There’s a set of complaints we hear about young people these days — that they’re entitled, over-praised and grow up thinking they’re more special than they really are. But in his new book “The Myth of the Spoiled Child,” writer Alfie Kohn says the barbs leveled at permissive parents and the supposedly narcissistic kids they raise are unfounded. Kohn says parents should work to raise kids with high self-esteem, and that the fashionable belief that kids must develop grit and self-discipline through failure and suffering is unproven and often counterproductive.

Alfie Kohn, author of "The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom About Children and Parenting"

  • Chemist150

    My issue is around here is that parent are breeding the future VPs and CEOs by instilling sociopathic behavior into them. It’s a trait that many highly successful people share with the prison population. Sociopathic behavior seems higher in city folk to begin with because constant stimulus requires one to tune out distracting stimuli and in doing so, many never become aware or care how their actions affect others around them. Loud music, jumping lines, etc…

    I see it at the skate park all the time. Many children take turn, are aware of others, are aware how they might get in their way, and learn to navigate around that. Other children have their parents as a spectator and receive many praises. The more runs that they take, the more praise they get even if it means jumping in out of turn, starting a run that cuts others off and yelling at others to get out of the way when they do it.

    • Jack Rubinette

      Your point about antisocial or sociopathic behavior being a continuation of loud music and jumping lines and other such related behavior is intriguing. However the word “Instilling” has the connotation of being volitional as if the parents intent is to create sociopaths. I think that in most circumstances what is going on is poor modeling and parents not taking ownership of guiding their child properly in such circumstances (either because they do not see the need or do not have the skill to model effectively).

      • Chemist150

        Loud music would be an extension of sociopathic behavior. i.e. a behavior where the person does not comprehend how they affect others and if they continue or turn up the volume after having it pointed out, it may be more psychopathic than sociopathic. I do not think the parent are fully aware of how they’re shaping the children. They love their children and want to encourage them but they are also exhibiting the sociopathic attributes by not recognizing it and appropriately instructing the child.

        I also agree that there are multiple pathways to similar behavior. I think my example will lead more toward CEO/VP vs. outright poor examples are more likely to lead to prison.

  • geraldfnord

    Perhaps I’m being too even-handed, but I think that both methods (and all others) have their dangers: unearned and unmerited feelings or worth can provoke shameless entitlement and the conviction that the world and we but play-things, education through failure can teach that one were nothing but a failure and the world an implacable enemy and an invincible one.

    I’m in basic sympathy with Mr Kohn, though—I have never heard an apostle of ‘tough love’ who didn’t seem at least a little too in love with the ‘tough’ part of the notion.

  • SJ

    The problem is not with rewarding children for trying.
    But children are not learning how to deal with failure and do better next time. Basic social etiquette is also seriously lacking.
    Many kids I see today break into tears at every small thing that doesn’t go their way.

    This can’t be good for children in today’s diverse world and a competitive global economy.

    • Erica

      The more things change the more they stay the same. Sixty years ago I got a pin. It was when the Girl Scout troop was taking a roller skating class. I got the badge and a sweet little pin for “most improved” skater….. I could stand up on skates. Many years later my daughter got a most improved trophy in softball.


  • Wesley

    The discussion is about American children. My children have a French curriculum education. Teachers pass out grades in front of students, call the students names making certain the kids are not necessarily special etc. Yes harsh, but the kids know it’s only talk, and suck it up. They make fun of American parents and teachers who are so nice and goody goody. As one of my children now enters the Air Force Academy, I know she’ll have no problems with the Drill Instructors.

    • Red Polygon

      Another tool of the military complex comfortable with shame- and aggression-based social structures. A dubious merit.

  • trite

    I am afraid that children are not being brought up to be empathetic to the needs of others. For example, parents have not taught their children to give up their seats on buses and BART to seniors and disabled on buses and trains. I think there is self-absorption and self-regarding on the part of young parents and their children.

    • Ritea Raj

      On the flip side,we were on Caltrain with our three kids (ages 6,7 and 9). Only *one* adult (in a train full of adults ) even offered a seat to the kids. The adults are equally to blame for the lack of courtesy.

