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Dodge ball = bad; "critical thinking" = good

By 4.11.14

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

(Da Capo, 280 pages, $25.99)

Child-raising is something everyone can have an opinion about. We were all children once. We interacted with other children—siblings, classmates. If we are middle-aged, we have probably raised children of our own. Many of us have worked as teachers, struggling to engage with half-formed juvenile minds. Practically everyone has a good base of experience to opine from.

Alfie Kohn’s opinions are of the type that flatters itself as “progressive,” the idea being that we should cast away old, bad ways of doing things and embrace new, good ones. The particular old, bad ways he urges us to reject—what he calls “the traditionalist sensibility”—include punishment, deference to adults, competitive games, rewards for achievement, graded examinations, science fairs, encouragement of “grit,” and, yes, dodge ball.

“Dodge ball is one of those games that encourages aggression and the strong picking on the weak,” as one professor of health and physical education put it. Is an activity that turns children into human targets really consistent with the values that schools say they’re trying to teach?

Kohn is especially vexed that so many progressives are un-progressive about child-raising.

An awful lot of people who are politically liberal begin to sound like right-wing talk-show hosts as soon as the conversation turns to children and parenting….

His book is addressed to those liberals. It is an effort to get them back on the true progressive straight and narrow. What, after all, he asks rhetorically, are the implications of the traditionalist sensibility? Can you guess?

Could it be that it’s not only kids who are seen as too big for their britches, that they represent one of several constituencies that wants more than they’ve traditionally been permitted?

Yes: Racism! Sexism! Homophobia! Everything must be equal to everything else!

Opinion is of course cheap, while facts are sacred. Do we have any true facts, any reliable knowledge about the effects of different parenting or teaching techniques?

There is certainly a mountain of academic research to draw conclusions from. Experimental psychologists have been toiling in these vineyards for 120 years. Kohn’s book comes with a twenty-six-page bibliography, and he tags his observations with supporting results from the academy.

That’s to his credit. Unfortunately quantity is not quality, as Kohn admits when it suits his case.

It’s possible to “prove” that narcissism is a product of just about any parenting style depending on which aspects of the diagnosis are emphasized.

Even more unfortunately Kohn, as a good progressive, sees no genes, hears no genes, and speaks no genes. The burgeoning field of behavioral genetics goes unmentioned here, giving the book a rather quaint pre-1990 air. Parents (he says) behave like this, and it causes the kids to come out like that.

Has Kohn actually raised any kids? Or read Judith Rich Harris’s book The Nurture Assumption? From which:

Correlations between children and parents are usually well below .50. A correlation between children and parents is usually low enough that the genes they share could account for all of it. [Author’s italics.]

No doubt it is “hurtful”—that pathetic, whining word that progressives love so much!—for a child to find he has placed low in some competitive activity. How else might we do things, though?

What, for example, is the alternative to graded tests and exams? Do we not want our architects, dentists, pilots, electricians, firefighters, statisticians, and historians to be fully capable in their fields? Has not every teacher encountered the pleasant, articulate, co-operative, enthusiastic student who, when sat down for a written exam, turns out to have absorbed none of the course material?

And of course Kohn’s professed desire that we raise citizens who “question authority,” who “think critically,” who display “reflective rebelliousness,” who are “willing to be nonconformists” is perfectly bogus. He actually titles his last chapter “Raising Rebels,” and instructs us how to do that.

Yeah, right. Kohn’s progressivism is, like the Marxism that begat it, a cynical cover for totalitarian control. By all means “challenge oppressive institutions,” kids, so that Kohn and his progressive pals can seize control of those institutions. From that point on, nonconformists will be Thought Criminals.

Consider, for example, software genius Brendan Eich, forced to resign as CEO of Mozilla Corp. the other day for having donated to a campaign against homosexual marriage. Would Kohn describe Brendan Eich as a person who “thinks critically” and “questions authority”?

Or how about young Matthew Heimbach, who founded the White Student Union at Towson University on the reasonable grounds that, as he said: “Every ethnic group has its own advocacy group but white students don’t.” Would Kohn describe Matthew Heimbach as a person who is gifted with “reflective rebelliousness”?

To ask these questions is to answer them. Alfie Kohn does a good job of hiding the steel fist of cultural Marxism inside the velvet glove of hug-your-child empathy, but we know how this movie turns out. 

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About the Author

John Derbyshire writes "Shelf Life," a books column, every other week. He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism (Crown Forum).