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Spare the rod, spoil the child? - Open Knowledge — LiveJournal

Sep. 9th, 2001

01:54 pm - Spare the rod, spoil the child?

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(Please note that I have no children yet, and have no direct experience with Sudbury. My views in what follows should be taken with a big hunk 'o salt.)

Amanda42 posted some interesting comments her mother made regarding the Sudbury Valley School. The school attempts to implement the following principles:

What does this mean in practice?

....this means that students initiate all their own activities and create their own environments. The physical plant, the staff, and the equipment are there for the students to use as the need arises.

Philosophically, the self-directed learning styles promoted by Sudbury appeals to me a great deal. Such a school seems a vast improvement on most existing schools, with their rigid conformity, dumbed down curriculum, and expectations that students learn decontextualized bits of information, with little or no thought as to why that knowledge is important.

Yet I feel ambivalent about the Sudbury system (and unschooling in general.) I believe children should be treated with respect, but I also think that their internal regulatory mechanisms are still immature. As a child, I hated to take piano lessons, and my mother eventually ceded to my wishes, and let me quit. As an adult, however, I wish that I had taken them--it's much harder to learn to play as an adult.

Morever, a disciplined, rigorous approach can produce fantastic results. For example, see the article Prodigal Daughters by Sarah Hurst that appeared in the May 15-21, 1997 edition of European Magazine. The Polgar daughters were chess prodigies. Sofia is rated 6th in the world among women and has a FIDE rating of 2505. At 21, Susan Polgar was the first woman to become a chess grandmaster. At 15, Judit Polgar broke Bobby Fischer's record and became the youngest grandmaster ever. She has a shot at become the first World Chess Champion, the first women to ever do so.

Their ability appears to be the result of an intensive training program begun by their father when they were still toddlers:

...Laszlo Polgar's ambition is for an institute to test his educational
theory, but the intensive teaching put in by Laszlo and Klara is not a
realistic option for the average family. The girls used to wake at six
each morning, play table tennis for two to three hours, then study
chess for six to eight hours And things were not always easy. As the
eldest, Zsuzsa bore the full force of her parents feud with the
Hungarian authorities. When she was five the police came to the flat
to make her go to school. The Polgars persuaded the government that
she should be allowed to stay at home, but their next opponent was the
Hungarian chess federation. It objected to Laszlo's insistence that
Zsuzsa must play only in mixed tournaments. As a punishment, the
federation banned her from going abroad for three years....

See also this excerpt from a post to Fork by Rohit Khare, which in turn is an excerpt from the article
Who wants to be a genius?
Jan 13th 2001, The Economist print edition, subtitled Psychologists are divided over whether genius is innate or acquired. Nobody has yet been smart enough to figure it out

"...Just as Dr Ericsson took people with no discernible talent and turned
them into champions, so, in a fashion, did a Hungarian, Laszlo
Polgar. When he began training his daughters, it was widely believed
that women could not play serious tournament chess. But through a
deliberate (and still continuing) psychological experiment, Dr Polgar
and his wife created a trio of world-class chess champions out of
their own daughters, overturning this prejudice.

By 1992, all three had reached the women's top ten worldwide. The
third, who presumably received the most refined training regimen,
became the youngest grandmaster in the history of the game and is
reckoned by her peers to have a good chance of becoming world
champion one day. With remarkable, if not hubristic, prescience, Dr
Polgar had written a detailed book on the subject of child rearing,
entitled "Bring Up Genius!" before beginning the coaching of his
children. But would any child reared by such a parent have become a
chess prodigy? "

What do y'all think? How much should children be allowed to learn on their own? How much should parents "make" them do things that are unpleasant in the short term, but have long term payoffs? (Such as learning to play the piano.)


[User Picture]
Date:September 9th, 2001 01:41 pm (UTC)
I don't think it's as "either or" as painted.

With the example of your mother and your piano lessons:

[1] Did she try to sell you on the idea of being a good pianist, or was it something she did because "everybody else" did it? Having a compelling reason to do something gives you wings that social pressure does not.

