Author works to dispel the ‘myth’ of the spoiled child

Alfie Kohn wants parents to stop worrying that their children are getting off too easy if they aren’t subjected to struggle and sacrifice early in life.

Kohn has written 13 books on human behavior, the education system and parenting. His latest, “The Myth of the Spoiled Child,” explores the conventional wisdom that children need to fail to be successful.

It is, in some ways, an offshoot of his first book in which he discussed how destructive competition is in all areas of human life. Kohn has said he doesn’t see any significant harm in giving every kid on the field a trophy, but he’d rather see children working cooperatively with one another than competing.

The former teacher will be the keynote speaker at a benefit later this month for the Children’s Museum of Tacoma. Prior to the fundraising lunch, he will appear at a symposium on “Building a Child-Centered Community” at the University of Washington Tacoma.

Kohn spoke recently with The News Tribune about his new book and his position that standardized testing reduces the quality of education.

Question: Tell us about your latest book and how you came up with the myth of the spoiled child.

Answer: There are a number of beliefs about what children are like and how we raise them. That turns out to be completely unsupported by good studies. So in this book, I look at a constellation of conservative assumptions about children and parenting. For example, most parents are spoiling their kids, refusing to set limits and at the same time somehow, too involved in their lives and functioning as “helicopter parents.”

Kids meanwhile are supposedly spoiled, narcissistic, and they get everything too easily in life. They feel too good about themselves, they get A’s in school and trophies and praise without having to earn them.

So I unpack these assumptions showing that there’s no evidence at all to support them and that these beliefs say more about the people who hold them then they do about what’s actually going on with children and their parents.

Q: So, what you’re saying is that most children aren’t self-entitled and spoiled?

A: Let me back up, of course we can find entitlement and obnoxiousness in some children just as we can find those characteristics in some adults. There’s no evidence that these unpleasant attributions are true to most kids, or more importantly, that they’re true of kids today than was the case awhile ago.

In fact, I begin the book by giving examples of articles and books that accuse parents of being too indulgent and children of being too spoiled, unlike the good old days when kids were raised properly. Then I back up a generation and give examples where books and articles were saying the same thing and hearken back to another part of the past. Then I back up another generation and so on.

So there are many examples of the kind of grouchy wistfulness that’s dismissive of children and indulgent parents that could have appeared on a blog this morning, but in fact were published 100 years ago. So this is the sort of evidence that ought to make people who complain about kids today, sit down and shut up. It never seems to work though.

Q: So have you noticed any major behavioral differences in parenting throughout the generations?

A: There are some differences. For example, using physical violence on kids to discipline them is slightly less popular in America today than it was half a century ago. On the other hand, the vast majority of parenting guides are still telling parents how to control their children, even if they suggest using different techniques as opposed to finding out what their children need and trying to meet those needs.

Q: You have another book, “Punished by Rewards,” in which you say stickers and popcorn parties don’t give students an incentive to learn or be responsible. So what would you suggest to keep kids engaged and excited about school?

A: By making school better. Children become very enthusiastic about projects they themselves have chosen and answer questions that they themselves have.

When you watch terrific teachers, in supportive schools, create meaningful learning opportunities where the children play an active role in designing their own curriculum. And when they feel part of a caring community, you don’t have to treat kids like pets by bribing them or threatening them to make them comply.

Unfortunately, most of the discussion continues to ask the question, ‘What do we do to kids, to make them sit down and shut up and do what they’re told?’ we see it as a lack of motivation on the children’s part and a behavior to be corrected rather than investigating how the structure into which they’re placed can be improved.

Q: You’ve also spoken against the use of standardized testing, but if we take those away, how should we keep schools accountable?

A: Well the questions is, with respect to what, and accountable to whom? The whole notion of accountability is a corporate style approach to education and it was devised, this whole accountability fetish, by individuals and organized whose goal is not improve schooling, but to undermine democratic public schooling and throw education to the marketplace with the use of vouchers and privatization.

If the question is how do we make schools worthy of our children, so that kids become excited and proficient thinkers then, standardized testing has absolutely nothing to offer and that’s because these tests are designed to answer the question, who’s beating whom?

Q: Could you elaborate what you mean, when you say standardized testing reduces the quality of education?

A: It’s because the tests are very poor indicators of meaningful, intellectual proficiencies. It’s possible to raise test scores by turning schools into test preparation factories that eliminate most of what creates a vibrant learning community.

The result is that you can raise test scores by creating a narrow, dull setting that is mostly about cramming forgettable facts into short-term memory and being drilled in the skill of taking standardized tests.

Meanwhile, schools that manage to raise test scores beyond the socio-economic status, beyond what is predicted, are often schools that eliminated arts and music, recess, democratic class meetings, trips out into the community, project-based learning and other great stuff. Conversely, some of the best schools I’ve ever seen –the schools that make visitors say, ‘My Gosh, I want my kids to go here,’ – are schools that don’t raise test scores.

Q: Which schools or states, advocate the teaching style you agree with?

A: At this point, no state in the U.S. has managed to escape the juggernaut of corporate-style, test-driven, heavy handed school “reform.” There’s a gun to the head of every educator in the U.S. public school to raise the tests scores and implement this prescribed curriculum “or else.”

Mediocre teachers who don’t mind teaching a scripted curriculum and focusing on test scores typically have no problem with this whole standards and testing approach. The people who resist it are terrific teachers and they’re the ones who are more likely to be driven out of the field. For those reasons, the more the test scores go up, the more the quality of education decreases.