Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Kohn Head

[Cross posted at Cranial Gunk]

Whenever the subject of Asian parents and discipline comes up, I think of Russell Peters’ skit about his dad and spankings.

BigWOWO posted a reaction to Alfie Kohn’s article on “unconditional parenting.” As Daniel Willingham aptly points out, Alfie Kohn “has made a virtual industry out of finding interesting and provocative insights” on education and child development. On the Britannica blog (Yes, the encyclopedia people), the comments to Kohn’s reaction to Willingham’s reaction to his work is the best indication of how successful he is at what he does.

I don’t believe his critics. In fact, I agree with most of Kohn’s initial assertions. He’s right when he says that parents should love their children unconditionally. He makes a good point in his criticism of the Supernanny. Her solutions do seem superficial and temporary. And I do agree that homework for homework’s sake is counterproductive. The purpose of homework is to practice skills (both newly acquired and existing).

I like the ideas of student-directed curriculum and child-centered parenting. The former being the consideration of students’ interests and concerns in the application of classroom curriculum. The latter being the inclusion of the child’s voice in serious family decisions.

However, as practice they are flawed. Student-directed and child-centered approaches place premature burdens on the audience they seek to serve. Children do not yet have the life experiences for the cognition Kohn is demanding of them. In the case of the former, consistently appealing to a child’s interest does not provide him or her with the strategies needed to contend with moments of tedium or instances when other’s interests supersede his or her own. Without strategies for tedium, the child will most likely give up when a problem is too hard and he or she feels bored and frustrated.

In the latter, the child is thrown into a sink-or-swim situation. Without the prior experiences to navigate the nuances of social relationships or the powers at play, children can easily make potentially harmful decisions. Or they are simply expected “to know” without reasonable preparation or experience. It is the difference between asking a five year old: “Do you know why what you did was wrong?” and telling that five year old: “What you did was wrong because XYZ could have gotten hurt.”

Kohn was the daddy I wanted when I was 13. The permissive daddy who never shouted and never spanked. Who would coo and coddle me even when I failed my tests. My Baba is the daddy I am happy I got at 21. Unlike a Kohn Daddy, my Baba set down rules and helped me understand that rationality and morality were subjective. They rely heavily on a person’s cultural sensibilities and understanding of the world. And the world is often very Kafka-esque, possessed of a hermetic logic.

Now, a father myself, I have an even greater respect for the sacrifices my parents made for me. And I don't mean material sacrifices. I mean the emotional ones of denying me a car when I was a teenager because they knew I liked to go out and more often than not over do it in libations. I hated them at the time but now it's different. Now I have a context for the past. Now I realize that they made tough choices and placed themselves in the roles of villains because they were guarding my well being and nurturing my potential.

I believe our children depend on us to make decisions when they are either unprepared to or unwilling to. They depend on us as parents to willingly be the bad guys for their greater good. I am not a fan of “free range” parenting promoted by Kohn. And I can’t help wondering how many of the college students Assor, Roth, and Deci interviewed were culturally Asian. I bring culture up because I wonder if the interviewee's feelings of estrangement are consequences of something other than their failures or a lack of coddling.


thisislarry said...

great joke, great video. "somebody's gonna getta huuuurt!"

and I'm in total agreement with your observations on how your view of your dad changed as you grew.

Also, I think immigrant parents (and probably minority parents for the most part) have a non-Kohn worldview because they've seen the world through something other than the 'standard' viewpoint.

See, THIS is the cultural legacy we pass on to our kids!

Vincent said...

Thanks Larry. I was premature in posting and made some adjustments after your comment. That Russell Peters skit is one of my favorites. What are your feelings about the impact of economics on parenting? I think it's a factor too.

carosgram said...

As a white parent and elementary school principal I can only agreed wholeheartedly with your post. I see too many parents come into school wanting their child to like them and approve of them. They seem to be locked into a preteen age view of the world. Everything is seen through that mirror. They have not looked at the world as an adult, as the parent. They come in for advice about what to do with the problems their child is having. They tell me they don't want to do it the way their parents did. I ask them how they can see what their parents did in such a bad light when the result is such very nice people as themselves. Maybe their parents knew what they were doing. My own children tried the "I'll call child protective on you". I told them that when they did they should also call for an ambulance and they would need one by the time child protective arrived 'cause "somebody's goin' to be hurt real bad". Great post!!!