[2] What did you do with your time once you no longer had piano to deal with? If your mother had introduced you to people your eight-year-old self admired who were great pianists and *inspired* (rather than coerced) you to be as good as they are, do you think your motivation would have been different?

Now, "inspirational" salesmanship IS more difficult than the quick-and-dirty coercive "do it because I'm your mother" school of teaching. And it is certainly true that not all parents have the psychological savvy to understand (or employ) noncoercive child-rearing tactics ... though they could certainly be learned if one is sufficiently motivated.

I think the question is not "how much children should be allowed to learn on their own" but rather, "how much training do *parents* need to understand their own power in inspiring their children to be self-directed in pursing activities with long-run benefits?"
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[User Picture]
Date:September 9th, 2001 02:07 pm (UTC)
[1] To the extent that she sold me on the idea, she emphasized that it was a skill that I would like to have when I was older. She said that it would help me pick up babes. :> Not her words, of course, but that was the gist. I wasn't old enough yet for that to have an impact though. However, had I developed my 14 year old libido a few years earlier, I probably would be a concert pianist by now...:>

[2] When I wasn't practicing, I read books, watched cartoons, had dirt clod wars with little plastic soldiers out back. Part of my distaste for the piano stemmed from my feeling that it wasn't "macho" enough. Real men didn't play the piano; real men had sword fights. I also was bored by the practice (scales especially). I'm not sure that pointing out great pianists would've been particularly inspiring to me.

It's also unclear that I would've retained my piano skills, even if I had been forced to continue lessons. Maybe I would've spent a few hated years taking lessons, then never touch the instrument again. Counterfactuals are easy to generate, so it's hard to say what course of action would've resulted in the best of the possible outcomes.
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[User Picture]
Date:September 9th, 2001 03:55 pm (UTC)
[2] When I wasn't practicing, I read books, watched cartoons, had dirt clod wars with little plastic soldiers out back.
Yes! This is how children learn... through play. I guarantee you learned much more by pursuing the things that were interesting to you than you ever would have learned by being forced to do something you hated. Even dirt clod wars with plastic soldiers have value; you develop creativity and imagination if nothing else.
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[User Picture]
Date:September 9th, 2001 03:52 pm (UTC)
Why are the Polgar sisters' accomplishments so special? What would they have done if they were not forced/coerced into their chess training program? What were their dreams?

What if Einstein's parents had coerced him into becoming a stellar military officer? (Or something equally unsuitable for him...)

Children are people, and if they are ever to learn to be responsible individuals, we must treat them as such. If we treat them like cattle, they will behave as such.

How much should children be allowed to learn on their own? How much should parents "make" them do things that are unpleasant in the short term, but have long term payoffs?
Replace the word "children" with "people" and see how it sounds...
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[User Picture]
Date:September 10th, 2001 11:13 pm (UTC)
Let me emphasize that I'm very ambivalent about coercing kids. To the extent that I think that they should be coerced at all, I think it should be to prevent them from doing such things as running out into the streets in front of cars. I also think that kids should be given freedom and responsibility commensurate with their age. By the time a kid is 12 or 13, in my opinion, they should be free to do pretty much what they want, so long as it isn't illegal, and isn't harming someone else.

However, let me give an example that illustrates why I might consider coercion above this level.

Some children are born with hip disorders. Often these hip disorders can be treated by wearing leg braces. Unfortunately, little kids don't like wearing braces, because the braces are uncomfortable, bulky, and limit their mobility. Given a choice, many kids would refuse to wear them--after all, they can still walk, and run around. But as they get older, there's a good chance that the prolonged misalignment will cause pain and disability.

Should the parents force their kids to wear the braces? As an adult, kids will likely be grateful that their parents made them wear braces, since it saved them from much greater pain (surgery, physical therapy) as an adult.

Now instead of correcting a deficit, let's assume, hypothetically, that wearing braces could give an average kid the ability to run as fast as an Olympic sprinter. Would it then be ethical to make him/her wear braces?

In many fields, early training seems to be tremendously helpful, if not required, for achieving world class performance. Gymnastics, music, dance, mathematics, physics--many people who excel in these fields began rigorous training at a young age. How different is enforcing rigorous training from making a child wear braces?

