Somehow, a set of deeply conservative assumptions about children — what they’re like and how they should be raised — have congealed into the conventional wisdom in our society. Parents are accused of being both permissive and overprotective, unwilling to set limits and afraid to let their kids fail. Young people, meanwhile, are routinely described as entitled and narcissistic. . . among other unflattering adjectives.
In The Myth of the Spoiled Child, Alfie Kohn systematically debunks these beliefs — not only challenging erroneous factual claims but also exposing the troubling ideology that underlies them. Complaints about pushover parents and coddled kids are hardly new, he shows, and there is no evidence that either phenomenon is especially widespread today — let alone more common than in previous generations. Moreover, new research reveals that helicopter parenting is quite rare and, surprisingly, may do more good than harm when it does occur. The major threat to healthy child development, Kohn argues, is posed by parenting that is too controlling rather than too indulgent.The Myth Of The Spoiled Child – (Book) – Alfie Kohn
Today, the word permissiveness has a different meaning: It doesn’t signify humane treatment or a willingness to nurse infants when they’re hungry; it means coddling kids in a way that’s unhealthy by definition. (Interestingly, the connotation of coddle also shifted. It once meant “to treat tenderly”; now it means “to overindulge.”)Kohn, Alfie. The Myth of the Spoiled Child (p. 19). Hachette Books. Kindle Edition.
“Coddle” has a whole lot of baggage. Coddle is the language of toxic masculinity. It is the language of ableism, eugenics, social Darwinism, and white supremacy. It is the language of conditionality and artificial scarcity. It is the language of behaviorism.
Coddle is the language of “deeply conservative assumptions about children”.
Tall Poppy Syndrome, the politics of resentment, fundamental attribution error, and sameness-based notions of fairness are a systemic slog for neurodivergent and disabled people. We hear “coddle” a lot. Coddle is a red flag. It is wielded by Christofascists, bro rationalists, and, alas, educators to defend and extend an untenable status quo.
“Coddle” suggests a lot about the people saying it. It suggests they don’t have a structural understanding of our society. It suggests their framing is deficit ideology and meritocracy myths. It suggests they discount minority stress. It suggests they’re not interested in designing for real life, for the biopsychosocial complexity of humanity. It suggests they’re not an ally.
One theory is that this generation has been coddled, given trophies for nothing more than participation. That they are entitled.
My belief is different, that students have been defeated by a system that has divorced school from learning, and where the purpose of school is to be good at school and the measurement of how good you are is your grade. Grades are divorced from genuine meaning, and yet are deeply meaningful.
I think students are scared. All the available data on the incidence of student depression and anxiety backs me up.
Upon arriving at college, the current generation of students is the most observed, tested, and measured of all time. We are desperate to know how we’re doing, and because of this we have fetishized numerical data, scores, standardization. The more and the faster (real-time), the better, apparently.
The slightest bobble and interventions are at hand. Nip it in the bud and all that. Testing for ADHD, extra tutoring, parental interference and admonishment.
A parent can monitor their child in real-time without ever having to speak with the teacher.
The proof is in the portal.
Where is this getting us?Shut Down the Parent Portals: The Dangers of Real-Time Data | Just Visiting
Compassion is not coddling. Coddle is a clobber word for controlling, hyper-normative, WEIRD cultures.
The other qualification is particularly intriguing, and its implications extend far beyond the question of anxiety. In fact, they reach to the very heart of the idea of overparenting. When you look closely at the studies, it turns out that what’s classified as “overparenting” or “intrusive parenting” might better be understood as excessive control of children.21 That also appears to be true of the disturbing subset of overparenting that I described earlier, in which parents’ own psychological needs determine the way they act with their kids.
This offers a different lens through which to view all those warnings that parents do too much for their children and have become overly involved in their lives. Until now, I’ve been suggesting that we should question generalizations about how many parents act this way. Now I want to add that we should also question the assumption that parents who do act this way are mostly being indulgent and trying to make things too easy for their children. Perhaps what’s really going on is more about controlling than coddling. In that case, what we’re talking about might be described not as a variation of permissiveness but as virtually the opposite of that: a variation of the sort of traditional parenting for which many conservative critics of indulgence seem to be nostalgic, distinguished by a lack of respect for kids’ needs and preferences. Maybe that approach was never discarded after all; many parents just switched to a slightly different, more intrusive version.
