*I started writing this post a couple of weeks ago, and have since read many more articles on the topic, and have started reading a new book that has also helped to expand my understanding of the situation. If anything feels a bit schizophrenic, it’s probably because it was written in pieces over a long period and I kept trying to go back and revise when I learned something new. Thanks for your patience!*
So this dichotomy has been bugging me for a while now. I’m a big fan of the Attachment Parenting philosophy, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned. Within this philosophy there’s a belief in allowing children to experience the effects of natural consequences. This also includes logical consequences imposed by parents. The idea here isn’t to break their spirit or to gain their obedience, it’s to help them learn about how the real world works. If you fail to put gas in your car, you will run out and be stuck on the side of the road somewhere. If you fail to pay your power bill, your electricity gets shut off. If you fail to treat your friends properly, you may find that you no longer have friends. These are natural consequences, unlike the consequences often meted out as punishments by well-meaning parents. If you don’t do your homework, you can’t have dessert. What has homework to do with food? So there’s that.
There’s also a contingent within AP (at least as far as I understand it, please correct me if I’m misstating something) that promotes allowing children natural development, and not rescuing them from frustration with learning gross motor skills. For example, if your baby is lying on his back and is trying to reach a toy, you don’t immediately just grab the toy and hand it to him. That frustration with being unable to reach his toy will likely inspire him to start working at moving his body around his environment, leading to the development of rolling over, scooting or crawling. Make sense? Here’s a good piece on that bit, if you’re interested: No Tummy Time Necessary
There are other pieces that talk about raising a self-disciplined child in the AP-sphere, like this one by Dr. Laura Markham: The Secret of Raising a Self-Disciplined Child. Note the focus on connection and relationship with the parents being the driving force behind developing self-discipline. It’s not about the parents forcing the child to do something, threatening punishment or offering rewards. You’re teaching them to give up what they want right now for what they want more, and that’s a huge skill for them to have as they get older. Here’s a piece from Janet Lansbury on how over-protective parenting can lead to a lack of self-confidence and how you can help your kids to learn that confidence: I Think I’ve Ruined My Child. Being overly responsive and not allowing her boy to struggle has his mother worried about how her boy will fare in the wider world when she can no longer rescue him. Janet recommends taking a different view on struggle: Struggles are inherent in life and essential to learning. She advises setting boundaries and allowing the children to experience their emotions, even the ones that seem overwhelming. If we don’t let our kids feel their feelings, they won’t learn how to deal with them. If we are calmly supportive while they struggle with big feelings, they’ll learn that we believe them capable of dealing with their emotions and that their emotion aren’t something to be scared or ashamed of. Another post from Janet on a similar topic called “A Lesson From Babies…It’s Okay to Struggle” talks about how feeling “stuck” isn’t a bad thing, and how kids learn more from working their way past a problem (with loving support from an adult) than if we just grab them and solve it for them.
So anyway, the general philosophy here is that by allowing children to experience failure and frustration, by letting them work through their feelings (with our help, if needed), they will learn to deal better with the inevitable failures that come later in life. Struggling through these tough times will teach them “grit” and self-confidence, and learning how to struggle through something hard to get what they want teaches self-discipline and self-motivation. It makes sense to me, and honestly, it’s something I have a hard time arguing with. And then I read this piece by Alfie Kohn: What Do Kids Really Learn From Failure?
In this article, Mr. Kohn dismantles the idea of using failure as a teaching method. He mentions a lack of evidence supporting the theory that more failure at a young age will lead to an increased ability o cope with failure later in life. Quite to the contrary, it appears that failure begets failure. How does this wash with the other understanding of struggle and failure as being good teachers? Well there’s some subtlety to these positions and to their authors that I missed at first glance, and I think that’s helping me to find the common thread in all of this. Here goes.
The difference, for one, is the setting. The initial examples come from children who are too young for traditional school, and are working through the problems of infancy and toddlerhood. Some of them come from young children in a free-form, play-based preschool. Failures in these environments are akin to this line from Kohn’s article: “Challenge — which carries with it a risk of failure — is a part of learning. That’s not something we’d want to eliminate.” The challenge of learning, where failure is simply informational and guides the next attempt, isn’t a bad thing. Trying to do something new and not succeeding isn’t bad in itself, I would contend, based on both of these perspectives. The badness arrives when we brand children as failures when they don’t live up to some artificial (and often arbitrary) expectation set up for them by adults. If the baby wants to roll from back to tummy, and can’t do it, he’s doing something of his own volition. He’s doing what he wants to do and his failure isn’t being held against him by anyone (hopefully). A pre-teen who doesn’t complete the math assignment he didn’t want to complete and is now being punished for his “failure” is in a much different situation. He’s being judged and punished by an adult for not doing something that he had no interest in doing in the first place. The failure isn’t in the boy, it’s in the expectation. He isn’t struggling and failing, he’s choosing not to participate. If he’s punished for that choice, he’s not learning anything at all. He’s not learning math, he’s not learning how to be a better student. At best, he’s learning that his decisions or values aren’t recognized by his teachers, and chances are very good he’ll withdraw even more and put forth less effort than before.
