Book Review: Myth of the Spoiled Child
Author: Alfie Kohn
Publisher: Da Capo Lifelong Books
Pages: (preview copy e-book) via netgalley: 282
Author Page: Alfie Kohn
[You need to read this before you take another glance at this page: the FCC wants you to know that it is imperative information that I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my unbiased review. I'm glad that's off my chest and I hope you feel better knowing it.]
I was warned about Alfie Kohn when I was in graduate school. I was warned that his ideas are somewhat 'naive', that they sort of controvert the 'mainstream,' and that they are not compatible with 'reality.' So I began the reading with not a little nervousness and apprehension. Yet, as I went deeper into the book I found myself nodding in agreement, highlighting in agreement, and sort of shaking my head in disbelief at the depth of common sense I was discovering with each turn of an electronic page. I was warned that Kohn is a little out of the mainstream; I was not told that I might actually find what he is saying useful, helpful, and sensible.
I was trained at a university in the finer points of Applied Behavior Analysis and I am a strict student of the tools, techniques, and trials that accompany such a method of educating students who have special needs. I am a special education teacher, an Intervention Specialist, and when I think about a typical day with my students, I think about the words I have used throughout the day: "Don't ask me why;" "The goal of this exercise is so that the student will learn to comply;" "These students will not always have us around to guide them on every step of their lives, they need to learn how to do on their own without all the hand holding, mothering, and coddling;" "Good job!;" "Because I said so;" "Prize box at the end of the day if…." And so it goes, on an on. These are the words that accompany other interventions (such as time-outs, various rewards, Class-Dojo points, deprivation of recess for misbehavior, and so on and so forth). All of this is designed for one purpose, and that is to elicit compliance–a word, as I have reflected on my teaching practices, I use entirely too much. Kohn writes:
In reviewing popular books and articles for parents, I'm struck again and again by how their focus is on how to elicit compliance. There's considerable variation in the strategies they propose, from bullying to bargaining, from techniques frankly modeled on animal training to subtler forms of manipulation. But the animating question in such texts is rarely 'What do kids need, and how can we meet those needs?' Rather, it's 'How can you get your kid to do whatever you want?' (37)
Kohn's book caused me to pause and gasp quite a lot–not because it is necessarily deep, but because it makes sense, more sense, in any number of ways, than Applied Behavior Analysis. It also caused a great deal of reflection, deeper reflection, about the way I work in my classroom. It made me think long and hard about what my ultimate goal is with my students who have various disabilities and it made me think of the various ways that I attempt to motivate them to those ends. Frankly, the book made me question a lot of things about a lot of things: what was the purpose of my own education from elementary school to graduate school? What is the overarching purpose of today's public education system? It seems to me that perhaps more people ought to be asking some of these questions too–people who are in positions to ask them and bring about necessary changes. The more I think about what Kohn wrote the more I am convinced that a larger portion of the things we teach kids each day in school would be better off consigned to the rubbish heap.
One of the more important points that Kohn makes in his book is that we give way too much emphasis and enthusiasm to competitive pursuits as parents and schools. I have written about this as plank in my own ideas about education reform, but suffice it to say that I didn't take it to the ends that Kohn did–but armed with his analysis I am ready to do that very thing. I won't spoil all of the fun of reading through Kohn's analysis, but suffice it to say that I believe he is correct: there is far too much emphasis on competition in families, in schools, in life and when competition is introduced at an early age, well, what can we expect when our children view life through that lens?
Something I don't particularly care for is his heavy lean to the left of things–to the extent that even though he claims the current president extended and intensified the education policies of the former president one still gets the sense that it is still the former president's fault for initiating them to begin with. Now I don't particularly care one way or another if Kohn is liberal or conservative or Martian.What bothered me is that at the beginning of the book that 'an awful lot of people who are politically liberal begin to sound like right-wing talk-show hosts as soon as the conversation turns to children and parenting' (2). He goes on:
Have a look at the unsigned editorials in left-of-center newspapers, or essays by columnists whose politics are mostly progressive. Listen to speeches by liberal public officials. On any of the controversial issues of our day, from tax policy to civil rights, you'll find approximately what you'd expect. But when it comes to education, almost all of them take a hard-line position very much like what we hear from conservatives They endorse a top-down, corporate-style version of school reform that includes prescriptive, one-size-fits-all teaching standards and curriculum mandates; weakened job protection for teachers; frequent standardized testing; and a reliance on rewards and punishments to raise scores on those tests and compel compliance on the part of teachers and students. (2)
He goes on to note that liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans all sound the same when it comes to education (and parenting). My point is that even though he says the two sound alike, it is the conservative side of this conversation that receives the majority of Kohn's verbal aggression. All of our problems with parenting and education date back to an appalling sense of devotion to Puritanism and the so-called Protestant work ethic and their perpetuation in our current day. He says that it was left-leaners who sounded like conservatives that prompted the book (2) and yet there is nary a word of criticism for those left-leaning folks who cannot make up their minds one way or another. In other words he uses words like 'right-wing', 'Puritan', 'religious', and 'conservative' all in a pejorative sense and, frankly, it just gets tired after the first 100 repetitions.
In my opinion, Kohn made a lot of good points–points that I fully agree with and intend to implement in my own work as an educator. Kohn has a way of stripping us of our blinders and forcing us to look at our own prejudice:
We Americans stubbornly resist the possibility that what we do is profoundly shaped by policies, norms, systems, and other structural realities. We prefer to believe that people who commit crimes are morally deficient, that that have-nots in our midst are lazy (or at least insufficiently resourceful), that overweight people simply lack the willpower to stop eating, and so on. If only those folks would just exercise a little personal responsibility, a bit more self-control! (170)
He also has a biting sense of humor–as a fan of sarcasm, I appreciate his efforts.
Finally I will say this. I really do not know what to make of his analysis and critiques of newspaper editorials, blog posts, and peer-reviewed papers. He could be correct, it could just be his opinion of those things. For every point he brings up, the skilled researcher can probably find a counterpoint, for every yin he slings, someone will sling a yang. Kohn writes from his contrary, against the mainstream, point of view and most folks in research are aware of that so I'm sure there will be plenty of peer-reviewed critiques of the book. Nevertheless, the book is meticulously referenced and footnoted (37 pages of end notes) and referenced (26 pages of references) and even if one happens to disagree with his points and his ultimate conclusion (of which I am a bit skeptical to be sure) it cannot be denied that he has stirred the pot–frankly, for the better.*
It is time to strip the pretenses we have as parents and educators of children and dial back some (all?) of our antiquated ideas about how children should be raised and how they best learn. I may not be on the bandwagon for every jot and tittle of this book, but by and large I have been challenged to reexamine my own value system, my own educational practices, and my own care and concern for children–my own and others'.
The bottom line is that kids learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions. If we want kids to take responsibility for making the world a better place, then we need to give them responsibilities. That means dialing back our control, whether of the flagrant or subtle variety. (189-190**)
Well said. It requires courage, but I think it can be done. I think folks who are willing to have their presuppositions challenged, who are tired of the status-quo, and who are tired of people in the media telling them how (and what and when and why) to raise their children will appreciate Kohn's frankness, the depth of his research, and his skillful analysis of the myths perpetuated by those who have more of an agenda than an actual valid point.
*The book will also, in its finished form, contain an index.
**I previewed a pre-publication copy of the book. Page numbers may have changed in the actual published book.