It’s worth keeping these findings in mind the next time you hear someone try to rationalize his or her need to control children:Kohn, Alfie. The Myth of the Spoiled Child (pp. 60-61). Hachette Books. Kindle Edition.
Been There, Seen That
Even without a trip to the archives, readers of a certain age will recall that condemnations of pervasive permissiveness are hardly new. For starters, the very same points being made today about pushover parents and their coddled offspring could be found in books published in the early 1990s (Spoiled Rotten: Today’s Children and How to Change Them) and in the early 1980s (Parent Power). The latter was written by the Christian conservative John Rosemond, but at least three other books over the last few decades have used that same title, with its call for an unapologetic assertion of control.
A little earlier, in 1976, U.S. News and World Report ran an article called “Permissiveness: A ‘Beautiful Idea’ That Didn’t Work.” And a couple named Joseph and Lois Bird wrote, in their 1972 manifesto Power to the Parents, that “teaching the child responsibility . . . is not a popular idea” these days. “Most parents and teachers expect too little” from kids, they explained, with the result that we now have to worry not only about “the terrible teens” but also about “the rebellious preteens and the obstreperous grammar schoolers.” The Birds hearkened back to a simpler time (though with no hint of when that was) during which “we knew what we believed in,” before those “pseudo-psychologists” started telling us that children need more freedom.8Kohn, Alfie. The Myth of the Spoiled Child (pp. 11-13). Hachette Books. Kindle Edition.
Coddling is Bad Framing
If you believe that we need to crack down on young reprobates—and keep a close watch on all children since any of them will likely turn into a reprobate given half a chance—then you will be appalled by parents who allow children too much freedom. In fact, a child’s demand for freedom strikes some people as disturbing in itself, which is why so many seem determined to take kids down a peg, rein them in, teach them their place. This impulse is sometimes rationalized as being for the benefit of the child (“Better to learn now that the real world isn’t going to coddle you!”), but people who talk this way seem to harbor a resentment of children and a resistance to allowing them to make their own decisions that has very little to do with what’s in the best interests of the children themselves.
To lay the groundwork for recommendations rooted more in “doing to” than “working with,” it’s necessary to convince oneself and others that children at present are not controlled enough. “Description is prescription,” the conservative columnist David Brooks observed. “If you can get people to see the world as you do, you have unwittingly framed every subsequent choice.”30 If we can keep up the pretense that adults are too permissive with children, then we’re more likely to accept the recommendation that what children really need is . . . more control.Kohn, Alfie. The Myth of the Spoiled Child (pp. 47-48). Hachette Books. Kindle Edition.
We Are Not Coddled, We Are in Crisis
We Autistic adults and teens put a lot of energy into figuring out what will lead to a meltdown and working to avoid those things whenever possible. Parents of younger Autistics also put a lot of energy and work into figuring these things out, both to try to keep triggering events out of their child’s life, and to try to help their child learn how to recognize and steer around those triggers themselves. Outsiders who don’t understand autism will make accusations of being overly avoidant and self-indulgent, and accuse our parents of spoiling and coddling us.The Protective Gift of Meltdowns — THINKING PERSON’S GUIDE TO AUTISM
The Autistic members of our human family are in crisis. Anxiety and depression occur at alarmingly high rates, and our rates of suicidal thoughts, attempts, and completionsare horrifying. Encouraging Autists to spend time with our intense interests is not enabling or coddling us. It is crucial to our well-being, happiness, thriving, growth, and — overly-dramatic though it might sound to you — keeping us alive. Whether it’s categorizing every leaf from every tree in the neighborhood or taking 127 photos of the cat doesn’t matter. What matters is that the interest is special to us, of our own choosing, and warmly encouraged. I am not being hyperbolic when I tell you this is a matter of life and death for us.Autism and Intense Interests: Why We Love What We Love and Why It Should Matter to You — THINKING PERSON’S GUIDE TO AUTISM
When you accommodate your child, you may encounter resistance from family members, extended family, friends, neighbors, professionals. People might tell you that you are coddling your child or catering to them. Stand firm. Your child or teen or young adult is not misbehaving on purpose. They are trying to cope with a world that is a sensory nightmare, and anything you can do that increases their sense of stability and safety is a loving gift to them.IF NOT ABA THERAPY, THEN WHAT?
