Alfie Kohn, you are so angry! Again!

Do you want to talk about what’s really bothering you? It might help. It’s clearly an emotional issue for you, rather than a rational one.

Even if I accept certain premises of this argument – that any of this stuff even matters that much in terms of outcomes or that there is one universal way to parent that is right – there seems to be a misunderstanding of what the “conventional wisdom” really is. Kohn has exaggerated, magnified, and isolated these ideas that he thinks everyone has, removed context and nuance, and then railed against them.

For the sake of clarity, I’m just going to call whatever he is arguing against “grit.”

I’m not claiming to be a proponent of grit (full disclosure: I agree with some of it? As part of a balanced parenting breakfast? but it’s not like my THING), but I can’t sit back and let a bunch of parents believe they are damaging their children after reading Kohn’s angry cascade of straw men.

Rather, my intent is to probe the underlying cluster of mostly undefended beliefs about what life is like (awful), what teaches resilience (experiences with failure), what motivates people to excel (rewards) and what produces excellence (competition).

Alright. Let’s start right here. Is this what most people think? How about life [can be] awful [sometimes]. How about [learning ways to cope with and overcome] failure [can help encourage] resilience. How about [encouraging and praising effort, among many things] motivates people to excel. How about who knows what produces “excellence” because it’s such a huge, nebulous term that has a different meaning and presentation for each person. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say that competition produces excellence. Have you? Did I just miss it? Honest question. I actually googled “competition produces excellence” and got two Alfie Kohn stories plus a bunch of google garbage, so I don’t think anyone is really saying that.

And the assumption that everyone considers these ideas in the first place is somewhat classist, but that’s a separate issue.

They shouldn’t even be allowed to feel good about themselves without being able to point to tangible accomplishments. 

Kids shouldn’t even be allowed to feel good about themselves? Who has ever said this?

And I don’t think affection or regard, and the giving or withholding of either, has very much to do with what anyone has ever said about grit, ever. This is what angered me about him the first time: his only real leg to stand on (other than the “conservative” thing, which is just desperate) is the fact that he perceives love/affection/regard as separate and opposing to encouraging your kid to stick it out through something difficult, or whatever else grit is supposed to represent.

His whole argument is based on responding to these claims that no one legit has ever made. Relax, guy!

What I have heard is that maybe we should [lovingly, duh] let our kids fully experience some of the mild age- and developmentally appropriate struggles and sacrifices they would naturally encounter (maybe not winning every game, maybe playing out some minor playground conflicts instead of having adults step in, maybe not getting first chair trombone) instead of shielding them and pretending everyone is happy and exactly the same. What I have NOT heard is that we should throw them into the deep end and watch them try not to drown. That’s ridiculous and all it takes is a little bit of common sense to see the difference between the two.

The other thing that I think is obvious to most people but apparently not to Kohn, or not convenient to his argument, is that different kids need different types of parenting and different degrees of support. So one particular experience of struggle may be beneficial to one kid and not to another. It’s the parent(s’) job to distinguish between the two and make the right decisions.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I suspect that Kohn was one of those latter kids who was left to work out conflicts that he couldn’t handle. Maybe his parents threw him into the deep end and he wasn’t a deep-end sort of kid.

But maybe instead of writing about all children, he should be writing about one specific child (I did a little find-replace exercise):

The conventional wisdom these days is that Alfie Kohns come by everything too easily.

Alfie Kohns are said to be indulged and overcelebrated, spared from having to confront the full impact of their inadequacy. 

Most of all, it’s assumed that the best way to get Alfie Kohns ready for the miserable “real world” that awaits them is to make sure they have plenty of miserable experiences while they’re young. 

Alfie Kohns ought never to receive something desirable — a sum of money, a trophy, a commendation — unless they’ve done enough to merit it. 



Art credit: Todd Baxter


4 thoughts on “alfie kohn gets a medal

  1. Ha ha ha! Yes. I was actually thinking about your either/or thing with Alfie Kohn’s thing earlier today. Sheesh.


  2. Sorry I am picking on you. I actually just don’t want to go for my mandatory run in 38 degrees and rain, or to clean up my room. Actually, the “punished by praise” thing has been pretty well documented by some research (i.e. that the more you praise art, the less you get, and the less work is put into it, the more you praise puzzle doing, the easier puzzles a child picks, etc.) Brene Brown has a great story about how parents of kids on the swim team don’t want their children to be told that they didn’t do the flip turn correctly; that it was, instead “okay.” I believe that people are hard wired for struggle, and that we can only get self-esteem through actually accomplishing something, and I ain’t alone.


    • I went back and reread this post to try to see what you were responding to regarding praise and struggle. I’m still kind of unsure, actually. Was it Kohn’s statement that he disagrees with the idea that “competition produces excellence”?

      I’m confused because I feel like, in the posts I’ve made about Kohn’s ideas (vs. the idea of grit or whatever else), that’s kind of what I am saying. I don’t claim one particular “style,” but in this argument, if I had to pick, I’m on team grit. I’ve actually asked people (me=NEUROTIC) not to overly praise my child because I do tend to agree with that line of thinking. So I’m wondering what is not coming through clearly.

      Often what I write about here is the degree and the approach rather than the concrete idea. This applies to the post about time-outs as well. That may be where the disconnect lies, but I can’t entirely tell.


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