In this edition of "What We're Reading," a journalist wrestling with parenthood turns the reporting lens on herself and learns that kids today may be fundamentally different than those of generations past. Which means they need to be disciplined differently too.

Share story

Year-in and year-out, I used to have the same debate with my mother: Are kids today different from those of generations past, or merely acting out the same old issues in new ways? My belief was that technology was fundamentally changing our brains and that the youngest of us, with their still-developing cortexes, had been affected most of all.

Journalist Katherine Lewis explored this question in a 2015 article for Mother Jones on disciplining children, and it generated more than 4 million page views. Clearly, she’d struck a nerve.

The success of Lewis’s piece, which became one of the most-read in the magazine’s 42-year history, prodded her to look even deeper at childhood today. Wherever she went, from Maine to New Mexico, she heard parents voice versions of the same query: “How can we get kids to do what we want?”

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and City University of Seattle. Learn more about Ed Lab 

Her answer, detailed in a recently released book “The Good News about Bad Behavior,” published by PublicAffairs, concludes that everyone is asking the wrong question. In Lewis’s view it should be: “Why can’t the kids do what we want?”

“Children today are fundamentally different from past generations. They truly have less self-control,” she writes, arguing that misbehavior should be seen as a message about what kids need. In short: more autonomy.

Between parenting styles that have veered from authoritarian to overly permissive, and technology that discourages both face-to-face interaction and outdoor play, kids are actually — neurologically — different from those of past generations, Lewis says. But as “The Good News” makes plain, assigning blame never helps.

What does work is nudging kids to learn how to take responsibility for themselves. Self-discipline is a skill that requires practice, like learning to ride a bike or do long division, and all of our usual methods of coercion – like time-out punishments or good-behavior incentives – only undermine its development.

“Can you imagine sending your child to time-out because they couldn’t ride their bike all the way to the stop sign and back?” Lewis writes. “Obedience is no longer our goal. We must now tackle the defining challenge of our era: teaching our children how to self-regulate.”

Her assertion is based on years of digging through academic research, visiting schools and families across 10 states, doing brain-imaging experiments with her own daughter, and eventually getting certified as a parent educator herself.

An engaging, conversational writer, Lewis intersperses the neurological deep-dive with fly-on-the-wall reporting on families in action and examples from her parent-training group. She offers several techniques, all based around building kids’ self-sufficiency. But her favorite is the “Apprenticeship Model,” in which kids learn to be responsible for themselves and their role within a family – to the point that parents are forced to bite their tongues and watch silently as a lunch box, forgotten by its child-owner, is left at home, rather than offering a reminder.

Surely, there are mothers and fathers now rolling their eyes at the idea of reading an instruction manual for something as DNA-encoded as parenthood. But, just as surely, there are legions who find themselves bewildered by the small creatures in their care.

For them, Lewis provides a reassuring road map forward. And a little more help with the laundry won’t hurt, either.