When other people are controlling your life, making all of your decisions for you, and keeping you “safe” from any possible failure, it’s possible to either lose or fail to develop skills for doing various things yourself.
I have seen this used as an argument against services for autistic people, the argument being that they coddle us and make us dependent. I do not believe this to be the case – too little help can be a very negative thing as well. The distinction I made when I was applying for services was this: “I want to be helped, but not helped into a corner.” What constitutes help and what constitutes being helped into a corner can differ from person to person and change over time, but when help starts to turn into control, that’s a warning sign. When a person is never allowed to fail or take risks – both of which can be essential for learning – that is another warning sign.
Violence is a not-uncommon reaction to the frustration of being smothered by the “care” of others, yet it is often labeled regression and summarily dismissed as having no knowable cause.Autism Information Library: “Help! I Seem to be Getting More Autistic!”
“Better Get Used to It” Is Violence
Kohn, Alfie. The Myth of the Spoiled Child (pp. 86-87). Hachette Books. Kindle Edition.
Alongside conditionality and scarcity we find the ideological engine behind BGUTI—namely, a determination to make sure that things aren’t too easy for kids. The premise here is not only that deprivation, struggle, and sacrifice are useful preparation for life’s hardships, but that there’s simply something objectionable about sparing kids from having to cope with deprivation, struggle, and sacrifice.22
I’m reminded of a famous ad campaign to sell Listerine mouthwash, which was based on the assumption that because it tasted vile, it obviously had to work well. The flip side of this way of thinking is that we ought to be wary of anything that’s too appealing. “Feel-good” and “touchy-feely” have become all-purpose epithets to disparage whatever seems suspiciously pleasurable. This is particularly true in education, where these terms are often applied to authentic ways of evaluating learning (in place of standardized tests), a course of study that emphasizes creativity (rather than the memorization of facts), and having students learn in cooperative groups (instead of alone or against one another).
Here, again, evidence that such practices are more effective may simply be waved aside. If something is enjoyable, that’s reason enough to describe it as touchy-feely and deem it unworthy of consideration. Progressive educators may make a case for creating a more engaging curriculum or for bringing kids in on making decisions, only to be informed rather huffily that life isn’t always going to be interesting (or responsive to kids’ preferences), and students had better learn to deal with that fact, like it or not.
“Like it or not,” in fact, is a favorite phrase of people who think this way. Another one begins “It’s time they learned that . . . ”—the implication being that children should be introduced to frustration and unhappiness without delay. There’s work to be done! Life isn’t supposed to be fun and games! Self-denial—whose adherents generally presume to deny others as well—is closely connected to fear of pleasure, redemption through suffering, and fury at anyone who coddles or indulges children. H. L. Mencken’s definition of Puritanism seems apt here: “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
Sometimes one suspects that the tacit message from such traditionalists is: “I don’t get everything I want—why should they?” The educator John Holt once remarked that if people really felt that life was “nothing but drudgery, an endless list of dreary duties,” one would hope they might “say, in effect, ‘I have somehow missed the chance to put much joy and meaning into my own life; please educate my children so that they will do better.’”23 Is our primary goal to help kids take delight in learning, or is it to train them to do what they’re told, even if (or especially if) those things are unpleasant?Kohn, Alfie. The Myth of the Spoiled Child (pp. 113-114). Hachette Books. Kindle Edition.
Kohn, Alfie. The Myth of the Spoiled Child (p. 115). Hachette Books. Kindle Edition.
