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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, July 11th, 2018

Book Review: The real “Good News About Bad Behavior” is that the kids are already alright

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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