      • trite

        Why would an adult offer seat to children?

        • Red Polygon

          Because they’re kind and generous, something you’re apparently not. And then you complain about lack of empathy, and use a name like “trite” – you paint a complete picture, intended or not.

      • paulc1978

        I agree with trite. Your children are of an age that they can stand for a little while. It’s not as if they are toddlers.

    • Mjhmjh

      I agree. Only a few years ago, I headed a meeting of parents, some accompanied by their teenage children. At the beginning, I asked for students to get up, so that all the parents might sit down, It seemed a perfectly logical request to me and I was astounded at the glares it elicited from rather a lot of the parents.

  • Ben Rawner

    I have seen timeouts being used for great success so I’m wondering what strategy should one employ when a child could be a danger to themselves or other children? Also I am curious If the author has children of his own?

    • Red Polygon

      Perhaps you should define “success”. If you just mean compliance, you may be speaking a different language than Kohn.

      He does have two children of his own, as ten seconds spent on Google will tell you. Are you sufficiently curious?

  • Guest

    Disclosure: I’m not a parent, but I’ll offer this: on the plus side, kids are growing up in an environment here in the Bay Area that makes me think they’ll be able to work together much better than my generation did (I was born in 1968). I love the way they interact in classrooms and in social situations: they seem to have a humor about themselves that replaces the pure competition I grew up with. It makes me want to have grown up here, in the present day.
    On the minus side, I see parents trying to do *so much more* than just giving love and nourishment to their kids. Parents go out of their way not to control their kids too much, but there is very little experience left for the child to have on his own, unmediated by the parent. It seems to me that San Francisco parents are afraid to allow their kids to come to their own conclusions about what they see around them.

    • valleyboy17

      You are confused on a number of points.

      First, there are very very few parents in San Francisco, which has the fewest children per-capita of any city in the US. Some will make the excuse that this is because San Francisco was, a long time ago, a gay “mecca”, however, in an era when 17 states, and counting, recognize and allow gay marriage, San Francisco has little to attract gay people, considering it has little to attract straight people. In reality, the reason San Francisco has so few children is that there are very few people, gay or straight, of child-bearing years. San Francisco’s population skews around the very young adults, early to mid- twenties, and then there is San Francisco HUGE retired population, which moves there AFTER retiring somewhere else. In other words, San Francisco’s population largely consists of tourists, since 60% of San Francisco’s population has been there less than 5 years.

      Second, if you mean the very few parents that actually live in San Francisco, then you may be right. If you mean the parents of the San Jose/Bay Area. the nine county area surrounding San Francisco bay, then what happens in a remote and fairly unimportant suburb like San Francisco has little bearing or importance on what happens in the big city (San Jose) or the big county (Santa Clara). Santa Clara is almost 3x bigger than San Francisco, which is not the number two county, but actually the number THREE county in the San Jose/Bay Area.

      On the other hand, you are right that today’s kids have a lot of advantages that we did not have. The scientific method grinds on, and the scientists have been busy providing us with better tools to live, and MUCH better tools to raise our kids.

      Giving the kids the opportunity to “come to their own conclusions” as you say, reminds me about the debate Stanford had when revising their “Western Culture” course. Freshman and Sophomores in college felt confident deciding what was and what was not “Western Culture”, as one professor said, before that had been educated as to what it was.

      Allowing a kid to come to the conclusion that he’s not good at school because his friends told him so, for example, is simply an abdication of parental responsibilities, and produces no benefit for anyone.

      Think about reading “The Price of Privilege” by Madeline Levine. It’s a lot of stuff similar to what you are thinking, but from a therapists view.

      • Red Polygon

        That’s a very elaborate way to miss the points the other person was making.

  • InabaML

    Thank you for bringing reason and research into an important area of discussion. The needs of children for acceptance, guidance, understanding, care and compassion doesn’t change. Raising a child to be a good, caring person is more important than raising a child to competitive and financially successful. The goal is to be happy and contribute to the happiness of others, not to have the most and always be #1. I am a Buddhist and would love to see more educational programs based on these principles available in the U.S. educational system. It is not expensive to teach children to be kind to themselves and others.

