Dan Kindlon Lecture

Dan Kindlon

Last week, my wife and I attended a lecture organized by our kids’ school and several other schools in the area. The speaker, Dan Kindlon (home, Harvard) is a child psychologist who teaches at Harvard and has several books to his credit, most recently Too Much of a Good Thing. As the event approached, I kept reading the talk’s title (Raising a Charactered Child) and dreading the event more and more. It just sounded deadly to me, and I knew nothing about Kindlon one way or the other. I considered googling the guy, but decided I would go in cold, on the theory that if my expectations were low, then I’d get more out of the talk if it happened to be any good. While I didn’t come away from the event thinking it was a great talk, I did enjoy it and I am glad I went. So much advice you hear in this world boils down to common sense you already now, but it can be useful to be reminded of common sense.

In an attempt to help remember what Kindlon said more clearly, I thought I would write up my notes from the talk, laboriously tapped into three SMS messages to myself on my stupid phone. If only I had the Graffiti recognition in a phone that I had in 1998 with my Palm III. Amazing how slow progress can be if you’re a cheapskate. Anyway, expanded from my cryptic notes, what follows below is my gloss of Dr. Kindlon’s talk – it’ll be a little staccato, and not in any way verbatim. It’s also my reporting, not my advocacy of any particular point.

His recent work has centered on trends he and some of his colleagues are seeing among American children, and represents his efforts to profile the kids and to identify the causes for the changes. Societal trends that he sees affecting modern families revolve around a few key issues:

  • societal permissiveness (are you as strict as your parents?)
  • time pressures (do you spend as much time with your kids as your parents spent with you?)
  • expectations riding on kids’ work – both quantitative and qualitative (the necessity of high achievement)
  • widespread drugs (from dope to RX painkillers)
  • widespread cheating (heightened expectations and inadequate time)
  • widespread sleep deprivation (ditto)
  • widespread depression (kids have iPods, cars, vacations, clothes, rooms, phones, computers, the internet, but they feel empty)
  • widespread anxiety (No sense of security, and because being an American today means being medicated)

He had anecdotes to illustrate all of the above – some drawn from his own experience with his two daughters and others from his research and practice. I will not attempt to recreate them, but they added useful depth to his talk and, in addition, many of them were funny. Hearing about other families grappling with the same issues you do does get your attention.

To respond to many of the points he listed, he had a few suggestions:

  • Teach your children how to delay gratification and reasons why that is useful.
  • Teach your children about sickness, suffering, and death via pets so they don’t first learn about those issues via people.
  • Parents who make strenuous efforts to shield their kids from all pain often do so at the expense of their kids’ ultimate ability to deal with adversity.
  • Avoid behaviors as a parent where you use your kids as anti-depressants, and not as people.
  • Eat dinner as a family.
  • Teach respect.
  • Don’t get divorced.
  • Phones and TVs in kids’ rooms are bad. Presumably, computers too, although he didn’t say so.
  • Teach your children the value of community service to counter the culture’s rampant materialism.

As for the Q&A after his comments, a few brave parents asked a variety of questions about, in Kindlon’s words, “their neighbors’ kids.” The points that came up at this point were: retain perspective; keep things simple and focus on one thing at a time; be clear about consequences and follow through; and the pros and cons of allowance.

As much as I appreciated Kindlon’s comments, and enjoyed many of his stories and asides, I was struck by how much of what he said was common sense. It’s a little amazing to me how it’s possible to sell all the books he’s sold via a combination of a degree, a chair at a good school, an engaging speaking style, and horse sense.

Almost twenty years ago, I read Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The catch phrase that appears again and again in that book is as follows:

What is good, Phædrus, and what is not good, need we ask anyone to tell us these things?

Apparently, the answer to that question is yes.

Composed in part while sitting on my porch. As I write this last bit, I am listening to Patty Griffin’s “Long Ride Home“, from her 2002 album 1,000 Kisses. [iTunes]

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