Hey Neurofeedback Moms! I am Miriam Bellamy. I am the mom who started this group, and I am the director of Whole Family Neurofeedback. As many of you know, one of the benefits of being a Neurofeedback Mom is you get access to—the first access to—some of the world’s leading experts on issues that you care about. We all care about parenting.
Mr. Kohn, you may not know, but a lot of the women in the group—there are a lot of dads there, too—but a lot of the women have kids who carry the diagnosis of ADHD. They’re looking to neurofeedback because they feel they need some kind of help. I don’t know that you necessarily talk about ADHD much, but maybe we’ll touch on that.
I want to start today by sort of asking moms who might be listening… Do you ever worry that you’re spoiling your children? Do you ever worry that you’re doing too much for them? Or do you worry that you’re doing too little? I know my girls are 20 and 18, and that’s definitely been a concern that I’ve had… just always running. Do you have a spouse or mother-in-law or grandparent who asks you the question, “Who’s in charge of this house? Who’s really in charge here?”
But where did this idea of spoiling your children come from? Mr. Kohn has written fourteen books, and one of them that I’d like to focus in on today is The Myth of the Spoiled Child. And he’s going to help us today explore this running commentary… where it came from.
So thank you Mr. Kohn for being here today. I really appreciate your time. My husband and I actually met you many years ago when our girls were just starting elementary school, and it was—I found—very helpful at that time. We decidedly became very not grades-focused. Now, that doesn’t mean the schools that they went to weren’t, but at home we had a very different rhetoric going on.
So what made you write The Myth of the Spoiled Child? And for those who haven’t read it, what’s the premise?
Well I had already written more of a how-to book, more conventionally, about parenting called Unconditional Parenting. And several years later—whenever I find that research, and good values, and logic point in one direction, but conventional beliefs and practices head off in a different direction, my antennas start quivering.
I get annoyed—and there may be another book in this—so what I have found is that even people who are relatively progressive on political matters and thinking about any number of issues, from race to the environment to the economy, nevertheless when the conversation turns to teaching or raising children, they suddenly sound like they’re on Fox News.
So there’s this rightwing narrative that has become the dominant, the default, belief about kids. And on the one hand it holds that we’re all spoiling our kids and, therefore, by being too permissive, they have no boundaries and they do whatever they want and become terrible people. And on the other hand—at the same time somehow—we’re overprotecting them. We’re guilty of being helicopter parents or something of the kind… overindulging them by doing too much and being too involved in their lives.
And closely related to those beliefs is the narrative that kids have things too easy these days. That we give them trophies just for showing up. That we give them A’s too easily, and we praise them for every little thing and so on. And I wanted to dig down into the extent that these were descriptive statements… whether there was any empirical evidence to support the idea that, for example, more parents are permissive now than was the case before, or that kids are struggling in different ways that they didn’t use to. And to the extent that these things are not based on description, more on prescription (what you should do), trying to peel back the layers to see what the values really are here.
And I discovered that there is really no good evidence to support the idea of indulgence. The perennial accusation that parents are too permissive with kids goes back decades. In fact, at the beginning of the book I talk about the “golden era” before we started being permissive that was mentioned in contemporary books. And then I go back and find books written then that go back another couple decades, where the same exact charge is being made. It goes back before the ’60s, even before Dr. Spock and so on.
Didn’t you quote an article from the 1800s that was really worried about that generation?
That’s right. There’s some claims that go back even thousands of years, although it’s hard to be sure about the attribution.
But the over-parenting claim is a series of media-stoked fears. By the way, I don’t argue that we ought to be permissive… that that’s a good thing. I challenge—first of all I think by and large the real problem that we face, at least in this country, at least now, is not permissiveness so much as a fear of being thought permissive that leads us to overcompensate by over-controlling children. Sometimes with threats and punishments—even though we prefer to call it “consequences” so that we can feel better about making kids feel bad—or by sugar-coated control in the form of rewards and praise, as in “Good job, I really like the way you…” which is just as manipulative and damaging. But just as much about control. The idea that we’re sitting back and letting kids raise themselves makes absolutely no sense.
But the alternative is to work with kids to solve problems… not to do things to them with coercion, sugar-coated or not, or a laissez-faire hands-off model where we don’t do anything at all… and when you start looking to about your question of parental support I think you find that the real danger in most families is a lack of a good support. I don’t think we need to do less for kids so they can be magically self-sufficient on our timetable. The question is are we providing kids with the support they need?
There is a problem when we get involved too much with kids’ lives because we need them to need us. So if it’s our needs that are driving what’s going on, that is a problem. But that’s very different from saying for all kids we need less help, and we need to back off. There’s a wide range of what kids needs, and we have to be responsive to those needs.
To the extent that something like helicopter parenting turns out to be problematic, it’s not because of the conservative critique that we’re overindulging them or coddling them and making their lives too easy. It’s because we’re overcontrolling them in a different way, in exactly the same sense that many of the same conservatives have been arguing we should do with things like rewards and punishments and demanding obedience.
So the problem is a lack of supporting kids’ autonomy and ability to make decisions. That’s a good thing. The problem is not indulgence, or a sort of sweeping critique of helicopter parenting. Kids learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not following directions. The question is how do we provide the kind and degree of support they need in order to be autonomous people who feel that they have some impact on their lives?
I think an important part of your book as well—let’s take this helicopter parenting thing for example, isn’t as widespread as this rhetoric would have us believe. It’s much more isolated, and the problem that is widespread is much more around the idea of being controlling, whether that’s rewards or punishment.
So thinking about to when my girls were little—and all of us by the way have the ADHD diagnosis, whatever that means to you, took me a long time to accept that there’s something to that—it’s time to go to the grocery store, or it’s time to go to the doctor. So if we’re not pressing for obedience, we’re working to cultivate a different kind of mindset. How do you distinguish that? How do you talk about it’s not about being permissive not pushing for obedience? How does a parent think about that?
Well those aren’t too points on the same continuum. One is a goal. The other is a kind of style of parenting that could be in the service of a number of different goals. So where I like to start with parents is asking, “What are your long term goals for you kid? How would you like them to turn out years from now? Is there a word or phrase that springs to mind that captures an overriding objective? ‘I would like my kid ultimately to be x’?”
And I’ve done this activity with parents and with teachers by the way hundreds of times all over the world, and I get the same kinds of answers wherever I go. “I want my kid to be happy, to be ethical, to be caring and compassionate but also in independent and self-reliant, to be curious, creative, successful, problem-solver,” that kind of stuff.
You know what my answer was at the time? My answer was “I want them to want to come around when they’re in their 20s and 30s.” Right?
Right, you would want them to want to be with you when they have a choice. What I do with people is I say, “You say you want this, so why are you doing that?” Here’s the evidence showing that when we do that we get less of this. So here’s an example: When you reward and use any kind of consequence, any kind of bribe or threat, carrot or stick with kids, they tend to be more selfish, more self-centered, less concerned with their actions on other people, because the point now is not to make other people feel better. The point now is now when I do what this person with more power wants, I get rewarded, even if it’s only that patronizing pat on the head, or I avoid a punishment.
So when you say “Good job, I liked the way you shared your toys with Diane,” you’ve just made her a little more self-centered because now she’s learned the point of sharing is just to get that reaction from you. So now you have to pick: Are you really interested in helping the child become generous and empathic? Or are you more interested in expressing your own desire or offering some sort of positive reinforcement and so on.