May 15, 2014


How Not to Calm a Child on a Plane and Other Lessons in Parenting from a Highly Questionable Source. By Johanna Stein. Da Capo. $19.99.

The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom about Children and Parenting. By Alfie Kohn. Da Capo. $25.99.

     Raising kids is, like so much else in life, a binary proposition. You can take it very, very, very seriously, or you can spend as much time as possible laughing hysterically at what you have gotten yourself into, hoping that you will eventually stop laughing sometime before you choke. What is difficult about parenting is the need to be simultaneously binary, because if you don’t take things tremendously seriously while laughing at them, something terrible is going to happen – such as writing a book that comes down firmly on one side or the other. This is not to say that either Johanna Stein’s book or Alfie Kohn’s is one-sided – well, actually, yes, it is to say just that. The books are so one-sided that parents may want to prop them up next to each other, reading pages from them alternately, resulting in a hopeless brain jumble in which the worst things are funny and vice versa.

     How Not to Calm a Child on a Plane is a series of 25 essays whose titles alone, although not their funniest elements, stand as doorways to parenthood, the only reality show actually worth watching: “Sexual Disintercourse,” “Fight the Pink,” “The Binky War Diaries,” “Lies I Have Told My Daughter,” and many more. Excerpting Stein’s book is both easy and impossible: every page encapsulates its overall style and tone, but no single excerpt or series of excerpts fully captures the overall, shall we say, ethos. Discussing Christmas, Stein explains that her unreconstructed hippie parents “rejected its rampant, crass commercialization, its Judeo-Christian-fascist hypocrisy (their indecipherable phrasing, not mine),” and therefore created a holiday in which “Mom and Dad would spoon out the chop suey and smoke a joint or two or seven, and that was that.” In “Ways in Which My Preschooler Has Insulted Me,” a short chapter entirely in capital letters, Stein offers, “MOMMY, YOUR TUMMY LOOKS LIKE A BAGEL,” “SOMETIMES WHEN YOU KISS ME YOUR TEETH SMELL LIKE SOCKS,” and “MOMMY, YOUR BUTT IS JIGGLY LIKE JELLY. AND ALSO LIKE JELLO.” Stein explains her premarital life repeatedly, including her “unintentionally ludicrous series of choices in men, some of whom included the military cadet, whose idea of romance was to hack the top off a champagne bottle with a sword; the manic-depressive actor who had a bad habit of staring at his own hands; and the one-night stand who left gum in my pubic hair.” She discusses her views of marriage while admitting that “the science behind the concept can be difficult to understand by anyone not living inside my skull,” names herself “a card-carrying member of the Jumping to Conclusions Society,” and talks about her husband’s health-related but unjustified panic that led her and the friend she was with “to laugh…in silent stereo until our faces were soaked and our diaphragm muscles were destroyed.” These three matters are all in the same chapter, which is only 11 pages long. Stein may or may not be an ideal parent – a lot depends on your definition of "ideal,” including whether you think ideal parenting is even possible – but she is a wonderful guide through the well-charted as well as uncharted parental waters. For example, when describing a woman at whose yard sale she ends up buying a used American Girl doll, she marks off the stages of the negotiation by referring to the seller as the Velour Demoness, Old Juicy Dust-Buns, the Orange-Haloed Battle-Ax, and finally the Hideous Victor Who Has Stolen My Mantle of Yard Sale Supremacy. But hey, the purchase makes her daughter happy – for the moment, anyway – and that is what raising kids is all about. Isn’t it? It was Oscar Wilde who said, “Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.” The measure of How Not to Calm a Child on a Plane, then, lies in how serious it steadfastly refuses to be.

     But then there is Alfie Kohn’s The Myth of the Spoiled Child, and oh my, it is serious enough for its own purposes, and Stein’s, and those of half a dozen other books. Everything, everything that we think we know about parents spoiling children, “helicoptering” above and micro-managing them, coddling them and boosting their self-esteem in ways detrimental to their eventual success in the world is wrong, wrong, wrong, writes Kohn. In fact, he and he alone knows what makes modern childrearing work, and he has been giving readers the benefit of his wisdom for a long time: The Myth of the Spoiled Child repeatedly refers, quite immodestly, to earlier Kohn works, in comments such as, “The widely held belief that humans are motivated by the prospect of receiving rewards is based, it turns out, on an antiquated version of psychology constructed largely on experiments with lab animals. To describe all the research over the last few decades that has revealed its multiple flaws would require a book in itself. But that book has already been written, so I’ll just summarize the arguments here.” A footnote refers readers to Kohn’s Punished by Rewards, one of 15 earlier Kohn works admiringly referenced and praised by Kohn (who at one point attacks another writer for backing up an argument by referring to one of that writer’s earlier works!). Kohn makes a lot of very strong points in The Myth of the Spoiled Child, about the reality that older generations have bemoaned the failings of youth for thousands of years and about there being no single form of motivation, to cite two examples. But he is so ruthlessly self-assured, self-involved and self-important that he ends up as a self-caricature. To argue that deferred gratification is not necessarily a good thing, for example, he deliberately takes out of context the famous John Maynard Keynes quotation about economics, “In the long run, we are all dead.” He argues again and again, strongly, that systemic factors matter a great deal more than individual responsibility and upbringing, then disingenuously tries to cover himself by writing, “Nothing I’ve said here should be taken to mean that personal responsibility doesn’t matter.” Indeed, it is shortly after this comment that Kohn gets to the heart of his argument: “There’s no reason to challenge, let alone change, the way things have been set up if we assume people just need to buckle down and try harder.” In other words – Karl Marx’s are the best-known – the proper role of parents and of society as a whole is “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” If, for example, a 16-year-old drunk driver kills four people, it is entirely correct to absolve him of personal responsibility on the grounds that he suffers from “affluenza,” in which his environment (very decidedly including his parents) has failed to mold him correctly – a story that Kohn somehow neglects to include in The Myth of the Spoiled Child but may perhaps wish to place in a later work on non-spoiled children. Kohn’s roadmap for raising children is quite clear: “Encourage young people to focus on the needs and rights of others, to examine the practices and institutions that get in the way of making everyone’s lives better, to summon the courage to question what one is told and be willing to break the rules sometimes.” Having delivered this panacea for the ills of the world, or at least the United States, Kohn re-engages his “cover myself” backpedaling, an annoying and persistent characteristic of his style: “I’m not talking about a knee-jerk opposition to everything…I’m not talking about rudeness. …Nor am I talking about arrogance. …Finally, I’m not talking about cynicism.” What Kohn is talking about, although he never says so explicitly, is the diminution if not outright removal of what Freud called the superego, the internalization of cultural rules – taught primarily by parents applying their guidance and influence. Since there appears to be little in the way of cultural adhesion that Kohn accepts, much less admires, elimination of the superego would (in Freudian terms) allow unfettered access to the id and ego, and what a wonderfully anarchistic world that would produce, filled with “persistent questioners and reflective rebels.” Kohn concludes that “powerful adults and their institutions…get away with too much,” and it is time “to raise a generation of kids who will push back.” None of whom will be spoiled. None of whom is spoiled. All of whom can turn to Kohn as their leader and savior, and to his ridiculously overwrought (++) The Myth of the Spoiled Child as their Bible.

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