Kids Are Worth it, by Barbara Coloroso: a book review

“What Barbara Coloroso really means by ‘There is no problem so great it can’t be solved’ is that there is no disobedience/non-compliance that can’t be crushed using a double bind.”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge


From the archives: The original post was posted on 24th March 1997

“Anyway, what I like about this thread is that it reminds me of Barbara Coloroso’s main theories: 1) Do not treat a child in a way that you would not want to be treated and 2) There is no problem so great it cannot be solved.”

Barbara Coloroso says many good things but unfortunately she does advocate coercion, including various “consequences” (p. 30, Kids Are Worth It).

Although many of the “consequences” Barbara Coloroso lists might sound unobjectionable/true if you are imagining how things happen when someone is alone—

“• If a child puts her shoes on the wrong feet, her feet hurt (natural)
• If a child goes outside on a chilly day without a coat, he will get cold (natural) […]
• Coming home late for dinner might mean a child eats a cold supper (natural) or can heat it up (reasonable)”

—when we are with loved ones, and especially if the person is a child with a parent, the so-called “natural” or “reasonable” consequences need not happen, and if we as parents ‘let’ them happen when we could easily have been kind instead, that is intentionally ensuring that the child suffers the consequences in order to teach the child a lesson through the punishment of the suffering, behaviourism style. There is nothing natural about ‘natural consequences’. They are a coercive parenting strategy for teaching the child a lesson while pretending not to be responsible for the coercion.

If your partner or child or friend arrives late for dinner, do you really just expect them to eat a cold dinner or reheat it themselves? I can’t imagine doing that under normal circumstances. Normally, what would happen would be either that our dinner would wait for them to arrive, or if, say, we had many visitors and some needed to leave early, we might eat at the agreed time and either keep the food hot for the late person, or I would reheat it when they arrive. The last thing I’d do is expect my guest or my child to reheat it themselves or eat it cold! You would not be that rude and inconsiderate to a guest, so why be so unkind to your child? The only reason to make an exception for a child is to teach the child a lesson—behaviourist conditioning. That is not taking children seriously, it is coercive education.

Similarly, if a young child does not want to wear a coat and you think they might regret that decision later, when they experience the cold, only if you are trying to use the resulting suffering to teach the child a lesson (behaviourism) would you not simply bring the coat along for the child to put on later.

It is simply not true that people need to suffer to learn. That behaviourist model of learning is complete rubbish. And when you use these kinds of consequences to teach your children a lesson, what you are teaching them? That it is ok to be unkind to those you love, that it is ok to subject those who are dependent on you to unwanted unpleasant lessons, that it is ok for those who have greater power and strength to bend those weaker and less powerful to their will. Would you want to be treated that way by someone you love? Actions speak louder than words.

Notice also the disingenuous language used by Barbara Coloroso—like in so many parenting books—when she says (p. 32) “If the natural consequence is nonexistent… it may be time to help out with reasonable consequences.” Would it feel helpful to you to be on the receiving end of the dishonestly-named ‘reasonable consequences’? There is so much dishonest language in parenting books Big Brother would be proud.

Kids Are Worth It contrasts three different types of parenting—brickwall, jellyfish and backbone—but all three of them are coercive. Barbara Coloroso’s “jellyfish” parenting is a good description of classic permissive parenting, not taking children seriously. Coloroso’s preferred form of coercive parenting is what she calls “backbone” parenting, and no doubt the vast majority of parents would identify with her description of “backbone” parents.

Why is it not taking children seriously? Its whole thrust is parent in charge, above the child, child as passive piece of clay parent is actively moulding and shaping according to the parent’s idea of how the child needs to be changed—as if one person has a right to determine the course of another person’s growth and development.

