Jul
01
2014

The One-Sided Culture War Against Children

Left and right unite against ‘kids who want it all’

Alfie KohnBOOK EXCERPT

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 schooling and education, almost all of them take a hard-line position very much like what we hear from conservatives. In education, 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.

Admittedly, there is some disagreement about the proper role of the federal government in all of this—and also about the extent to which public schooling should be privatized—but otherwise, liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, the New York Times and the Daily Oklahoman, sound the identical themes of “accountability,” “raising the bar” and “global competitiveness” (meaning that education is conceived primarily in economic terms). President Barack Obama didn’t just continue George W. Bush’s education policies; he intensified them, piling the harsh test-driven mandates of a program called “Race to the Top” on the harsh test-driven mandates of “No Child Left Behind.”

Applause for this agenda has come not only from corporate America but also from both sides of the aisle in Congress and every major media outlet in the United States. Indeed, the generic phrase "school reform" has come to be equated with these specific get-tough policies. To object to them is to risk being labeled a defender of the “status quo,” even though they have defined the status quo for some time now.

Many of the people who have objected are teachers and other education experts who see firsthand just how damaging this approach has been, particularly to low-income students and the schools that serve them. But a key element of “reform” is to define educators as part of the problem, so their viewpoint has mostly been dismissed.

What’s true of attitudes about education is also largely true of the way we think about children in general—what they’re like and how they should be raised. Of course, politicians are far less likely to speak (or newspapers to editorialize) about parenting. But columnists do weigh in from time to time and, when they do, those who are generally liberal—like the New York Times’ Frank Bruni, the Boston Globe’s Scot Lehigh and the late William Raspberry of the Washington Post—once again do a remarkable imitation of conservatives. Articles about parenting in general-interest periodicals, meanwhile, reflect the same trend. The range of viewpoints on other topics gives way to a stunningly consistent perspective where children are concerned.

That perspective sounds something like this:

  • We live in an age of indulgence in which permissive parents refuse to set limits for, or say no to, their children.
  • Parents overprotect their kids rather than let them suffer the natural consequences of their own mistakes. Children would benefit from experiencing failure, but their parents are afraid to let that happen.
  • Adults are so focused on making kids feel special that we’re raising a generation of entitled narcissists. They get trophies even when their team didn’t win; they’re praised even when they didn’t do anything impressive; and they receive A’s for whatever they turn in at school. Alas, they’ll be in for a rude awakening once they get out into the unforgiving real world.
  • What young people need—and lack—is not self-esteem but self-discipline: the ability to defer gratification, control their impulses, and persevere at tasks over long periods of time.

These “traditionalist” convictions (for lack of a better word) are heard everywhere and repeated endlessly. Taken together, they have become our society’s conventional wisdom about children, to the point that whenever a newspaper or magazine addresses any of these topics, it will almost always be from this direction. If the subject is self-esteem, the thesis will be that children have an oversupply. If the subject is discipline (and limits imposed by parents), the writer will insist that kids today get too little. And perseverance or “grit” is always portrayed positively, never examined skeptically.

MillenialsThis widespread adoption of a traditionalist perspective helps us to make sense of the fact that, on topics related to children, even liberals tend to hold positions whose premises are deeply conservative. Perhaps it works the other way around as well: The fact that people on the left and center find themselves largely in agreement with those on the right explains how the traditionalist viewpoint has become the conventional wisdom. Child rearing might be described as a hidden front in the culture wars, except that no one is fighting on the other side.

Writing a book about the conventional wisdom on childrearing, I’ve had to track down research studies on the relevant issues so as to be able to distinguish truth from myth. But I’ve also come across dozens of articles in the popular press, articles with titles like “Spoiled Rotten: Why Do Kids Rule the Roost?” (New Yorker, 7/2/12), “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy” (Atlantic, 6/7/11), “Just Say No: Why Parents Must Set Limits for Kids Who Want It All” (Newsweek, 9/12/04), “Parents and Children: Who’s in Charge Here?” (Time, 8/6/01), “The Child Trap: The Rise of Overparenting” (New Yorker again, 11/17/08), “The Abuse of Overparenting” (Psychology Today, 4/2/12), “The Trouble With Self-Esteem,” (New York Times Magazine, 2/3/12), and “Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation” (Time again, 5/9/13), to name just a few.

If you’ve read one of these articles, you’ve pretty much read all of them. The same goes for newspaper columns, blog posts and books on the same themes. Pick any one of them at random and the first thing you’ll notice is that it treats a diverse assortment of complaints as if they’re interchangeable. Parents are criticized for hovering and also for being too lax (with no acknowledgment that these are two very different things). In one sentence, kids are said to have too many toys; in the next, they’re accused of being disrespectful. Or unmotivated. Or self-centered.

Anything that happens to annoy the writer may be tossed into the mix. Kids are exposed to too many ads! Involved in too many extra-curricular activities! Distracted by too much technology! They’re too materialistic and individualistic and narcissistic—probably because they were raised by parents who are pushy, permissive, progressive. (If the writer is an academic, a single label may be used to organize the indictment—“intensive parenting” or “nurturance overload,” for example—but a bewildering variety of phenomena are offered as examples.)

In fact, the generalizations offered in these books and articles sometimes seem not merely varied but contradictory. We’re told that parents push their children too hard to excel (by ghostwriting their homework and hiring tutors, and demanding that they triumph over their peers), but also that parents try to protect kids from competition (by giving trophies to everyone), that expectations have declined, that too much attention is paid to making children happy.