  • gail reagan

    I would like to know what Mr. Kohn thinks about schools who penalize kids for not meeting their academic standards and therefore prevent them from participating in graduation. I am thinking about a middle school child I know who has struggled academically, and while this child hasn’t always made an effort and hasn’t done all the work they are supposed to, the school is enforcing they attend summer school and won’t let them walk in the graduation ceremony from 8th grade. This seems damaging to me. The message being, you are not worthwhile because you have not succeeded and we are going to make you feel even worse about yourself by not letting you participate in graduation.

    • paulc1978

      A) Since when do we have 8th grade graduation? It’s not as if it’s a major milestone. B) Why should a child get to experience the same level of achievement without trying and without doing well? There are consequences to actions and a 13 year-old is at the age that they know why they aren’t included in an 8th-grade graduation (seriously, I can’t believe that we have 8th grade graduation).

      • SBayJJ

        I graduated from 8th grade in the late ’60s. Not a big ceremony, but it was an event.

    • Mjhmjh

      Obviously, every case is different. But the big questions here would be (a) how much support and encouragement was the child given during the year? And (b) The child is only in middle school. Was he made fully aware, by both parents and school, of the direct correlation between not doing the work and not being able to graduate alongside his friends? I think there’s quite a difference between a child who has struggled academically, but done all he can to succeed and a child who has struggled academically, but has not made every effort to do so, even with support and encouragement. The second child may be upset by not being able to walk in the graduation ceremony, but it’s only middle school and “failing” now might save him from the far greater disappointment and consequences of not graduating in four years’ time.

  • Steve

    I’ve been intrigued with Carol Dweck’s work on the “growth mindset” vs. “fixed mindset” in children. Put simply, it says that praising children as “smart” or “good” at something is counter-productive because it locks them into a fixed mindset, and they fear taking risks that might contradict that. Better to teach them that by putting effort into a task they can improve their performance, no matter what the field of endeavor. And she has data to support her work.

  • Duy

    From a Washington Post article:

    According to the Washington think tank’s annual Brown Center report on
    education, 6 percent of Korean eighth-graders surveyed expressed
    confidence in their math skills, compared with 39 percent of U.S.
    eighth-graders. But a respected international math assessment showed
    Koreans scoring far ahead of their peers in the United States, raising
    questions about the importance of self-esteem.


    Clearly there are anecdotal evidence about kids’ self-esteem gone awry. However, there are also hard studies as well demonstrating a disconnect between perceived skills and actual skills.

    Furthermore, I would like the author to discuss hard evidence on his side, otherwise he would be committing the same cardinal sin as his detractors.

  • We love Mr. Kohn, and have read all his books. We want to know if he is planning on opening any schools modeled on his philosophy? There are almost no good schools here in the Bay Area!!!!!!

    • Jim Thrall

      Check out The Peninsula School in Menlo Park. Like many privates, not cheap, but Kohn actually references their approach. http://peninsulaschool.org/

  • Heidi S

    Thank you! I firmly believe there is no “right” way to raise kids. It’s nice to hear a different point of view. We all have to pick our own way through parenthood, using intuition, experience and picking our way through the advice of others.

  • Ben Rawner

    The problem with this discussion is that there is no meta-strategy for all children. Each child is a unique person who needs specialized attention to help them build self asteem and to assist them in finding success in whatever they do.

  • Lance

    The entertainment industry with games probably has the most data on challenge to reward between skill rated groups.

    The challenge to reward curve to raise children isn’t something that can be a single blanket level for all kids. It would be better to have a constructive system to help parents rate the challenge level per child.

  • Erica

    The more things change the more they stay the same. Sixty years ago I got a pin. It was when the Girl Scout troop was taking a roller skating class. I got the badge and a sweet little pin for “most improved” skater….. I could stand up on skates. Many years later my daughter got a most improved trophy in softball.