On p. 52, Barbara Coloroso says (using Orwellian language again): “Kids are clearly given responsibility and a reasonable consequence for not following through.” On p. 79 she says: “Take a critical look at the responsibilities and decision-making opportunities you give your children at home, and check to see if you are increasing them as your kids get older. Keep the ones you need to keep as a wise and caring parent. The rest you can give to your children.” It is all about the parent being the one deciding what to ‘give’ the child, as opposed to the child deciding, with the parent’s support in ways the child wants. It is really suggesting gradually removing some of the shackles you have coercively put the child in.

If your partner or a visitor broke a glass, would you say to them, as Coloroso advocates we say to our child, “You have a problem. I know you can handle it.”? (p. 104) Or would you be kind and polite and clean it up or help them clean it up and not rub their nose in it? Imagine if your host said that to you when you inadvertently broke a glass! I would feel mortified! It may sound like a ‘nice’ thing to say to your child, but actually it is humiliating, shaming, rude and patronising, as you can see when you imagine being the one on the receiving end of such a statement in response to you accidentally breaking a glass.

On p. 145 Coloroso says:

“From the time my own children were quite young, they learned that if you hit, you sit. … How long does he sit? … The child needs to sit quietly until he feels ready to go back with the other kids and handle the situation responsibly. If he says he’s ready to go back, I just ask him what he’s going to do, what is his plan. If he says he’s not going to hit, we aren’t quite there yet—that’s not a positive plan; it’s what he’s not going to do. I want to know what he’s planning to do instead of hitting when he wants the same toy his friend is playing with.”

In other words, the parent is wielding power from above, coercing the child to stay seated away from his friend or sibling, until the child manages to give the parent a plan that satisfies the parent. It is all about the parent being in charge, and the child being subject to the parent’s coercive control. There are far better ways to intervene when things get heated between children—ways that protect the one being hit without punishing the hitter. The idea that children learn better ways of handling frustration than hitting through punishments like Coloroso advocates (whilst denying that they are punishments) is not true. Coercive control like she advocates teaches coercive control, it does not teach anything good.

Like almost all parenting books, Kids Are Worth It has a section on the importance of assigning chores to children whether they like it or not. Apparently children will somehow otherwise not see or learn that “they can make a contribution, can make a difference in their families.” (p. 152). That is so ridiculous! The only reason it seems to Coloroso that that is the case is that when people are living under coercive control, they naturally tend not to feel like being kind to their overseers. Children taken seriously make all sorts of contributions. For example, when I was upset the other day (about something unrelated to my children), my 5yo unsolicitedly brought me a cup of tea. (In English culture, it is common for people to offer a cup of tea whenever anything upsetting happens, and in our culture, a cup of tea seems very soothing and cheering.) There are countless ways children make a difference of their own accord when they are not busy having to try to defend themselves against our coercion.

Despite what Barbara Coloroso says, her implicit view of children is that they are born broken, bad, and in need of coercive moulding and shaping by us, to change them according to our standards instead of supporting them in growing and developing in ways they themselves prefer. On p. 157, for example, she calls children’s natural human reactions to coercive consequences “con games to get us to back down, give in, or change our minds.” What a dark view of children. And how revealing and self-exculpating that is.

Like most authors, Coloroso evidently sees no moral issue with us using our children as servants in our homes. Actually it is worse than that: she advocates not paying them for their labour, so “slaves” might be a better word. And as with almost all authors of parenting books, she advocates lying to our children (and does not see that that is what she is advocating). For example (p. 154): “Christopher, I need you to take out the trash before dinnertime; now, what do I need?” Does the parent need that? Really? Is the parent bed-bound and the helper is off sick and the home has a vermin infestation, or what? Why do parents call something a need  when they really mean a want that they will coercively force the child to capitulate to? Because need sounds like something that absolutely must be met. It is a way of immunising the parent’s want from criticism.

Here (p. 155) is some more Orwellian language and punishment dressed up as perfectly reasonable nice parent stuff:

“If you have a teenager who is not going to show up for dinner, an alternative might be, ‘Suzanne, the trash collectors will be around at two in the morning. Remember, you and I have discussed that you would get the trash taken out before you went to bed. And we have agreed that if it’s not done, I will wake you to get it done.’ Don’t say another word. Let her go to bed. At eleven-thirty you go into her room and gently shake her… until it is more comfortable for her to get out of bed than to have this pleasant parent keeping her awake. You do that twice, and I promise you, your teenager won’t think about going to bed before the chores are done… You say it, you mean it, and you do it.”

