How Traditional Parenting Is Harming Children ... And Benefiting Conservative Ideology
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From The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom About Children and Parenting by Alfie Kohn. Reprinted courtesy of Da Capo Lifelong Books.
When you hear someone insist, “Children need more than intelligence to succeed,” the traits they’re encouraged to acquire, as I’ve mentioned, are more likely to include self-discipline than empathy. But let’s pause to consider the significance of thinking about any list of individual qualities—the attributes a particular child possesses (or lacks). When we encounter a behavior we don’t like, we assume the child needs to develop certain characteristics like grit or self-control. The implication is that it’s the kid who needs to be fixed.
But what if it turned out that persistence or an inclination to delay gratification was mostly predicted by the situations in which people find themselves and the nature of the tasks they’re asked to perform? That possibility is consistent with Walter Mischel’s theory of personality. Indeed, it matches what he discovered about waiting for an extra marshmallow: Whether children did so was largely determined by the way the experiment was conducted. What we should be talking about, he and his colleagues emphasized, is not
the ability to defer immediate gratification. This ability has been viewed as an enduring trait of “ego strength” on which individuals differed stably and consistently in many situations. In fact, as the present data indicate, under appropriate . . . conditions, virtually all subjects, even young children, could manage to delay for lengthy time periods.
Similarly, other experts have argued that it may make more sense to think of self-control in general as “a situational concept, not an individual trait” in light of the fact that any individual “will display different degrees of self-control in different situations.”
This critical shift in thinking fits perfectly with a large body of evidence from the field of social psychology that shows how we act and who we are reflect the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The most famous social psych studies are variations on this theme: Set up ordinary children in an extended team competition at summer camp, and you’ll elicit unprecedented levels of hostility, even if the kids had never seemed particularly aggressive. Randomly assign adults—chosen for their psychological normality—to the role of inmate or guard in a mock prison, and they will start to become their roles, to frightening effect. Make slight changes to an academic environment and a significant number of students will cheat—or, under other conditions, will refrain from doing so. (Cheating “is as much a function of the particular situation in which [the student] is placed as it is of his . . . general ideas and ideals.”)
The notion that each of us isn’t entirely the master of his own fate can be awfully hard to accept. It’s quite common to attribute to an individual’s personality or character what is actually a function of the social environment—so common, in fact, that psychologists have dubbed this the Fundamental Attribution Error. It’s a bias that may be particularly prevalent in our society, where individualism is both a descriptive reality and a cherished ideal. 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 the 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 all those folks would just exercise a little personal responsibility, a bit more self-control!
The Fundamental Attribution Error is painfully pervasive when the conversation turns to academic failure. Driving Duckworth and Seligman’s study of student performance was their belief that underachievement isn’t explained by structural factors—social, economic, or even educational. Rather, they insisted, it should be attributed to the students themselves, and specifically to their “failure to exercise self-discipline.” The entire conceptual edifice of grit is constructed on that individualistic premise, one that remains popular for ideological reasons even though it’s been repeatedly debunked by research.