    It all depends on the child. Some seem to come equipped with self-esteem and some seem to wilt when glanced at. Two kids raised the same way will differ incredibly.


  • Bridget Quaid

    Is there only one type of child? These studies seem to ignore the possibility of children having different wiring and therefore may bring different things to the table before the studies even begin.

    Bridget, San Jose

  • Jacqueline Biggs

    I just want to thank Alfie Kohn for his profoundly important work! Great show.

  • peggy herring

    I believe modeling is the number one way to build empathy, self respect and self esteem. It starts when the child is a baby. I have found Emmi Pikler’s work along with the new research coming out on the brain supports her research on free movement and respect for the natural unfolding of the infants abilities and who they are.

  • Ricardo Swe

    I just caught the tail end of this Forum discussion, cut short by a pledge break. I heard just the idea that time-out was destructive to a child’s self esteem and their relationship with their parent (that’s my phrasing of what I heard).

    Poppycock I say.

    I strongly belief that a primary role of a parent is to teach structure and boundaries to their children. It is a gross mistake for a parent to think they want to be their child’s best friend.

    I have direct experience that supports my view. I am a divorced and remarried Dad. My ex-wife subscribed to the notion of parents bending over backwards to nurture and support their children. Her phrase was “find out what the child wants and give it to them”. My current wife is a direct contrast to this “best friend” approach. She raised her children with deep love and with rules and discipline. The outcome? My children, raised in the permissive “child rules” household, are now in their late twenties and are relatively lost and directionless in their lives. They are successes academically, but now they don’t know what they want or where to go with their lives. Neither has a sustaining job or a personal relationship that I’d guess will lead to marriage, children and a sense of fulfillment. My (current) wife’s children, raised with sensible household rules and discipline, are very well grounded and directed in their lives. They are both married, hold down very responsible jobs and are raising their children now. They have one of the most loving relationships with their mom that I know of. As they are raising their children now, they talk regularly about what a good upbringing they had from their mother’s loving discipline and how they want to emulate their mother’s approach of a parent-child relationship.

    A time-out approach does not harm the child’s psyche. It teaches boundaries. That awareness of one’s position in the world and the world’s structure serves the future adult very well.

    • What an arrogant and ignorant comment. You heard a few words of the interview and then you dam him? This man has spent his life studying childhood and parenting. Outrageous.

    • valleyboy17

      >>A time-out approach does not harm the child’s psyche.

      This is irrefutably wrong as a scientific fact, regardless of your opinion or your self-judged success despite your use of an antiquated technique.

      The teaching of boundaries is important, as you say, but “time-out”s are NOT an effective method toward achieving that, as has been shown repeatedly in the scientific literature. You succeeded, if you did, because you overcame the shortcomings of “time out”s, not because of them.

      As a parent myself, you can’t really tell how they are going to turn out, if you ever know, until they are well into their 40’s.

      I have seen too many aggressive children of “tiger mom”s totally flame out and crash in their 40’s when they decided to stop living their parents lives. For example, one physician I know finally decided that her father simply was an asshole, and he would never give her the parental approval she had always sought, so she ditched her medical career and went to veterinary school, because she couldn’t stand it when her (human) patients died. A colleage of my wife’s realized in her 40’s that she HATED working as a doctor, and sold her practice and purchased a perfume shop and is happier than ever.

      You are FAR too quick to congratulate yourself for your “success” as a parent (or your wife’s), and you are WAY WAY too eager to give a self-justifying opinion based on a partial overhearing of a discussion which is itself a distillation of an entire well reasoned book. There is no way you could possibly offer an educated opinion since you didn’t even hear the context of the discussion.

      Doesn’t sound like your children have very good boundaries, since you yourself clearly do not.

    • Mjhmjh

      Has it not occurred to you that your own involvement in the family, and the difference between growing up with parents who were happily and unhappily married/divorced, might also have had a considerable influence on the apparent outcome of your children’s upbringing?

