Emotional Intelligence | Stevehein.com

Comments on Alfie Kohn's Five Reasons To Stop Saying “Good Job!”

I feel encouraged by most of what Alfie is saying in his article. But I would take it farther. For example, when Alfie says...

Some people insist a helpful act must be “reinforced” because, secretly or unconsciously, they believe it was a fluke. If children are basically evil, then they have to be given an artificial reason for being nice (namely, to get a verbal reward). But, if that cynicism is unfounded–and a lot of research suggests that it is–then praise may not be necessary.

... I think of my belief that children know instinctively what is helpful or hurtful to humanity. If this is true, then for a better future for the whole world, we need to put more faith in children's own natural feelings about what they do. In other words, we can ask them how they feel about things and use their feelings as guides, rather than our feelings or our beliefs.

Alfie comes close, very close to saying this, but he doesn't go quite as far as I do. I believe, for example, that adults have done a lot of damage to each other and the world. I believe children could do a better job with very little guidance needed. I also believe they could be our teachers, rather than us trying to always teach them and shape them into what we believe is a "good" person, "good" citizen etc. We could ask them how they feel about war, about violence, about the separations in the world caused by religion and nationalism, and then really listen to them and try to change things accordingly. We could ask them things like my question for children: Do you think Jesus would wear a tie? Do you think he would hit a child? When I ask children and teens how they feel and what they think about questions like these, I consistently get better answers than I get from the adults who are teaching, raising and legislating them.

While I generally felt strong support for what Alfie said, I am afraid that he is not going to really change many parents' core beliefs with this article. He might change their strategies for trying to get what they want out of their children, but that is not the most important task. The more important task is to get parents to stop trying to create replicas of themselves and stop trying to impose their values and their beliefs about what is "right" and "wrong" and "good" and "bad."

I am tempted to say "I praise Alfie for many things in this article..." We are so used to saying things like that, he has a very good point!

But instead I will say I agree completely with many things. For one, I agree that no one likes to be judged. Alfie didn't use the word resentment, but I think he realizes that a smart child will start to resent being treated this way. And I would say that an emotionally smart child will recognize this kind of manipulation for what it is and will resent it faster than others.

I also agree that judgments will backfire in the long run. Not just in the sense that a child might not do what the adult wanted him or her to do when the adult is not around, and not just in the sense that it will hurt a child's or teen's level of self-confidence. The larger problem I see is that the children and teens won't use their natural instincts to guide them to solving world-wide problems. They will still be over-dependent on the judgments and approval of the adults in their particular country, community or family. This handicap will make it harder for them to see outside of the "box" that they have been raised in.

For example, consider a child who is born into not only a country, but also a religion. A child, by the way, has a greater possibility of escaping the confines of dysfunctional adult religious beliefs than he does of not being born into a country run by adults, all with their own inherited problems. But let's think of a child born into a country like Peru, where I spent the past year.

The country is close to 100% Catholic or some other form of Christianity. The government schools teach virtually the same things from the top to the bottom of the country. The culture is one of the most closed I've ever seen. The adults teach things like "it is a lack of respect to question adults or state your own opinion." Having been born into such an environment, what are the chances a child will grow into an adult with a world perspective on what is best for all of humanity?

And in the United States, things are not really that different. Each year the government puts more and more controls on the young people through stricter and stricter educational laws and "standards." It is harder and harder for someone to escape without being what I can only call brainwashed. Even Alfie Kohn, one of the most vocal critiques of the educational system seems to take it as a given that a child should and must go off to school. Note this comment from his article:

If a child is taking forever to get out the door in the morning, them sitting down with him later and asking, “What do you think we can do to solve this problem?”

Though Alfie doesn't say it explicitly, we can assume he is talking about school. He is, therefore, saying that schools are a place we must send children and teens to, and implying that they are worthy of a young person's time and intellect. More specifically he is saying that the "problem" is that the child doesn't want to go and will arrive late. But to me, this is not the problem.

The problem is that school attendance is forced upon children and teens, and the problem is that they are punished for being late or not going at all. If you have not seen it, please read the page from my site about how a teenager can get sent to jail in Wisconsin for failing to obey the laws on school attendance. (link below)

The problem is also that schools are not places where enough young people want to go voluntarily. If they were, there would be no "problem" in getting someone "out the door."

But to return to the issue of judging, I agree with Alfie, when he talks about the importance of not creating someone who is dependent on others' approval. As I read his article I thought of the difference between "self-esteem' and "other esteem." One suggestion I would add to the article is to ask the child or teen how they feel about what they did, then try to listen and learn, rather than impose your beliefs and values.

This reminds me of the time I saw a teacher in Missouri give a child an evaluation of a little presentation she child gave to the class. It was obvious the girl didn't think she did a very good job, and it was obvious to everyone else too, but the teacher gave her a plastic smile and said in that saccharine tone that Alfie mentioned, "Very good!" By the look on the girl's face, though, it was clear the girl rejected the forced compliment and went to her desk feeling worse than if the teacher had given her more honest feedback or, better, yet, asked the girl how she thought she did and why. This would have given her a chance to explain herself and possibly feel a little understood, which would have helped form a closer relationship with the teacher. But what the teacher did was drive a wedge between them.

I also remember the time I watched an "educational consultant" manipulating her children in a Kinkos copy center in the USA. It is a clear example of what Alfie talks about. (link below)

As I read his article by the way, I felt sadness for how I was treated by my mother. She was very skilled at the kind of sugar-coating, judging and manipulating that Alfie describes so well.

But the fact that she did not hit me, as are so many young people are hit in the countries I have been in for the past two years, probably helped give me the courage to leave my environment, go traveling and become open to new ideas. So while I would like to see us go further than Alfie suggests, what he has written is a step in the right direction.

S. Hein
Feb 17, 2006
Salta, Argentina

Jail, school in Wisconsin