Do you think the child actually agreed to take the rubbish out? Or do you think the child ‘agreed’ in the same way you might ‘agree’ to anything when there is a gun to your head? It is disingenuous Orwellian language to call that agreeing. ‘You agreed to’ is a euphemism for ‘I forced you to pretend that you agree when you plainly don’t’. Genuine agreement is wholeheartedly preferred by the person, not reluctantly pseudo-agreed to because the person has been put in a double bind such that they effectively have no choice.

Is it really a pleasant parent depicted here? If so, heaven help the child if the parent were unpleasant! Sleep deprivation is a form of torture for a reason. It is brutal to be woken up from a deep sleep. And to to use word “comfortable” in this context is disingenuous. And Coloroso says that this torture is not punishment! How does it ‘work’ if not by forcing the child to obey next time for fear of further torture sessions at the hands of her so-called “pleasant parent”?

Whilst I agree with many of Barbara Coloroso’s criticisms of the brickwall parent and the jellyfish parent, quite a few of the criticisms she aims at brick wall parents apply to her preferred backbone parents too, though she obviously does not see that. And the pages and pages of suggestions for how to bully your children into obeying your orders are positively chilling if you read them imagining that the person in charge is a husband and the person being coercively controlled is his wife. If it looks abusive when an adult is doing this stuff to another adult, why do people see it so differently when it is a child? Because they think coercive control of children is legitimate. It is not. Taking Children Seriously implies children being free—being and being treated as sovereign beings whose lives are their own, just like we are—from birth.

Barbara Coloroso talks about parents upholding their values… by coercing their children, and suggests that through us upholding our values (like not allowing chocolate doughnuts for breakfast), our children will learn to uphold their own values. So forcing our children to comply with what we ourselves think best, forcing them to act against their actual values, somehow teaches them to uphold their own values?!

To return to what you said:

“Anyway, what I like about this thread is that it reminds me of Barbara Coloroso’s main theories: 1) Do not treat a child in a way that you would not want to be treated and 2) There is no problem so great it cannot be solved.”

The non-coercive equivalent of “Do not treat a child in a way that you would not want to be treated” would be: “Do not treat a child in a way the child would not want to be treated.” Of course we can’t know for sure in advance how someone else wants to be treated, but we can make guesses and modify our guesses in the light of their responses, and keep on modifying them the more feedback or other information we have.

But aside from that, the statement is another bald-faced lie. Would the author really be fine with being woken up from a deep sleep to take the rubbish out? Would the author really like to be talked down to and bossed about the way she advocates talking down to and bossing our children about? Would she really like being treated the way she advocates treating a child who has just inadvertently broken a glass? Of course not!

“2) There is no problem so great it cannot be solved.”

This is a very deep truth, which contradicts Barbara Coloroso’s advocacy of coercive parenting methods. To be a solution, the outcome of a decision-making process must be preferred by all parties to the disagreement. What she really means by “There is no problem so great it can’t be solved” is that there is no disobedience/non-compliance that can’t be crushed using a double bind.

The epilogue of Kids Are Worth It (p. 240) left me open-mouthed in amazement at the Orwellian doublethink. Having devoted about 200 pages to detailing how to “be firm” and manipulate (coerce!) children into compliance, complete with nearly 20 pages of instructions for how to get the better of children when they allegedly play con games on the poor defenceless parents, Barbara Coloroso says: “remind yourself that there is one thing you and I as parents cannot do, nor do we want to do if we really think about it, and that’s control our children’s will—that spirit that lets them be themselves apart from you and me. They are not ours to possess, control, manipulate, or even to make mind.” Words fail me.

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1997, ‘Kids Are Worth It, by Barbara Coloroso: a book review’,

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