The Myth of the Spoiled Child
I really enjoyed this book by Alfie Kohn and it made a convincing argument for every dispelled myth but, it almost seemed to me as if every kind of parenting style is wrong and you're hurting your kids no matter what you do. Even if you do manage to parent perfectly, society will harm your child. Now of course this is not the case, nor is that what the author is trying to prove. Rather, he is showing how prevalent harmful parenting techniques are in our society and backing each of them up with studies to prove it. The techniques compared are separated into essentially two categories: "working with" and "doing to" parenting. On page 39 "Working with" is described as follows:
"- accepting children unconditionally - loving them for who they are, not for what they do,
- providing regular opportunities for children to make decisions about matters that affect them,
- focusing more on meeting children's needs and providing guidance than on eliciting compliance,
- regarding misbehavior as an occasion for problem solving and teaching, rather than as an infraction for which the child should be subjected to punitive "consequences", and
- looking beneath a child's behavior in order to understand the motives and reasons that underlie it."
It is also called "responsive" or "empathic" parenting. It does not include things like time-outs, playing on childrens guilt, or use of positive reinforcement in place of threats. The author cites studies that found that the children whos parents used love as a form of manipulation were not as well adjusted as the ones whos parents didnt.
The author has found that most parenting is learned and deeply ingrained in society. The most common phrases heard in childhood are "Like it or not" or "It's time they learned that.." or "There's work to be done! Life isn't supposed to be fun and games" (pg 114). I like his description of the mindsets of the people who say those things - as if they have "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy". But why must so many things in life be unpleasant? What are we trying to harden our children against? And more importantly, why must we be hardened for life and better start early because you never know when you'll need the experience. On page 115 another common quote is given: "Learn to live with it because there's more coming later"..."Do it because I said so". Those directives immediately kill any input the child has. Their unhappiness doesn't matter - better get used to that - and their input is meaningless. This lack of feedback from the child really harms their developing self-esteem. They are not motivated to learn or do things because they are interested in them or to better themselves and enjoy feelings of accomplishment. Instead, they follow orders to retain their parents conditional love; their feeling of self worth is based on parental praise or criticism. Children raised in a "doing to" way are less likely to have enough confidence in themselves to attempt more difficult things or things they fear may not elicit approval from their parents if they aren't done perfectly. "Children don't just need to be loved; they need to know that nothing they do will change the fact that they're loved. They require reassurance that their "lovability" isn't in question" (pg 136). The author chose a great quote from Erich Fromm to furthur illustrate the point:
"Unconditional love corresponds to one of the deepest longings, not only of the child, but of every human being; on the other hand, to be loved because of one's merit, because one deserves it, always leaves doubt; maybe I did not please the person I want to love me, maybe this or that - there is always a fear that love could disappear. Furthermore, "deserved" love easily leaves a bitter feeling that one is not loved for oneself, that one is loved only because one pleases, that one is, in the last analysis, not loved at all but used"
A study was done that showed this is indeed true. The children of such parents were conflicted with angry feelings of being denied a sense of choice in their thoughts and actions - they would have had to choose between a parents love and whatever they thought would be frowned upon by the parents. Even if the motivation to do something is eventually internalized, the same emotional policeman is at play. These people are at the mercy of the "tyranny of should" (pg 155). In other words, they don't have their own reasons for doing what they do - they only do it because "they should".
That is how the societal and generational cycle continues. Many parents were themselves brought up this way aside from raising their children the way they "know they should" they also fear if they stop pushing their children along through threats, praises, and competitions, they will never learn enough or get far enough on their own. And why shouldn't they fear that if that's what they grew up knowing to be the truth? It takes confidence to break away from accepted parenting methods and as the authors have shown, controlling parents don't exactly foster much of it. So what would you do as the child of controlling parents? Spoil yours of course so they don't have to slog through the unpleasantries in life themselves. But - therein lies the whole myth. Are the parents who are said to "spoil" their kids by doing everything for them really "spoiling" if the child is never allowed to question things, have their own motivation, learn things themselves? The author convincingly argues that "spoiled" kids are usually either inadvertantly totally controlled with parents doing everything for them or the opposite extreme, have parents that are so hands off that they don't parent at all, essentially telling the child to figure it out themselves.
So what do we do? Don't engage in competition, don't give praise, don't give threats, don't punish your child, don't push them into what's good for them? Understandably by the last chapter the reader is wondering so what can you do? In a nutshell - raise rebels. "Encourage children to summon the courage to question what one is told and be willing to break the rules sometimes."..."Promote skepticism, which mean don't automatically accept whatever people in authority say. A willingness to question the way things are paradoxically affirms a vision of the way things ought to be." (pg 178). That goes hand in hand with teaching children to focus on the needs and rights of others and not accept things that don't better everyone's lives - don't teach them to conform to whatever exists if it is wrong or can be better. Teach them to change it. How do you do that? Parent with your child. Show them respect to teach them respect, listen to their concerns so they know how to listen to yours and others. In a "doing to" relationship children can't learn or practice the skills we want them to learn. We have to trust that they want the best for themselves already - our job as parents is to help them get there by showing them the way and guiding them when they need it, providing the security of unconditional love the whole way through.
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