The Good News About Bad Behavior by Katherine Reynolds Lewis (Hardcover, PublicAffairs)

Jour­nal­ist Kather­ine Reynolds Lewis’s inau­gur­al book, The Good News About Bad Behav­ior grew out of a 2015 arti­cle for Moth­er Jones called “What If Every­thing You Knew About Dis­ci­plin­ing Kids Was Wrong?”. The pro­mo­tion­al mate­r­i­al claims it was the most read sto­ry the mag­a­zine had ever pub­lished; The Seat­tle TimesClau­dia Rowe relates that it got more than four mil­lion hits.

That’s a good clue you ought to get to work writ­ing a book for some­one to sell.

Which Lewis did. This book, sub­ti­tled “Why Kids Are Less Dis­ci­plined Than Ever—And What To Do About It” or in some edi­tions, “Am I So Out of Touch? No, It’s The Chil­dren Who Are Wrong” might be the most impor­tant book ever writ­ten con­sid­er­ing what we’re up against with Kids These Days.

The chil­dren and youth of today are worse now than they’ve ever been.

This isn’t just a feel­ing but borne out by mea­sur­able, quan­tifi­able met­rics like rates of homi­cide and sui­cide, teen preg­nan­cy and abor­tion rates, or smok­ing tobac­co and drink­ing alco­hol in the past month.

And there’s clear, straight­for­ward evi­dence that hav­ing so much screen time is ruin­ing the abil­i­ty of the com­ing gen­er­a­tion to exert self-control.

That includes near con­stant con­tact with social smart­phone apps as well as video games like Fort­nite, so unique­ly addic­tive that youths are con­tent to watch some­one else play them rather than play them themselves.

Actu­al­ly, if you click through the hyper­links, in all those quan­tifi­able ways chil­dren are doing much bet­ter than a quar­ter-cen­tu­ry ago, and large­ly health­i­er and bet­ter behaved than their peers of 1980 or 1970, too. Turns out, elim­i­nat­ing omnipresent lead poi­son­ing may have been a pret­ty good idea.

The Good News About Bad Behav­ior by Kather­ine Reynolds Lewis (Hard­cov­er, PublicAffairs)

To be clear: even bet­ter than mil­len­ni­als, today’s youth forego last­ing (and let’s call them “real”) prob­lems; mean­while, video game addic­tion does exist but is exceed­ing­ly rare.

So, the kind­est thing we can say about Lewis’s book is that its premise is of … spe­cious valid­i­ty. Luck­i­ly, you can treat the first three chap­ters or so as ves­ti­gial and the remain­ing sev­en­ty-five per­cent does hold up with­out it just as well.

To try a dif­fer­ent premise: “Good par­ent­ing is hard, and you want to raise your chil­dren not to be obe­di­ent or man­age­able but with an eye toward them becom­ing inde­pen­dent, com­pe­tent adults with self-dis­ci­pline” — that’s ever­green mate­r­i­al and should­n’t need dire warn­ing to jus­ti­fy itself.

The trou­ble is that par­ent­ing books, like self-help, diet­ing, and well­ness gen­er­al­ly, tend to be akin to the Greek satirist Lucian’s crit­i­cism of diverse philo­soph­i­cal schools, all promis­ing to lead trav­el­ers to a far-off City rep­re­sent­ing enlight­ened bliss, but each guide point­ing in a dif­fer­ent direc­tion to get you there.

The anec­dotes and acronyms of PEP (Parental Encour­age­ment Pro­gram) and PAX (Peace, Pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, Health, and Hap­pi­ness) are things you most­ly have to take on faith that they’re legit­i­mate and work, but why should­n’t they?

The goal is self-reg­u­la­tion; to do that, you need to make con­nec­tions with your chil­dren, com­mu­ni­cate with them as autonomous indi­vid­u­als wor­thy of respect, and sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly build their capa­bil­i­ty as those individuals.

So rather than get into a pow­er strug­gle about what you want them to do — like tak­ing a bath — explain why they ought to do it, warn them that they’re going to smell bad lat­er so you might not want to read them a bed­time sto­ry if they’re in your lap and smelly, then fol­low through on it. They deserve to make some low-stakes choic­es, and then to deal with the con­se­quences of those choices.

Or if they’re an old­er sib­ling, you could put the child in charge of mak­ing sure younger sib­lings have sort­ed their clothes for the wash so that they learn to have a sense of own­er­ship and pride in the accom­plish­ment of a chore.

This is the appren­tice­ship mod­el, and hope­ful­ly they grad­u­ate from your home with the skills nec­es­sary to sur­vive out there with­out you, capa­ble of many skills but most impor­tant­ly, capa­ble of fail­ing and not being crushed by it when they do.

This all sounds inof­fen­sive, and even worth­while, healthy, and pro­duc­tive, both to you as a par­ent and to a child being trained to live out in the world on their own.

It’s also prob­a­bly no more than mar­gin­al in its effect.

If, like Lewis, you can afford to send your chil­dren to the pri­vate school of their choos­ing because you don’t care for the pub­lic school class­rooms you were allowed to observe, you’ve already helped your chil­dren in the most impor­tant way pos­si­ble in Amer­i­ca: start them out wealthy.

The biggest take­away we get from Lewis’s orig­i­nal, viral arti­cle is that she treats the school-to-prison pipeline as the sys­tem not work­ing as intend­ed when she ought to view it as the sys­tem work­ing exact­ly as intended.

No amount of immac­u­late par­ent­ing or edu­cat­ing is going to mean­ing­ful­ly impact zone- and wealth-seg­re­gat­ed schools or the prison-indus­tri­al complex.

On that lev­el, it — and the book, also — fail.

But in terms of rais­ing your own chil­dren, if you are in a rel­a­tive­ly good posi­tion, who knows? This could actu­al­ly be the par­ent­ing strat­e­gy that works out.

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