Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Book Discussion: Chapter 5 of Unconditional Parenting

The quotes in this post are all from the fifth chapter of Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason by Alfie Kohn: Pushed to Succeed.

This was probably my least favorite chapter in the book. I think there are times when competition can be a good thing for anyone. (I read an article in the NY Times recently that even argued some people experience the brain chemistry changes when in competition or under stress in such a way that their performance improves. Fascinating.)

Mr. Kohn claims universally, that competition is detrimental.
[T]he effect isn't limited to "excessive" competition. Rather, it appears that anytime children are set against one another such that one can succeed only by making others fail, there is a psychological price to be paid.
But he doesn't have any end note for this statement - no studies whatsoever. As far as I can tell, this statement is merely his opinion.

I'm not a competitive person. (If Kansas Dad is still reading these posts about Unconditional Parenting, he just spit coffee all over his desk. My lack of competition is a bit of an understatement; I dread competition.) I think a race, for example, may encourage First Son to pump his legs just a bit faster than he might otherwise and, even if he doesn't win, he might be pleasantly surprised at how quickly he could run or (even better) how much fun it is to run.

Not that I'm certain.

This is the chapter where he talks about grades. These aren't really an issue for us since we homeschool. My kids don't even know what grades are. I could write a lot about grades, but I'll try to limit myself. Grades are not a measure of anything children have learned; they are the best the system could do to devise an "objective" measure by which children can be sorted, categorized, and compared by people who don't know the children in question. An interview and portfolio would be a far better way to assess people, even for college, but I suppose most universities would consider it too difficult.
What's troubling about this is not that kids may end up with lower grades. After all, I've been arguing that grades aren't terribly meaningful. Rather, what ought to concern us is the possibility that kids may fight back against the pressure to do better in school by investing less effort, with the result that they actually learn less. Never mind disappointing report cards: If we push children too hard, they may wind up doing less (or poorer quality) thinking.
He seems to see no way in which participating in sports is worthwhile. If there's someone losing, then any effort we as parents make to encourage our children to participate ("Just do your best." "We're only here to have fun.") is really just an attempt to cover up our true feelings: That you must win in order for me to love you. I'm not sure I believe that. I think it's completely possible to encourage participation in sports in order to foster a love of using our bodies, of being healthy and well, and of the benefits of perseverance and practice.

Simplicity Parenting claimed that the real benefit to sports and other competitive things came for adolescents, that it suited their particular needs to excel, to become an individual, to push themselves, to find their skills and preferences, and that pushing children to compete (even for fun) at earlier ages simply tired them out before they were able to reap the benefits. I found this argument convincing. It was interesting to note in the Times article linked above that providing opportunities to compete actually helps people become better at competing, or at least at performing in competitive or stressful situations, which we all must face at some time in our lives.

Previous posts on Unconditional Parenting

Thoughts on the Introduction
Discussion of quotes from chapter 1
Discussion of quotes from chapter 2
Discussion of quotes from chapter 3
Discussion of quotes from chapter 4

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