We have normalised violence against Black people in this country. So normal is this violence that instead of fighting a government that enables the creation of such violent and debilitating conditions for a Black child, we want to talk instead about how Black CHILDREN must just work hard, just endure the pain of poverty, the pain of neglect, the pain of being dehumanised, the pain of being second-class citizens in their own country, and they will be fine. We want to measure the strength of Black CHILDREN by how much pain and suffering they can take without breaking. Suffering is normal to us. We even romanticise it. That distinction is only truly meaningful because the student suffered to have it. We applaud our children for surviving a ruthless system as if it is an initiation into being a functional human-being, when in reality, it creates Black adults who spend their entire lives recovering from their childhoods (and often failing).
This violence that defines Black lives in our country is not normal and we must stop normalising it.Malaika Mahlatsi
Students have not been coddled, they’ve been defeated. The nature of that defeat may be different depending on where students are on the socio-economic ladder and how far they’re trying to climb, but the consequences to mental and physical well-being are the same.
Almost since I first started writing in this space I have been concerned about student mental health, not only as I read the statistics on the increasing incidences of anxiety and depression that Haidt and Lukianoff cover in the book, but in talking to students directly who reported having anxiety attacks in grade school, worried that they were ruining their futures with a single bad grade.
In 1985, only 18.3% of those participating in the American Freshman National Norms Survey said they “frequently” felt “overwhelmed by all they have to do. By 2016, that number had climbed to 41%.
I have talked with students who are convinced they are facing a lifetime of penury because of the loans they must take out to even have a shot at a degree.
Almost two-thirds of college graduates leave school with debt averaging over $28,000 dollars.
I have talked with students who are pushed to the limit and beyond, juggling work and school and family responsibilities as they try to stay above water financially, or even to secure the basic necessities of day-to-day existence.
Research by the team at the Wisconsin Hope Lab found that 36% of university students were food insecure in the 30 days preceding the survey. Thirty-six percent of university students were housing insecure over the previous year.
Twelve percent of community college students were homeless.
Scarcity and precarity.A Million Thoughts on ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’ | Just Visiting
Compassion Is Not Coddling
Real life is complicated. It’s full of joy and excitement, sure, but also stress, anxiety, fear, shame, and crisis. We might experience harassment or abuse, lose a loved one, become chronically ill, get into an accident, have a financial emergency, or simply be vulnerable for not fitting into society’s expectations.
None of these circumstances is ideal, but all of them are part of life-and, odds are, your site or product has plenty of users in these moments, whether you’ve ever thought about them or not.
Our industry tends to call these edge cases-things that affect an insignificant number of users. But the term itself is telling, as information designer and programmer Evan Hensleigh puts it: “Edge cases define the boundaries of who and what you care about” (http://bkaprt.com/dfrl/00-01/). They demarcate the border between the people you’re willing to help and the ones you’re comfortable marginalizing.Design for Real Life
That’s why we’ve chosen to look at these not as edge cases, but as stress cases: the moments that put our design and content choices to the test of real life.
It’s a test we haven’t passed yet. When faced with users in distress or crisis, too many of the experiences we build fall apart in ways large and small.
Instead of treating stress situations as fringe concerns, it’s time we move them to the center of our conversations-to start with our most vulnerable, distracted, and stressed-out users, and then work our way outward. The reasoning is simple: when we make things for people at their worst, they’ll work that much better when people are at their best.Design for Real Life
Compassion and acceptance are practical and effective magic. They remedy a lot of problems and contribute to psychological safety. Acceptance matters. “A big part of our susceptibility to issues like anxiety has to do with how we were slowly socialized, either implicitly or explicitly, to believe that an autistic lifestyle is something that is defective and therefore needs fixing. A recent Independent article sums up the strong link between lack of autism acceptance and the development of mental health disorders in autistic people: Research shows that lack of acceptance externally from others and internally from the self significantly predicts depression and anxiety in young adults with autism. ” “We also reject the equation that accepting autism and disability means giving up. Research consistently shows that autism acceptance leads to better mental health for parents as well as autistic people themselves. Evidence is mounting that acceptance and accommodation provide a more reliable path to increased capability and independence than fighting autism or disability does. Acceptance isn’t a cure, but it does facilitate recognition and support of abilities that often go unrecognized and under-valued. We are better off when not only our disabilities, but our real abilities, are recognized.”
