or are parents more likely to hover if they can sense their children are unhappy? These studies never seriously examine this possibility. Likewise, the definition of "helicopter" parenting is always itself in doubt. Parents who are very controlling of their children, perhaps by pushing them to do well in school or demanding constant achievements are more harmful than parents who offer their children unconditional love and support, yet both types of parents might be considered "helicopter" parents.

Overall, Kohn makes a compelling argument that the harsh, demanding disciplinarian style of parenting is often incredibly destructive to children, and leads to negative consequences for them as adults (the disaster of the Duggar family is a prime example of this--their intensely controlling discipline likely turned their eldest son into a selfish, child-molesting monster). Offering children love and acceptance helps them develop healthy self-esteem, the kind that most often leads to happiness and success.

I'd recommend this book to parents and teachers, or anyone who works with children at all. It's an important reminder that children are human beings who need love and support, not incessant control or harsh discipline. If we want them to treat us with respect, we should start by modelling what that respect looks like in the way we treat them.

On a personal note, people sometimes ask me what makes students successful in violin lessons. My answer is often parental support. Some of my most successful students have parents who take music lessons with them, and the whole family plays music together. It's a beautiful experience for everyone. When I taught at a low income school, I often longed for parents to get more involved in their children's education. So the idea that most parents are too involved with their children just doesn't ring true for me. 

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