How Traditional Parenting Is Harming Children ... And Benefiting Conservative Ideology

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.

When students are tripped up by challenges, they may respond by tuning out, acting out, or dropping out. Often, however, they do so not because of a defect in their makeup (lack of stick-to-itiveness) but because of structural factors. For one, those challenges—what they were asked to do—may not have been particularly engaging or relevant. Finger-­wagging adults who exhort children to “do their best” sometimes don’t offer a persuasive reason for why a given task should be done at all, let alone done well. And when students throw up their hands after failing at something they were asked to do, it may be less because they lack grit than because they weren’t really “asked” to do it—they were told to do it. They had nothing to say about the content or context of the curriculum. People of all ages are more likely to persevere when they have a chance to make decisions about the things that affect them. Thus, if students don’t persist, it may be because they were excluded from any decision-making role rather than because their attitude, motivation, or character needs to be corrected.

There are, of course, many other systemic factors that can make learning go awry, but within the field of education, says researcher Val Gillies, “policy-makers’ attentions have shifted away from structures and processes [and] towards a focus on personal skills and self-efficacy.” Even relatively benign strategies designed to enhance social and emotional learning are sometimes motivated less by a desire to foster kids’ well-being than by a hope that teaching them to regulate (rather than express) their feelings will make it easier for adults to manage them and keep them “on task.” After all, Gillies points out, “Emotions are subversive in school.” And so is attention to structures and processes.

Who Benefits?

Nothing I’ve said here should be taken to mean that personal responsibility doesn’t matter, or that differences in people’s attitudes and temperaments don’t play a role in determining their actions. But if we minimize the importance of the environments in which those individuals function, we’re less able to understand what’s going on. Not only that, but the more we fault people for lacking self-discipline or the ability to control their impulses, the less likely we’ll be to question the structures that shape what they do. There’s no reason to challenge, let alone change, the way things have been set up if we assume people just need to buckle down and try harder.

To put it differently, the attention paid to self-discipline is not only philosophically conservative in its premises (as I’ve been arguing) but also politically conservative in its consequences:

  • If consumers are drowning in debt, the effect of framing the problem as a lack of self-control is to deflect attention from the concerted efforts of the credit industry to get people hooked on borrowing money as early in life as possible.
  • The “Keep America Beautiful” campaign launched in the 1950s that urged us to stop being litterbugs was financed by the American Can Company and other corporations. The effect was to blame individuals and discourage questions about who profits from the production of disposable merchandise and its packaging.
  • Conservative criminologists have claimed that crime is due to a lack of self-control on the part of criminals, which, in turn, can be blamed on bad parenting. If that’s true, then there’s no need to address systemic factors such as poverty and unemployment. Indeed, the most prominent proponents of this theory have explicitly called for an approach to crime control “that would reduce the role of the state.”
  • Mischel’s marshmallow experiments have been used—for example, by David Brooks—to justify focusing less on “structural reforms” to improve education or reduce poverty. Instead, we’re advised to look at traits possessed by individuals—specifically, the ability to exercise good old-fashioned self-control. Similarly, Paul Tough has declared, “There is no antipoverty tool we can provide for disadvantaged young people that will be more valuable than the character strengths . . . [such as] conscientiousness, grit, resilience, perseverance, and optimism.”

All of this brings to mind the Latin question “Cui bono?” which means “Who benefits?” Whose interests are served by the astonishing proposition that no antipoverty tool (presumably including food stamps, Medicaid, and public housing) is more valuable than an effort to train poor kids to persist at whatever they’re told to do? The implication is that if people find themselves struggling to earn a living or pay off their debts, the fault doesn’t lie with the structure of our economic system (in which the net wealth of the richest 1 percent of the population is triple that of the bottom 80 percent). Rather, those people have only their own lack of “character strengths” to blame.

Consider the locker room bromides (about how a quitter never wins and a winner never quits) that are barked at athletes before they attempt to defeat another group of athletes whose coach has told them the same thing. Or the speeches at expensive business luncheons that remind us there’s no such thing as a free lunch—and sermonize about the virtue of initiative and self-sufficiency. Or the posters in which inspirational slogans, superimposed on photos of sunsets and mountains, exhort workers or students to “Reach for the stars” and assure them “You can if you think you can!”

Some of us regard all of this with a mixture of queasiness, dismay, and amusement. (This reaction is sometimes expressed satirically, with examples ranging from Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt a century ago to a recent series of parody posters called Demotivators.) We read yet another paean to grit, or hear children being pushed to work hard no matter how dull or difficult the task, and our first reaction is to wonder who the hell benefits from this. We may notice that inspirational posters and training in the deferral of gratification seem to be employed with particular intensity in inner-city schools. Jonathan Kozol pointed out the political implications of making poor African American students chant, “Yes, I can! I know I can!” or “If it is to be, it’s up to me.” Such slogans are very popular with affluent white people, he noticed, maybe because “if it’s up to ‘them’ . . . it isn’t up to ‘us,’ which appears to sweep the deck of many pressing and potentially disruptive and expensive obligations we may otherwise believe our nation needs to contemplate.”