Similarly, young adults are described as self-satisfied twits—more pleased with themselves than their accomplishments merit—but also as being so miserable that they’re in therapy. Or there’s an epidemic of helicopter parenting, even though parents are so focused on their gadgets that they ignore their children. The assumption seems to be that readers will just nod right along, failing to note any inconsistencies, as long as the tone is derogatory and the perspective is traditionalist.

Rarely are any real data cited—either about the prevalence of what’s being described or the catastrophic effects being alleged. Instead, writers tend to rely primarily on snarky anecdotes, belaboring them to give the impression that these carefully chosen examples are representative of the general population, along with quotes from authors who accept and restate the writer’s thesis about permissive parents and entitled kids who have never experienced failure.

Oddly, though, even as these writers repeat what everyone else is saying, they present themselves as courageous contrarians who are boldly challenging the conventional wisdom.

Perhaps the experience of reading all those articles—sloppy, contradictory or unpersuasive though they may be—wouldn’t have been so irritating if it were also possible to find essays that questioned the dominant assumptions, essays that might have been titled “The New Puritanism: Who Really Benefits When Children Are Trained to Put Work Before Play?” or “Why Parents Are So Controlling...and How It Harms Their Kids” or “The Invention of ‘Helicopter Parenting’: Creating a Crisis Out of Thin Air.” If anything along these lines has appeared in a mainstream publication, I’ve been unable to locate it.

The numbing uniformity of writings on children and parenting, and the lack of critical inspection on which the consensus rests, is troubling in itself. When countless publications offer exactly the same indictment of spoiled children and entitled Millennials—and accuse their parents of being lax or indulgent—this has a very real impact on the popular consciousness, just as a barrage of attack ads, no matter how misleading, can succeed in defining a political candidate in the minds of voters. But of course what matters more than whether a consensus exists is whether it makes sense, whether there’s any merit to the charges.

Consider the accusation that parents involve themselves too closely in their children’s lives and don’t allow them to fail. It’s common to come across—in fact, it’s hard to avoid—hyperbolic references in the media to “kids who leave for college without ever having crossed the street by themselves” (New York Times, 2/9/09) and “‘Lawnmower Parents’ [who] have ‘mowed down’ so many obstacles (including interfering at their children’s workplaces, regarding salaries and promotions) that these kids have actually never faced failure” (Business Insider, 8/17/12). Just in the few years before my book went to press in 2013, articles about overparenting appeared in the Atlantic (1/29/13), the New Yorker (11/17/08), Time (11/30/09), Psychology Today (4/2/12), Boston Magazine (12/11) and countless newspapers and blogs.

In each case, just as with condemnations of permissiveness, the phenomenon being attacked is simply assumed to be pervasive; there’s no need to prove what everyone knows. The spread of overparenting is vigorously condemned by journalists and social critics, but mostly on the basis of anecdotes and quotations from other journalists and social critics. On the relatively rare occasions when a writer invokes research in support of the claim that overparenting is widespread (or damaging), it’s instructive to track down the study itself to see what it actually says.

A case in point: In 2013, several prominent American blogs, including those sponsored by the Atlantic (1/29/13) and the New York Times (1/25/13), reported an Australian study purportedly showing that parents were excessively involved in their children’s schooling. But anyone who took the time to actually read the study realized that the authors had just asked a handpicked group of local educators to tell stories about parents whom they personally believed were doing too much for their children. There were no data about what impact, if any, this practice had on the kids, nor was there any way to draw conclusions about how common the practice was—at least beyond this small, presumably unrepresentative sample.

More remarkably, only 27 percent of the educators in the sample report having seen “many” examples of this sort of overinvolved parenting. (This low number somehow did not make it into any of the press coverage.) If anything, the effect of the study was to raise doubts about the assumption that overparenting is a widespread problem. But the study’s very existence allowed bloggers to recycle a few anecdotes, giving the appearance that fresh evidence supported what they (and many of their readers) already believed.

Another example: In 2010, Lisa Belkin, a writer for the New York Times Magazine, devoted a blog post (7/19/10) to an article in a California law review (UC Davis Law Review, 4/12/10) that declared a tilt toward excess “has dominated parenting in the last two decades.” But how did the authors of the law review article substantiate this remarkable assertion? They included a footnote that referenced a 2009 New York Times Magazine column (5/29/09) written by...Lisa Belkin.

It’s striking that evidence on this topic is so scarce that academic journals must rely on opinion pieces in the popular press. But in this case, the popular press was actually claiming that the trend had already peaked. That was true not only of Belkin’s column (“Could the era of overparenting be over?”) but of a Time cover story (“The Growing Backlash Against Overparenting,” 11/20/09) that was cited by an essay in another academic journal. The latter essay began with the sweeping (and rather tautological) statement that an “epidemic” of overparenting was “running rampant”—which is exactly what its sources claimed was no longer true.

So who’s right? There are, as far as I can tell, no good data to show that most parents do too much for their children. It’s all impressionistic, anecdotal and, like most announcements of trends, partly self-fulfilling.

Alfie Kohn has written numerous books about education and parenting, including The Homework Myth, Unconditional Parenting and Punished by Rewards. This article is adapted from his latest book, The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom About Children and Parenting (Da Capo Press).