My column ran today — it’s not online yet, and the print version cut off the last sentence and part of the 2nd to last, so I’ve pasted it here instead. Enjoy!
In The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom about Children and Parenting, Alfie Kohn uses some of his previous theories on the problem with rewards, homework, and competition to debunk the prevailing view that “kids today” are over-indulged, over-protected narcissists , and that their helicopter parents made them that way. Given his earlier research, Kohn wondered what evidence supported such anecdotes?
He notes that many of the criticisms are contradictory: recent articles in such respected publications as Atlantic and The New Yorker note children are pushed to compete from a young age for elite accomplishments and are also shielded from competition by “everyone gets a trophy” policies. Similarly, parents are accused of being both too involved in their kids’ lives and too oblivious to anything but their smartphones. In an attempt to untangle these inconsistent allegations, Kohn searched for data to support criticisms of modern parenting and found none. Instead he contends that the often repeated concerns are driven by “a traditionalist viewpoint” about children’s place in society, opinions presented as fact. And that logical fallacies and a lack of statistical evidence flaw many widely reported generational issues.
Kohn proceeds to analyze each of the most common complaints about kids and parenting. His conclusion? “The real alternative to narcissistic self-absorption is not mindless obedience but reflective rebelliousness,” and “intellectual progress (that) demands we refuse to take things at face value or accept everything we’ve been told.” In other words, the best thing we can do for our kids, and ourselves, is teach them to question what they hear and read, starting with reports about their own alleged self-importance and the mistakes their parents are making. A provocative, important read.
Eve O. Schaub lives in an area of Vermont where specialized eating habits, like locavorism, aren’t uncommon. But in her book Year of No Sugar she relates how people react to her family’s effort to stop eating foods with added sugar, “. . . it’s not just with waitstaff and counter people but friends, relatives, acquaintances; I can pinpoint almost the exact moment when the other person’s face changes. . . .” Although most people are tactful, their dismay is clear. Inspired by Dr. Robert Lustig’s obesity research and David Gillespie’s book Sweet Poison, Schaub embarked on a year of no sugar, (with certain exceptions, like monthly family desserts) and her husband and kids joined her. Her memoir, inspired by the blog of the same name, tells the story of what she learned and how they managed when much of the food we purchase, even organic and natural versions, includes some kind of sugar. I found the book interesting and the facts about sugar’s impact on our health and well-being compelling, albeit somewhat limited – Schaub cites few sources beyond Gillespie and Lustig. The book’s excessive use of italics for emphasis, perhaps intended to convey a conversational tone, is visually disruptive. But Schaub writes with passion and personality and I hope her experience inspires others to learn more about the ubiquitous sweeteners we consume.
Holly Robinson’s Beach Plum Island is a family novel with plenty of emotional punch. Sisters Ava and Elaine have very different reactions to their father’s death. Resentful of his much younger second wife Katy and disdainful of their half-sister Gigi, Elaine appears to be a polished professional and volunteers for a suicide hotline, but escapes on the weekends into binge drinking and hookups. Ava, a potter and teacher with teen sons, reaches out to Gigi. Together they decide to pursue mysterious clues their father gave in his last days about a brother they never knew existed. Robinson weaves each sister’s story into a tale of grief and love that explores the ways women adapt to expectations, the consequences when those become too much to bear, and the healing power of love. Along the way, she includes details that bring every scene to life – like this description of the sisters’ Great Aunt Finley’s living room, furnished with “. . .a plaid recliner with cat-scratched fabric . . .a sagging brown tweed couch and a coffee table with so many water rings on its surface, it looked like a deliberate helix design. There was a wooden lamp, its base carved like an owl, and magazines were stacked all over the floor and on top of every horizontal surface.” Vivid details like this, as well as the particulars of Ava’s art, Elaine’s work, and Gigi’s horseback riding and fully fleshed out secondary characters, bring Beach Plum Island into deep focus as the story unfolds. An uplifting but not overly bow-tied ending makes for satisfying reading.
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