17 November 2009

Modern parenting

'Anxious parents - the midnight Googlers who repeatedly seek advice from experts - learn that there are many things they must never do to their willful young child: spank, scold, bestow frequent praise, criticise, plead, withhold affection, take away toys, 'model' angry emotions, intimidate, bargain, nag. Increasingly, nearly all forms of discipline appear morally suspect. The educator Alfie Kohn, writing recently in the [New York] Times, condemns the timeout - the canonical punishment of recent decades - declaring that it is more honest to say you are 'forcibly isolating' your child. Even an approach as seemingly benign as awarding gold stars, Kohn warns, is a manipulation that 'teaches children that they are loved' only when they perform a 'good job'.

So what should you do when a child throws a tantrum? Many parents, determined not to be cruel or counterproductive, latch on to pre-approved language from books. Walk through a Manhattan playground and you'll hear parents responding to their dirt-throwing, swing-stealing offspring with a studied flatness. A toddler whirling into rage is quietly instructed, 'Use your words'. A pre-schooler who clocks his classmate is offered the vaguely Zen incantation 'Hands are not for hitting'. A kid demanding a Popsicle is given a bland demurral: 'I'm sorry, but I don't respond to whining'. (The preferred vocal inflection is that of a customer-service representative informing an irate caller that the warranty has, indeed, expired). The brusque imperative 'Say "please"!' has been supplanted by the mildest of queries: 'Is there a nicer way to say that?' The efficacy of this clinical approach has not been confirmed by science, but it certainly feels scientific, in part because the parents conduct themselves as if their child were the subject of a peer-reviewed experiment'

- Daniel Zalewski, 'The Defiant Ones', New Yorker, 19 October 2009

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