Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Kids Are All Right

I hope people enjoyed my eight nights of book reviews for Hanukkah.  It was kind of fun to focus on one things for a while, as well as finally writing reviews of all these great books we've been reading.  I really recommend the Mock Newbery Book Club program--it encourages your middle schooler (and probably you as well, at least if you are like our family) to catch up with some wonderful new books, and has us all reaching for different types of book than we typically read.

But now, back to other educational issues.  However, I'm still in a holiday mood, so I don't want to go on a rant against educational policies I disagree with right now.  So I thought tonight maybe I would give parents a gift--the gift of reducing our guilt about all the ways we are messing up our children.

This gift comes via one of my favorite educational writers, Alfie Kohn (oft mentioned in this blog).  He posted a new article on his website recently pointing out that all the woes of today's educational critics--high school graduates who can't read, employers who find high school graduates incapable of performing even entry-level jobs, grade inflation, falling standards, yada yada yada--have been railed about for years.  That is, critics were saying the same things about the problems with the education system during Eisenhower's time (and in some cases, even earlier) as they are saying now.  So while it is obviously unacceptable to have high school graduates who can't read, at least it is not just a recent phenomenon that our generation has created.

While this article is good, an even better one was something in the same vein he wrote this summer.  In that article he addresses the often-heard criticism that today's parents are too permissive and indulgent, and that today's students are entitled, smug, out of touch with reality, and out-and-out spoiled rotten.  Well, Kohn traces the exact same complaints about overindulgent parents and what he calls "undisciplined narcissists" even farther back, to over a century ago.  It seems that educational experts have been blaming parents for ruining their children's work ethic for nearly as long as we've had mandatory universal public education.

Kohn points out a couple of holes in this line of criticism.  First, there is no data--in fact, there has never been any attempt to collective information on parenting styles in a systematic way that could be used to rate a parent as "permissive" versus a "disciplinarian" in all these many long years that critics have been decrying the failures of successive generations of parents.  What little research has been done in this area hardly suggests that parents are awash in overindulgence; Kohn cites a 1995 study of parents of preschoolers in which 94% admitted that they spank or hit their children.

For this complaint, however, Kohn does have an explanation.  He discusses a 2010 article in the journal Perspectives in Psychological Science by Brent Roberts, Grant Edmonds, and Emily Grijalva of the University of Illinois.  These researchers argue that such critics are confusing developmental differences with generational differences.  That is, young people, on the whole, are more self-centered and self-concerned, laxidasical, and unfocused than older professionals (such as these professional critics) because of age-related developmental differences; most only become less self-involved and more focused as they get older.  So, yes, there is a difference between the younger generation and the older one--but it is function of age, rather than a result of differences in parenting styles (or anything to do with their parents, really).  But as the young generation matures and eventually is replaced by a new young generation, they, too, will start shaking their heads and making pronouncements like "these young kids these days DON'T.... or SHOULD....  well, you get the picture.

So, parents, you are off the hook for that one.  If your tweens or teens or even college students or recent graduates are driving you crazy with their lack of responsibility and their inability to get over themselves, don't beat yourself up for being a bad parent.  Most likely, they are just being kids--which is what they are, no matter how early our society starts the whole "get good grades to get into a good college to get a good job" pressure on them.  Apparently we did the same things to our parents (that's not how we remember it, of course, but we probably did), just like they did to our grandparents, who did the same thing to our great-grandparents...and on and on.

So, Alfie Kohn, thank you once again for helping us keep things in perspective.

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