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In their recently released book, The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kid More Control Over Their Lives, authors William Stixrud, PhD, and Ned Johnson offer parents insight into how to raise kids who have an inner drive to reach their full potential, who can handle stress, and who are capable of thriving. Their answers focus on giving kids control, or agency, over their lives.
Dr. Stixrud, a clinical neuropsychologist and faculty member at Children’s National Medical Center, answered some questions about what that looks like and how parents can help their kids find their self-motivation and why they should shift to seeing their role more as that of consultant than boss.
Between Us Parents (BUP): Your book makes a strong case for giving kids more autonomy over their lives. What areas would you like to see parents start with when it comes to turning over the reins to their kids in middle or high school?
William Stixrud, PhD (WS): In regard to middle school and high school students, we believe that the best message you can give an adolescent is “I have confidence in your ability to make decisions about your own life and to learn from your mistakes.” We want teens to have a lot of practice making important decisions – and evaluating their consequences – before we send them off to college.
When adolescents are assured that their decisions will be accepted unless they’re “crazy” – and as long as they are willing to make informed decisions – they are strikingly honest with themselves. We want to encourage this kind of decision making due, in part, to the fact that children and adults are unable to make good decisions for themselves without paying attention to their own emotions (e.g., what they truly want, how they perceive a decision may affect themselves or others).
As they get older, we want to entrust adolescents to make the important decisions about their own lives, including decisions such as where they go to school, whether they take advanced placement classes or not, whether they work with a tutor or resource teacher in school, and whether they work with a tutor to prepare for the SAT or ACT.
Sometimes parents object that, once they are in high school, these decisions are too important, as they can affect a child’s whole life. In response to that, we ask the question, “When will decisions ever be less important?”
We believe that, because the brain develops as it is used, it is important for children and adolescents to have extensive experience making decisions for themselves in order to develop a self-motived brain that is used to making decisions and actively coping with challenges.
During adolescence, it becomes increasingly difficult to set limits and try to enforce parental will regarding things like bedtime and use of technology. We thus strongly recommend the process of collaborative problem solving in which we express empathy for the child, assertively express our own views, and try to come up with solutions that both parties can live with.
Another important way to encourage autonomy is to support our children’s participation in pastimes or hobbies. There is considerable evidence that the best way for children to develop self-motivation is the passionate pursuit of the things that they love.
We want to see kids work hard to get better and better at sports, music, art, dance, or something else that deeply engages them. We are confident that, in doing so, they are “sculpting” a brain that enjoys and is used to a mental state that combines high focus, high effort, high energy – and low stress, which is the optimal state for learning and performance.
Between Us Parents (BUP): Parents often correlate motivation with productivity, and many see downtime as being unproductive. Is childhood a case of less is more when it comes to activities and such and that when kids are spread too thin, it gets really tough for them to know how to handle all on their plate, let alone excel at it?
WS: In our book, we introduce the concept of “radical downtime,” which includes daydreaming or mind wandering, sleep, and meditation. We make the case that children today have too little downtime during which their brains and bodies can restore and refresh themselves.
Extensive research has found that having time to simply let your mind wander is related to increased creativity and more effective problem solving, indicating that having some unfocused downtime is absolutely not a waste of time.
Moreover, we share the concern of many scientists that, because so many kids are electronically connected and stimulated almost around the clock, young people may not be sufficiently activating what is called the brain’s default mode network (DMN). The DMN, which was discovered in the late 1990’s, only activates when we are not focused externally on a task. Efficient functioning of the DMN is crucial for the development of a sense of identity and for the development of empathy.
We thus urge parents to not over-schedule children so that they have some quiet downtime in which they can reflect on themselves and others. In regard to meditation, when children do it, it produces benefits that similar to those obtained by adults. Extensive research has indicated that, like adults, adolescents are much more productive, better organized, and more efficient in their work when they experience the deep mental and physical rest produced by short periods of meditation.
Because children vary in their need for quiet play or just being by themselves, we recommend that parents periodically ask their children whether they feel they have enough downtime.
Being pushed, driven, and overscheduled constantly is a formula for anxiety, depression, and burn out – not for maximizing potential.
The idea that children will not reach their potential if they are not continually engaged in one activity or another is completely false, as successful development requires an appropriate balance of rest and activity.
BUP: How important is it to have fun as a family for fun’s sake?
When parents spontaneously enjoy being with their children, children come to see themselves as joy-producing organisms, rather than as frustration-, anxiety-, or anger-producing organisms.
Moreover, in a study conducted in the late 1990’s, a survey of children found that what they wanted most of all from their parents wasn’t to spend more time with them – but rather that their parents be happier and less stressed. We assume that this is even more true today given the increased pace and stress of contemporary life.
Furthermore, the kind of social support that family activities provide is one of the most powerful antidotes to stress, and we therefore believe that having fun as a family for fun’s sake is extremely good for everyone.
BUP: What do you tell parents who have teens who are motivated to play on their phones who have other passions that parents worry are more likely to lead to their offspring living in the basement as adults, rather than becoming productive members of society?
WS: As we discuss in the technology chapter in our book, we recommend that parents negotiate and contract with their kids regarding acceptable technology use. If the child violates the contract, the parents can refuse to pay the phone charges for the following month. In addition, we recommend that parents help their children think through their daily and weekly schedule so that they are able to accomplish the most important things, e.g., school work, extracurricular activities, sleep, and downtime – and then plan time for electronic entertainment.
In our view, promoting a sense of autonomy or a healthy sense of control is the best way for parents to prevent their kids from living in the basement as young adults.
In our experience, most of the young adults who are living at home and not working or going to school have spent years resisting other people’s attempts to get them to do schoolwork, to get to bed, or to limit their technology use – and have not had to struggle with their own self-regulation issues. We thus believe that adopting a consultant role and doing the kinds of things we recommend in our book to support autonomy is the best way to promote independence. We assume that young people want their lives to work, and expressing confidence that they can make their lives work is extremely beneficial.
BUP: How important is it for parents to check their anxiety?
WS: In the chapter in our book called “A Nonanxious Presence,” we make the case that one of the best ways for parents to help lower their children’s anxiety and stress level is to reduce their own anxiety.
Families and virtually every kind of organization will function best if the leaders are not highly anxious and emotionally reactive.
All of our worry about our children is about the future, as we fear that they will “get stuck” in a negative place and not move beyond it. In our experience, this generally does not happen unless parents and children get caught up in battles in which parents try to assume control over things that they really can’t control.
When parents can approximate being a nonanxious presence in their families, children are much better able to think clearly, make good decisions, and learn from their mistakes, and parents can more convincingly express confidence that their children can do well.
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