The lesson I learned from all of this is that the way we treat the people that society had deemed insane -in a treatment that will last most likely for a lifetime- is fundamental to their recovery. As you can see, in this account there is not a single psychological technique applied, just a little common sense, empathy and compassion. I would have loved to immediately start applying the treatments of the school where I was trained, meeting the problems of psychosis and facing them with the tools I learned at university. Yes, I would have loved to, because I love my profession. But first I had to just be a human being.How to Deal with Madness? | Jorge Silva on Patreon
“Compassion is not coddling.” Disabled and neurodivergent people are always edge cases, and edge cases are stress cases. The logistics of disability and cognitive difference in an ableist and inaccessible world are exhausting, often impossible. Part of compassion is recognizing the structural realities of marginalized people and rejecting narratives of resentment. Design is tested at the edges. “No one knows best the motion of the ocean than the fish that must fight the current to swim upstream.” “By focusing on the parts of the system that are most complex and where the people living it are the most vulnerable we understand the system best.” “When we build things – we must think of the things our life doesn’t necessitate. Because someone’s life does.” “That’s why we’ve chosen to look at these not as edge cases, but as stress cases: the moments that put our design and content choices to the test of real life.” “Instead of treating stress situations as fringe concerns, it’s time we move them to the center of our conversations-to start with our most vulnerable, distracted, and stressed-out users, and then work our way outward. The reasoning is simple: when we make things for people at their worst, they’ll work that much better when people are at their best.” ‘People who enter services are frequently society’s most vulnerable–people who have experienced extensive trauma, adversity, abuse, and oppression throughout their lives. At the same time, I struggle with the word “trauma” because it signifies some huge, overt event that needs to pass some arbitrary line of “bad enough” to count. I prefer the terms “stress” and “adversity.” … Our brains and bodies don’t know the difference between “trauma” and “adversity”–a stressed fight/flight state is the same regardless of what words you use to describe the external environment. I’m tired of people saying “nothing bad ever happened to me” because they did not experience “trauma.” People suffer, and when they do, it’s for a reason.‘
But the key point is this: From a developmental perspective, BGUTI is flat-out wrong. People don’t get better at coping with unhappiness because they were deliberately made unhappy when they were young. On the contrary, what best prepares children to deal with the challenges of the real world is to experience success and joy, to feel supported and respected, to receive loving guidance and unconditional care and the chance to have some say about what happens to them. This is the foundation that allows one to see what’s wrong with unsympathetic people and coercive institutions, to realize that grades or punishment or competition is not a necessary part of life, and to imagine alternatives. Most of all, positive emotional experiences give kids the confidence and psychological stability to weather the bad stuff. That’s what all the research about effective parenting (pp. 40–41) teaches us: Loved, empowered kids are in the best position to deal constructively with unloving, disempowering circumstances.Kohn, Alfie. The Myth of the Spoiled Child (p. 92). Hachette Books. Kindle Edition.
The conservative case against trying to raise students’ self-esteem relies principally on the creation of a sharp dichotomy in which worrying about how children feel about themselves is contrasted with spending time on academics. The former is depicted as a touchy-feely fad, the latter as old- fashioned honest toil. The former amounts to coddling students by pretending that everything they do is fine, while the latter means facing up to hard truths and insisting that students measure up to tough standards. When teachers join other commentators in parsing the issue this way, they typically do so with a tone of defiant self-congratulation for choosing the latter option.(40)
Usually this point is made by emphasizing the harms of the opposite approach: easy A’s, frequent praise, and a general emphasis on unconditional self-esteem (accepting children as they are and encouraging them to accept themselves) will lead to vulgar self-satisfaction. This, in turn, discourages students from making an effort. After all, why work hard to achieve if you are already perfect? Or, to say it a bit differently, if your attention is focused on the value of who you are rather than on what you do, then you probably won’t do very much.The Truth About Self-Esteem