The Myth of the Spoiled Child or, How To Make Every Parent Insecure

Complaints that kids today are lazy, entitled, and self-centered tend to be accompanied by a pile of prescriptions for how to improve them: Impose clear expectations and firm limits, then hold children “accountable” (in other words, punish them if they disobey); push them toward self-sufficiency; insist that self-worth and positive comments from others must be earned; provide plenty of experiences with competition and failure; promote self-discipline and grit. In essence, children should be well behaved and hard working. They should accommodate themselves to the unforgiving demands of the real word, follow the rules, and do what they’re told. I’d like to propose a different response: Encourage young people to focus on the needs of others, to examine the practices and institutions that get in the way of making everyone’s lives better, to summon courage to question what one is told and be willing to break the rules sometimes.“* photo (8) The quote above is from a book I came across recently entitled: The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging Conventional Wisdom about Children and Parenting. It really pissed me off. I don’t often (okay, never) read parenting books, but this title caught my eye. The author, Alfie Kohn**, talks about how it’s become en vogue to talk about ‘kids today’ as being ‘entitled’, ‘narcissistic’, and ‘self-absorbed’, but argues that 1) this is nothing new and 2) that there’s no evidence that it’s true. He also surmises that parents who believe in instilling their children with ‘self-discipline’ ultimately desire their children to be obedient automatons. I resent the assumption that teaching your child to be hard-working and obedient, let’s say, means that your goal is to raise mindless robots.

Anecdotally, I feel that my generation and subsequent generations do seem entitled and narcissistic. I have read countless articles about college graduates who won’t stoop to working at Starbucks or Wal-Mart or McDonald’s because they’re too good for those jobs. They’d rather move back home until they are offered a job that’s worthy of them. For evidence of narcissism? Selfies. I think that’s all the argument needed to prove that we have masses of people who are completely self-absorbed. Yeah, yeah, we’re not all bad, but let’s not sugar coat things. I adjusted very poorly when I first started working and it was through lots of mistakes and missteps that I finally learned how to conduct myself with some modicum of respect. My parents didn’t expect a lot from me as a kid and didn’t push me to get my own job early on. Moving on.

Alfie doesn’t believe in extrinsic motivation: “Every example of this offers yet another refutation of the sad, cynical belief that people make an effort only in exchange for money, a pat on the head, or some other version of a doggie biscuit…those who compulsively praise children for helping or sharing seem to imply that the act was a fluke: Kids must be “reinforced” for doing something nice…” He goes on to explain that, obviously, sometimes kids have to be enticed with rewards to do some things but that’s only because 1) we gave them a reward and that somehow eliminated their prior intrinsic motivation (?) or 2) the problem is with the task itself–it’s not enticing enough. It appears Alfie also dislikes personal responsibility and consequences. Imagine, being at work, telling your boss that you don’t want to clean out the toilets because the task hasn’t elicited any intrinsic motivation in you. So you don’t clean the toilets. Will you be praised for your astounding sense of self-worth? I doubt it.

Let me paraphrase some key points:

–Alfie doesn’t believe in telling your children “good job” because, as previously mentioned, praising something a kid already enjoys removes their intrinsic motivation. Alfie says studies have shown this but neglects to provide a citation here.

–Self-discipline is actually a bad thing because it’s probably rooted in fear of failure and several other horrifying psychological diagnoses.

–Delayed gratification isn’t always the best choice (Oh, goodie! Another generation prepared to be swamped in debt).

–We’re really all slaves to our environment; if we don’t have patience and self-control it’s a result of the crappy adults around us always letting us down.

–Punishment is no good. Remember the quote above? Instead of punishing your kids, commend them for having the courage to break your silly ‘rules’. That way, when they go out into the world, they’ll be super prepared to question and challenge everything around them. Almost indiscriminately, you might say.

Wow. Overwhelmingly, Alfie is arrogant and presumptuous. It almost seems like he enjoys questioning ‘conventional wisdom’ just for the sake of argument. He assumes that parents who are believers in things like “discipline”, “obedience”, and “punishment” are dictators who have no room for compromise or unwarranted affection. Throughout the whole book, Alfie quotes scores of researchers and child psychologists who pose differing views than his own. More than my own misgivings, this serves to undermine everything Alfie is striving to prove.

*Most of this statement could sum up our parenting style (which Alfie says will produce horrible, depressed minions with low self-esteem) until you get to the “uncompromising demands of the real world” part. I believe we all need to learn to work from within the ‘system’ and with those around us to promote positive change, but is is important to be pragmatic about what the American workplace will demand. I’m also a parent who believes in punishment as a last resort. We do talk to our kids and explain our reasoning for most things. We don’t push our kids to be self-sufficient but do give them lots of opportunities to exert independence. Sometimes positive comments are earned, sometimes they aren’t. Alfie doesn’t really allow for the possibility that parenting is a fluid thing, changing with age and circumstance. That sometimes a thoughtful discussion with your kid might indeed be best but that there might be times for negative reinforcement too. 

**Apparently he is a well-known speaker and author on the topic of parenting and education. Though it was nearly impossible to unearth, it appears Alfie has two children and was a teacher somewhere, for an indeterminate length of time. As for any other experiences to lend credence to his qualifications…? 

Some tidbits I found:

Millennials Want Nice Things But Don’t Want to Work For Them

Millennials Don’t Like Grunt Work, Says Millennial Grunt

-An NPR Debate: Millennials Don’t Stand A Chance!

Brace Yourself, Mom, We’re Back!

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