A light hearted question:

As a parent of two young children, I struggle with the current mainstream American parenting and educational style which is typically parodied (rightfully so) as the "Everyone gets a medal" approach to child rearing. Some features:

  • At various sports and cultural activities and competitions, everyone really does get a medal - it's almost laughable. The idea that there are winners and losers is deemed somehow too harsh. In my son's martial arts dojo, passing to a new belt rank is systematic every few months, regardless of how much karate the kid has actually learned.
  • Standardized testing in schools is seen as some sort of fascist evil by many parents and educational institutions. Presumably each child is unique and special in her/his own way and evaluating them against the same set of challenges and questions is somehow unfair.
  • Positive reinforcement and protecting the child's self esteem seems to take precedence over discipline. You don't say "You've been a bad boy", you're supposed to say "What you did is not nice". You're not supposed to criticize the kids, instead you need to ask for their reasons and try understand their point of view. Negotiation and explanation are to be used at all times instead of reprimand.

I can't really pinpoint one source. This is the overall message we get from both the various parenting books my wife makes me read and the daycare and education professionals I have to deal with. The approach is probably best summarized in this cartoon:

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I call this "mainstream", because it is supposedly a mainly white/anglo approach (I myself am of mixed Irish and Arab descent). Amy Chua contrasts this with the more disciplinarian and traditional approach that Asian-Americans supposedly take with their kids in her notorious "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother".

I object to this approach and my friends are always surprised by this, since my political views are usually to the far left, and this school of parenting and education is somehow associated with liberal and left-leaning thinking.

My questions:

  • Can this approach to parenting and education be traced to a recent philosophical movement or principle in particular?
  • Why is this approach somehow associated with liberals and the left? Afterall communist Eastern European countries tended to be much more demanding and disciplinarian in their education than Western countries.
  • When do you think this style started? One thing that comes to my mind is that the Greatest Generation (WWII) wanted their children to have a better life and wanted to protect them from being exposed to the terrible things they saw at a young age. This desire led to a swing in the opposite direction, whereby they spoiled their children and protected them from everything, including their own bad decisions.
    – user18800
    Commented Jan 9, 2016 at 21:20
  • 2
    My opinion: both styles are the product of an over-obsession with causality. They both stem from the need to develop a causal model to explain how to produce the best offspring. Because so much of social growth is not well-modeled causally (see: strange loops), neither model really got the idea right, and then they bore down, hoping might made right. The conservative vs. liberal line simply comes because the two models align rather well with the values of the political parties.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 4:41
  • Three influences come to mind: sexual revolution (Freud, but especially Gross and Reich) with its denunciation of repressive culture and traditional norms of behavior, cultural relativism of postmodernism (inspired in social sciences by Marxism in 1930s) that undermined any uniform standards of judgement, and feminism of 1970s that put emphasis on sensitivity, the feminine, and questioned cultural norms as supporting male stereotypes and dominance. Social-democratic left (ironically called "liberal" in the US) comes not from hardcore Marxism but from softcore revisionism of Bernstein.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 4:06
  • 1
    Please note that there are many legitimate criticisms of American standardized testing that have nothing to do with the "everyone gets a medal" mentality, among those being that they are primarily driven by commercial interests, that they don't measure what they purport to, that they exhibit persistent socioeconomic and cultural biases, and that they have had a deleterious effect on the pedagogical process. Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 21:38
  • @ChrisSunami there other two points are debatable, but this "that they exhibit persistent socioeconomic and cultural biases, " is a red herring compared to the much bigger issue in the US of an extremely uneven education playing field, where even if you go to public school ,the quality of the curriculum you receive still depends very much on your parents income (because of the way districts are funded). I spent some time in Tunisia, and if anything standardized testing (and uniform curriculums regardless of district) acted more as an equalizer than a discriminator compared to the US. Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 1:03

1 Answer 1


Our original notion for parenting in the West was driven strongly by a focus on discipline and conformity. The child's 'spirit' was to be broken so that he would submit to guidance, and this accorded well with the notion 'Thy will, not mine, be done, O Lord.'

The modern approach then, generally seen as 'child-centered' rearing, starts from a clear reversal of those attitudes, and is (in dialectic style) an abject overreaction, even by the standards of its originators.

Three schools in this vein represent much of its philosophical base: John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and the Child Psychiatry movement initially within Freudianism, but later its continuation as part of Developmental Psychology within Clinical Psychology in general.

Dewey's concern was to move education away from indoctrination and make it what we would now call a 'feedback loop'. But this was transformed quickly into a focus on taking leadership from the child. Within his lifetime, Dewey had already had to start arguing against his followers on this point, but the less tempered form continued to have a strong effect on teaching.

Montessori's concern was to optimize the opportunities for growth in the child, instead of trying to create them. She pointed out how following cues from the child is much more efficient than trying to create focus artificially. Her motivations were very young children or children of low mental age, for whom traditional education was a bad fit. But efficiency is hardly the problem for an ordinary child. There is more than enough time and resources for us to grow up. Coverage of the range of things one should focus on becomes more of an issue. This is especially obvious when you step back from professional education, which consumes the time of highly trained people, to parenting, which involves huge tracts of time one can almost not manage to waste (although that is changing a bit in single-parent or double-income families, time is not really the issue).

Developmental Psychology points out some strangely non-intuitive aspects of learning that shocked folks, by looking at children who had serious problems being educated. They discovered complex interactions later simplified and proved by Behaviorists. Reward works better than punishment, so much so that absence of reward constitutes punishment, and overdone punishment can act as a reward. Unwanted behaviors naturally extinguish themselves when replaced by more usable alternatives, but do not respond directly to suppression by punishment if no better alternative serves the same unconscious function. Trauma has far deeper effects than we generally imagine. Interaction with principal figures matters a great deal less in substance, and more in form, than we knew -- it does not happen at the conscious level we might imagine, and it bleeds out into our overall patterns of interaction. (Brene Brown is kind of the modern spokesperson for these ideas. They are important, and she is great.)

As expressed abstractly, these things point us in a direction of less and less rigidity and reactivity in addressing children, and pressures parents to be more and more protective and gentle. But in practice, although true, they are somewhat self-contradictory, and they are overemphasized to the degree they were striking at the time.

The major impediment to using them abstractly is that some components of resilience are learned as much as any other skill, and untested skills are not well internalized. Nathaniel Branden, the original popularizer of the word 'self-esteem' spent much of his later life resisting the unbalanced notions that people had about the concept and the damage he felt was being done to education and parenting in his name.

The deepest problem, here, as I see it, is that like much of modern psychology, it originates in solving the problems of those at both extremes of accomplishment, rather than deriving direction from normal functioning. Other than Dewey himself, these workers generally tried to leverage successes with the disabled, or with those bored and disaffected by the weakness of the curriculum into a general plan that would be deployed mostly upon people far from either of those extremes.

At the same time, these are educational philosophies, aimed at educators, not parents, and the separation of teaching from parenting is lost by many practitioners who got their inspiration from wards of the State, or children who otherwise could gain little from their parents.

  • Sort of surprising to me no one's mentioned Zizek on authoritarian parenting... :)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 20:43
  • @JosephWeissman Perhaps because the concepts involved actually go back to Baumrind and more of Developmental Psychology with the rest of it.
    – user9166
    Commented Jan 14, 2016 at 3:12
  • Yeah that's fair enough! Z offers some trenchant analysis/critique here, but isn't part of the historical trajectory of parenting discourse
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Jan 14, 2016 at 14:33
  • It is too bad there are not schools for parents the way there are schools for teachers. Politicians could use schooling too.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Aug 27, 2023 at 15:23

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