Matthew Lieberman, a neuroscientist at UCLA, speculates that “self-control may support society’s interests more than our own.” That divergence is worth taking a moment to consider. If “society” meant “other people,” then we might infer a moral obligation to regulate our impulses in the hope that everyone else would benefit. But what if the advantages flow not so much out as up, less to others in general than to those in positions of power? Overcontrolled individuals may lead lives of quiet desperation, but they probably won’t make trouble. That’s why the social scientists who came up with the creepy phrase that opened this chapter—“equipping the child with a built-in supervisor”—went on to point out that this arrangement is useful for creating “a ­self-controlled—not just controlled—citizenry and work force.”

That doesn’t help your neighbor or your colleague any more than it helps you, but it’s extremely convenient for whoever owns your company.

The priority given to conformity is easy to observe when the morning bell rings for school. To an empathic educator like the late Ted Sizer, the routine to which kids are subjected is damn near intolerable. Try following a high school student around for a full day, he urged, in case you’ve forgotten what it’s like

to change subjects abruptly every hour, to be talked at incessantly, to be asked to sit still for long periods, to be endlessly tested and measured against others, to be moved around in cohorts by people who really do not know who you are, to be denied any civility like a coffee break and asked to eat lunch in twenty-three minutes, to be rarely trusted, and to repeat the same regimen with virtually no variation for week after week, year after year.

His understanding of how things look from the students’ point of view informed Sizer’s lifelong efforts to change the structure of American education. Now compare that perspective to those of experts whose first, and often only, question about the status quo is: How do we get kids to put up with it? For Duckworth, the challenge is how to make students pay “attention to a teacher rather than daydreaming,” persist “on long-term assignments despite boredom and frustration,” choose “homework over TV,” and “behav[e] properly in class”?

In her more recent research, she created a task that is deliberately boring, the point being to come up with strategies that will lead students to resist the temptation to do something more interesting instead. Again, cui bono?

Given these priorities, it makes perfect sense that Duckworth would turn to grades as evidence that grit is beneficial—not only because she assumes grades offer an accurate summary of learning but because “grades can motivate students to comply with teacher directives.” They are, in other words, useful as rewards or threats. Are the teacher’s directives reasonable or constructive? Same answer as to the question of whether the homework assignments are worth doing: It doesn’t matter. The point is to produce obedience—ideally, habitual obedience. This is the mindset that underlies all the enthusiasm about grit and self-­discipline, even if it’s rarely spelled out.

Along the same lines, in an article called “Can Teachers Increase Students’ Self-Control?” (as usual, the question is “can” not “should”), a cognitive psychologist named Daniel Willingham offers as a role model a hypothetical child who looks through his classroom window and sees “construction workers pour[ing] cement for a sidewalk” but “manages to ignore this interesting scene and focus on his work.” Again, the question of whether his “work” has any value is never raised. It may be a fill-in-the-blank waste of the time, but the teacher has assigned it, and that means an exemplary student is one who ignores a fascinating real-life lesson in how a sidewalk is created, who refrains from asking the teacher why that lesson can’t be incorporated into the curriculum. He stifles his curiosity, exercises his self-control, and does what he’s told.

To identify a lack of self-discipline as the central problem with children is to make them conform to a status quo that is left unexamined and therefore probably won’t change. This is conservatism in the word’s purest sense. But it doesn’t describe only those who are trying to sell us grit. It also applies to those who worry about the possibility that children will be spoiled or feel too pleased with themselves. In fact, every chapter of this book could have been subtitled “Cui Bono?” What’s the effect, and who’s the beneficiary, of framing the problem with parenting in terms of lax discipline and insufficient conditionality? BGUTI, meanwhile, is by definition a way of teaching children that the status quo cannot be questioned, only prepared for. Obviously it’s important to ask whether our assumptions about children—what they’re like and how they’re raised—are true, and whether the underlying values are defensible. But it’s also worth asking whose interests they serve. Too often, it’s not those of the kids themselves.

If we accept the timeworn complaints that parents are too permissive, we’ll be inclined to crack down on kids by imposing tougher punishments, tighter regulations, stricter limits, less trust. If we’re persuaded by accusations of overparenting, we may be tempted to provide less support than children need (in the name of promoting self-sufficiency). If we accept the claim that kids need to experience more failure, more competition, more frustration, more conditions attached to a sense of self-worth—well, none of what follows from this advice is likely to do kids much good. Neither will a regimen of making them discipline themselves to do whatever they’re told and then keep at it.

What’s more likely to benefit our children—and to improve the society in which they (and we) live—is to turn the traditionalists’ approach on its head. How to do so is the subject of our final chapter.


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