by Alfie Kohn
Da Capo Lifelong, 2014
Review by Leo Uzych, J.D., M.P.H. on Sep 23rd 2014
The Myth of the Spoiled Child is a book which challenges the conventional wisdom about children and parenting. The author, Alfie Kohn, is an inveterate writer of books as well as hundreds of articles. In the book's "Introduction", Kohn opines that "traditionalist" convictions have become society's conventional wisdom concerning children. Kohn opines further, in the Introduction, that the uniformity of writings concerning children and parenting, and the lack of critical inspection, is troubling and impactful on the popular consciousness. Kohn adds that his writing task, in penning the book, is to dissect casual claims in light of the evidence. And indeed, across the length and breadth of the book, Kohn refuses steadfastly to accept claims, assumptions, and generalizations bereft of research validation, insisting adamantly instead on research data supported conclusions.
Over the book's course, a wide spanning gamut of research materials are examined, by Kohn, in expertly critical fashion.
Research referencing of the textual contents is very extensive. Information regarding textually referenced research materials is given in a lengthy "Notes" section (arranged on a chapter by chapter basis), following the last chapter. Many of the Notes provide instructively annotated comment.
Following the Notes, there is a "References" section, presenting citations for multitudinous, textually pertinent research materials, arranged alphabetically by author last name.
A vast multitude of quotes culled from widely diverse sources add materially and germanely to the book's quite formidable intellectual power.
Without intellectual rest, Kohn works relentlessly hard, intellectually, to pierce the husk, in order to see what is inside.
And congruently, Kohn, as he writes, is relentlessly critically questioning as well as very thoughtfully opinionated.
The writing of Kohn, moreover, is imbued with deeply cerebral musings, which are tinged philosophically.
In Chapter 1, Kohn casts a critical eye on the issue of whether parents are permissive; and concludes that there is absolutely no evidence to support the claim that the culturally dominant style of parenting is permissiveness. The critically roving eye of Kohn ranges farther afield, in Chapter 1, spotting the issue of whether young people are spoiled. In this area, Kohn sights that no one has ever tried to quantify the extent to which children are spoiled. Kohn discourses further that, even if a lot of parents are permissive and a lot of children are self-centered, the two phenomena are not related necessarily.
As Chapter 2 unfolds, Kohn expresses his suspicion that most parents are so fearful of being permissive, that they overcompensate by being excessively controlling. Kohn goes on to expound thoughtfully on what Kohn describes as "working-with" parenting, emphasizing collaboration (more than control), and love and reason (more than power). The question of why so many persons seem convinced that our culture has been engulfed by a tidal wave of permissiveness is also pondered with much deliberateness by Kohn.
The substantive crux of Chapter 3 is critically discerning examination of the complaint that children are being "overparented" (by parents who do too much for them), leaving them unprepared for the harsh realities of adulthood. Kohn explains, in this regard, that, as far as he can tell, there are no good data showing that most parents do too much for their children. As the chapter progresses, Kohn explains further that it is a struggle to find convincing evidence that overparenting conceived as indulgence is harmful. However, in Kohn's view, overparenting conceived as control is bad. Extended discerning discourse with respect to "helicopter parenting", and its attendant effects, further engages Kohn's writing interest in this chapter.
Kohn discourses, as Chapter 4 commences, that proposals to minimize unpleasantness for children elicit anger. The critical eye of Kohn focuses readers' attention on competition. Kohn's critical evaluation is that, although our culture is in thrall to the dogma that competition is character building and motivational, empirical evidence of the destructive effects of competition is undeniable. Kohn discourses further that people do not get better, regarding coping with unhappiness, because they were made unhappy deliberately when they were young. Regarding the issue of whether failure is beneficial, Kohn asserts that prior experience with success (not with failure) is associated most reliably with success.
Conditionality, scarcity, and deprivation are the intellectual pillars upholding the substantive foundation of Chapter 5. Looking at praise through the window of conditionality, Kohn sees praise as troubling, because children may conclude that they are valued only when they live up to the standards of someone else. Peering at alleged grade inflation through the window of scarcity, it is not clear to Kohn's intellectual sight that grades are actually rising; and, even if they are, that does not prove that they are inflated. Kohn observes also retention in grade through the window of deprivation, observing that making academically struggling children repeat a grade has destructive effects on subsequent academic performance, on self-confidence, and on the likelihood of eventual graduation.
The area of self-esteem forms the substantive cynosure of Chapter 6. In an attempt to sort truth from fiction, in the framing context of self-esteem, Kohn, exhibiting his characteristic pensiveness, examines pensively a series of substantively pertinent questions. Also in the context of self-esteem, Kohn explores the dynamic of conditionality. According to Kohn, no research has ever shown that unconditionality has adverse consequences. Indeed, Kohn avers that unconditionality is a defining feature of psychological health.
Intellectually careful examination of the realm of self-discipline rises to the substantive fore, of penultimate Chapter 7. The research of Walter Mischel, in this area, attracts Kohn's close attention. As the chapter continues, Kohn explains discerningly that, in some contexts, self-discipline may not be desirable at all. "Grit" also garners Kohn's rapt attention, notably encompassing expertly critical examination of the research of Angela Duckworth. Self-discipline as a moral imperative is pondered also, with Kohn's usual thoughtfulness. Kohn opines that obedience is the mindset underlying enthusiasm about grit and self-discipline.
In concluding Chapter 8, Kohn proposes encouraging young people to summon the courage to be questioning and to be willing to sometimes break the rules. Kohn clarifies that what he has in mind is thoughtful skepticism, reflective rebelliousness, and selective, principled defiance. Kohn proffers thoughtful discourse focusing readers' attention on what Kohn evaluates as being an epidemic of acquiescence (by children, to those in power). Readers' attention is focused further on Kohn's recipe for reflective rebelliousness. The forthright evaluation of Kohn is that children learn to make good decisions by making decisions (rather than by following directions).
It cannot sensibly be gainsaid that Kohn displays expertly critical adeptness in his adept examination of the conventional wisdom about children and parenting.
All parents and children reading this attention riveting book will very likely be held in thrall by its intellectually absorbing contents.
The book's intellectually attention absorbing contents will also very likely be enthralling, professionally, to educators, social scientists, and to mental health professionals.
© 2014 Leo Uzych
Leo Uzych (based in Wallingford, PA) earned a law degree, from Temple University; and a master of public health degree, from Columbia University. His area of special professional interest is healthcare. Twitter @LeoUzych