    • Red Polygon

      Has it occurred to you that people can still be happy and functional if they’ve been harmed? Your experience proves nothing whatsoever about timeouts. It just proves you are forcing your own narrative onto reality, and I sincerely doubt you have more than your own opinion to support your final statement.

  • Michael

    Can you spoil a kid by raising them with unconditional love? Absolutely, if you do it incorrectly. The idea is to raise kids who respect themselves and others and understand their value in the world, not to raise a bunch of arrogant, narcissistic sociopaths. There is a difference between self-esteem and SELF-DELUSION. Praising failure is just plain dumb, but praising effort in the face of difficulty is great. A distinction must be made, though. Having no limits is a terrible mistake, but giving your kid enough rope to make mistakes and fail is developmentally critical. Being there for your kid when they need you is everything, but butting in when they don’t will infantilize him. When your kid is bawling over a limit you’ve set, spend time empathizing over how hard it is to deal with limits but do not cave in.

    I lavish my kids with time and attention and positive messages but never lies.

    Discover who your kids are, don’t teach them what to be. Validate who they are, but be sure they respect others.

    There are endless nuances to this approach to parenting and they sometimes need to be taught to well-meaning parents trying to adopt this philosophy. Raising a kid in this manner requires careful attention to what you are doing and TIME. If you don’t have lots of time to invest in raising your kids, even if it means some significant sacrifices on your part, I submit you should not have kids in the first place.

    I tell my kid (objectively) that he is smart, an original thinker, funny, wise far beyond his years and ultra-talented in a wide variety of ways. Meanwhile I acknowledge that he stinks as sports but point out if he practiced he’d be better. And I tell him that just as his weaknesses don’t define him, nor he should he consider himself better than anyone else because of his strengths. Everyone has value, everyone should be treated with respect – we’re all in this together.

    • Steve

      hi Michael. It sounds like you are a great Dad. But I’d encourage you to look into Carol Dweck’s work on “growth mindset” vs. “fixed mindset”. Telling kids they are “smart” or “talented” (or that they “stink” at something) can be counter-productive.

      • Michael

        Wow, interesting concept. I’ll definitely check that out. Thanks!

  • amyj1276

    Yeah. I got through almost half of this before I had to turn it off. Has
    this guy ever met a child? Does he work with children? Is he paying any
    attention at all to trends in this country? My guess is the answer to
    all of these questions is “no.” He just has no credibility and his
    justifications and rationalizations are bunk. He has zero evidence to
    support anything he’s saying, and in fact, much of his opinions fly in
    the face of sound evidence to the contrary. Although he makes a few good
    points (e.g., unconditional self-esteem), overall his opinions are
    laughable at best and dangerous at worst.

    • Jim Thrall

      He actually has a lot of evidence, both in what he says and in his books which are heavily footnoted. His life has been dedicated to this research and its a shame that you don’t seem to understand them.

      • amyj1276

        Sorry, but The Atlantic and other periodicals are neither journals nor evidence. I’ve looked at his website and his bio and his publication history, as well as the references he uses, and he’s simply giving his opinion and backing it up with others’ opinions. That’s not evidence in the world of critical thought, not to mention those of us who actually work in social science research and evidence.

        • Red Polygon

          You don’t sound very rational yourself. What’s your agenda?

  • wizardofx

    I understand what Alfie is saying. Children need to understand that self worth comes not from winning or rising above others. They have inherent value as a human, and they are not beneath anyone for not being as fast, smart or as strong as others. I think the argument of how one builds self worth vs. self esteem is what is in play here.

    I am the FIRST one to say that kids from the 1990s and beyond have been spoiled and coddled beyond absurdity, while not taught that not everyone gets a trophy. This all stems from my opinion that since mothers went back to work in the late 80s, there’s been a high level of guilt that they try to deal with for not being more present in their child’s lives.

    So, how to make it go away? Buy them anything they want, any time, no questions; Because “stuff” makes kids happy. Another issue, is that parents now want to look and feel, and act like kids themselves. So, they become friends instead of parents to their children. All of this makes a very bad recipe for kids and adults none of us want to deal with. Make sense?

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