So does this make sense? One type of “failure” is an attempt that doesn’t go as planned. Another is a judgement made by an outside force, often accompanied by a punishment. One type, the type that isn’t judged, has the capacity to teach. When I try something new in my workshop, it may not go as planned, but I learn from my mistakes and do better the next time. I’ve often said that my first two attempts at anything will be total failures and the third will start getting me pretty close to what I’d pictured in my head. Those “failures” are just me learning, though. I don’t let it get to me, because I know that I’m going to take what I’ve learned and do better next time. Kids who are punished for failing, however, will learn to play it safe. They’ll learn to avoid failure. They’ll learn not to bother trying for fear that they can’t do it right, and the swift and merciless hand of their teacher (or parent) will come to slap them down. That’s when failure begets failure, and that’s how we fail to teach our children.
So, really, there’s no contradiction, though there appeared to be one at first. I like it when I can figure this stuff out, because I don’t think there are any contradictions in true wisdom. When you dig deep enough, you find the core principles and those, more often than not, agree with each other. In this case, it seems that the core principles are of adults respecting the values of the children in their lives, and of letting them work towards their own goals with support, but not interference. Does that sound fair? I hope I’m doing this right. If I’m not, I guess I’ll learn something.
So we’ve figured failure, but what about self-discipline, the supposed benefit of allowing kids to fail and to learn from those failures? Kohn, in his article, references another piece he wrote called “Why Self Discipline is Overrated“. Let’s dig into that and see what we can make of it.
First off, I think Kohn’s definition of self discipline differs significantly from my own. I don’t think of self-discipline as being the same as obedience. Discipline from parents and teachers comes from without, but as with all behavior, the response comes from within. That doesn’t make that response “self-discipline”. If a child is taught that he must do homework and is punished for refusing, his efforts to do homework aren’t a result or an example of self-discipline. They are an example of a learned response to external discipline. Kohn seems to think that actions motivated by external forces can still count as self-discipline, as long as the “disciplined person” continues working without someone holding a whip over his head. That doesn’t really jibe with my understanding of self discipline, but it seems key to most of his points. That might be why I don’t agree with this piece as much as I do with most of his other work, so keep that in mind.
I think that fundamental disagreement is why this piece rubbed me the wrong way. Kohn makes the case that it’s possible to overdo self discipline and become a compulsive, joyless robot. I don’t see that as a case again self discipline, I see that as a case against being extreme in pursuing any otherwise desirable quality. Self discipline within reason is difficult to argue against as a good goal, which is why Kohn attacks a bunch of strawmen in the vicinity but doesn’t actually take on the quality itself. Yes, overdoing it is bad. Yes, it’s possible for parents/teachers to push their own values onto the child, and then for him to work feverishly toward goals he honestly cares nothing about. Yes, it’s possible for people to advocate for self discipline for the wrong reasons, trying to use it as a way to grind the fun out of childhood. But these aren’t arguments against a person having the quality of self discipline, they’re arguments against the various reasons and methods that have been used to instill it in children, or against the ways that self-discipline can go wrong.
As that sort of argument, I think Kohn does a great job. Let kids figure out their own goals and work towards them. Definitely, many adults are asking the wrong questions about self discipline, and we need to be thinking more about how we can teach kids to grow up to be psychologically healthy adults instead of worrying so much about whether they’re doing the meaningless tasks we’ve set before them. Self discipline should be a tool for the child to reach his goals, not a way for adults to get a kid to do the adults’ bidding even while he’s on his own.
I think Kohn sells short the benefits of self discipline, at the (to my mind) inflated risk of being too rigidly self-controlled to enjoy life. I know many adults who are driven by impulses and can’t keep themselves from doing something they want to do, even if they know it isn’t good for them. Sometimes it’s fine to have that extra slice of cheesecake, or call in sick at work to stay home and play video games, but far too many adults don’t have the self control to do what they know is right in the face of temptation. Self control is something that’s built up over time and with practice, and I think it’s a bad idea to downplay how important it is for a successful life. Relationships work better when both parties can control their impulses, for example to avoid saying something hurtful in a heated moment. Physical health is easier to maintain with a measure of self discipline and self control, too. It’s certainly easier to be a good parent if you can do what you know needs to be done even you don’t want to, or avoid doing something that would make you feel better but would ultimately be harmful to the child. People who have the discipline to save some of their money certainly seem to have more secure lives where they aren’t as stressed about finances. I would rather see people err on the side of too much self control than on the side of too little, personally.
So where does that leave us? I think self discipline is definitely a worthy goal, and I think that people would generally be happier in the long run if they had more of it. Not too much, mind you, but I’m friends with some of those really driven people and they’re not all unhappy because of it. As long as they’re the ones deciding on their own goals, and as long as they can still let go and have fun sometimes, I think they’re generally much happier than my friends who suffer from too little self discipline. They have better health, better finances, and better relationships. We shouldn’t be afraid of hard work or of fun. A good life has a healthy measure of both, and that’s what I strike for in my own life, and what I’ll be teaching my kids to work towards. Thanks for reading.