Why are the Polgar sisters' accomplishments so special?

I suppose it depends on how much you value accomplishment in the chess world. Beating Bobby Fisher's record as youngest grandmaster ever is quite an achievement in the chess world, I suspect. I imagine the Polgar parents are quite proud of their daughter's accomplishments.

As for the daughters themselves, the articles I've read about them describe them as cheerful, friendly, well-adjusted. One of the daughters, Susan Polgar wrote a book entitled Queen of the Kings Game, that, in part, describes her fathers training regimen from her perspective. I haven't read it yet, but it might give some insight into how onerous she perceived her childhood. It would also be quite interesting to ask the daughters: "How much of your current skill would you give up in exchange for more freedom as a child?"

Of course, the Polgars may be rare. For every happy prodigy, there may be hundreds of obscure people who endured miserable childhoods in order to fulfill their parents dreams for them.

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[User Picture]
Date:September 10th, 2001 11:14 pm (UTC)
What if Einstein's parents had coerced him into becoming a stellar military officer? (Or something equally unsuitable for him...)

Yes, I see your point, the Polgar sisters paid a large opportunity cost by specializing in chess. Perhaps the Polgars would've been happier/more successful in other careers.

It's asymmetric though--in many fields, you can begin as an adult, and still achieve stellar results (medicine, writing, politics). The reverse--deciding to become a chess master as an adult--is much more difficult. In other words, some decisions have to be made when you're very young--other opportunities can be postponed until you're older.

Replace the word "children" with "people" and see how it sounds...

Yes, I agree it sounds bad. I don't like coercing anyone, even a little kid. However, I'm concerned that if I don't coerce, I may be depriving my children of skills and opportunities that, as adults, they would value much more highly than the loss of freedom they endured as children.

How about you? How much coercion, if any, do you think is appropriate?
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[User Picture]
Date:September 9th, 2001 04:09 pm (UTC)
also, looking at the "nurture" factor alone, the type of reinforcement children receive upon completing a "task" is very important. it is often dangerous they will loose interest, if they are consistently rewarded with highly valued tokens for a task they actually enjoy doing.

(the names of the researchers escape my mind--and I do not have the energy to look them up)
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[User Picture]
Date:September 9th, 2001 10:33 pm (UTC)


Yes, I agree--conditional rewards must be used carefully, if at all, lest you destroy intrinsic motivation in the task. Alfie Kohn, in his book, Punished by Rewards, summarizes a lot of the research in this area.
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[User Picture]
Date:September 10th, 2001 10:44 am (UTC)
I think this school sounds like a phenomenal idea, but I also agree with you that children's internal regulatory mechanisms are still immature. Parents and teachers should be there to guide and inspire children to broaden their minds, learn on their own, explore new things. It's not so much a matter of forcing them to do things they aren't interested in, IMHO, than it is encouraging them to explore new things. A motto I've always followed in my life is 'I'll try anything once, and then a second time to get it right'. Also 'anything worth doing is worth doing well'. I think it is the parent's job to encourage their children along these paths and thoughtways, and to expose them to new things, teach them to give everything a chance, but ultimately let them make their own choices and follow their own lives and dreams.

Also though, there is the question of tutoring your children and giving them the knowledge they need to succeed in the world and achieve their dreams...I know I certainly hated our educational system when I was a part of it, and though I was (and still am) an avid reader, I would never have learned math or history on my own. heh, like I really learned that much of it in school though. I am older and more disciplined now, obviously, but I find that I've learned more in the 3 years I've been out of college, on my own, than I ever did in school. More that is useful to life and interesting to me, at any rate. I wonder what I would have been like, what I would have accomplished, had I been encouraged down this path at a much younger age, and not force fed an established and 'approved' curriculum. I believe things would have been much different...and I daresay, better. possibly harder as far as success in the world goes though. *sigh*

I think I am in favor, currently, of home schooling my children, when I eventually have some. there is still so much I have to learn though...and so many options out there...
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