The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives

Even high-performing kids become stressed, but these strategies can drive long-term motivation.

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kk: From The Parent’s Club, I’m Karsen Kolnicki. This is your briefing.
kk: Today, we’re discussing The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives by William Stixrud and Ned Johnson
This title shows us how our instinct to control our children’s lives can result in stressed-out, uncooperative, and poorly motivated kids. Instead, the book argues that we should help our children make informed decisions themselves and trust them to make the right calls.
kk: Vincent Phamvan on the key takeaways [pause] and what you need to know.
kk: Vincent, what is the parental role when it comes to stressed and overworked children?
vp: That’s a great question and the motive behind this book.
Just look at higher education. To get into a good college, kids are pushed hard. At the same time, they’re surrounded by attention-sapping technology that can cause sleep deprivation and anxiety. So it’s understandable when concerned parents want to take the reins.
William Stixrud is a clinical neuropsychologist at Children’s National Medical Center. Ned Johnson is the president and founder of PrepMatters, a tutoring and educational advising company in Washington, DC. Together they wrote this book based on their work analyzing the complex dynamics between parent and child. Children having more autonomy over their lives has decreased over the past century. This is why the authors use science to educate child psychologists, pediatricians, and parents on this. Overall, this book helps parents become calm and collected parents.
kk: That’s very interesting. What does it mean when you say ‘children having more autonomy over their lives has decreased’?
vp: What that means is kids are less self-reliant than in previous generations. Though it comes from a good place, parents who take control of aspects of their child’s lives might have the wrong approach. In this book, they propose an alternative way of helping your kids manage their lives – one that puts them in control and allows them to make the big decisions. Ultimately, how to empower your child.
kk: You mentioned earlier about kids being pushed hard and having lots of pressure. Does this make them more stressed? And wouldn’t having an involved parent help relieve that stress?
vp: Yes, it may be a short-term fix. As a neuropsychologist, Dr. Stixrud explains why children feel stressed and how they have become very overwhelmed. Simplified, it all comes down to the need to feel in control. This is a basic human function that is referred to as agency. This is a motivator of things we do daily. For example, it’s why we feel more at ease when we drive to a destination rather than flying on a plane where the pilot is in control. It’s also why we like to study the menu before ordering.
Having a sense of agency is the most critical factor when it comes to our happiness and well-being. A 1970 study found that nursing home residents who were told they had responsibility for their lives lived longer than those told the nursing staff would care for everything.
kk: Wow, it makes sense that when everything feels beyond our control, we get stressed. I worry that something would go wrong if I didn’t do it myself. The nursing home study shows that stress impacts health in older people, but what about the effects on children?
vp: Yes, the key message is that children suffer from stress when they feel everything is out of their control. This can also have a poor impact on brain development. The authors give an example of a 15-year-old named Zara, who attends an expensive private school. Her life is strictly structured. During the school day, she gets a few short breaks between classes. Then, after school, she has hockey practice and volunteers for an environmental charity, as her parents instructed her to do. When she gets home, her parents have her start her 4 hours of homework. Weekends are structured just the same: if Zara wants a little free time, she has to make sure her homework is all done.
kk: Hearing her schedule now sounds very stressful, but looking back, that was a very similar schedule to mine when I was her age. I see it as very overwhelming, but I never questioned it since it seemed like all of my friends were doing the same thing. Why was this her parents’ approach?
vp: Like many parents, they push her because they want her to get into an elite university. But Zara suffers from migraines, doesn’t sleep well, and frequently gets into screaming fights with her parents. But her parents say they are doing this for her own good and to set her up for success in the future.
kk: Although it may come from a good place, is all of this actually for her own good?
vp: The authors argue that it’s not. Constantly being told what to do both at home and school causes children to suffer from stress and anxiety. This kind of toxic stress can impair a critical stage of brain development between 12 and 18. Long-term, this could lead to mental and physical health problems.
kk, as you stated with your own experience, this problem is widespread, and the pressure to achieve affects many households. A recent study found that 80 percent of students at one elite Silicon Valley high school suffered from anxiety caused by stress.
kk: That statistic seems alarming, but I believe it. So what can parents do differently?
vp: As the authors argue, giving children control over their lives makes them happier and more motivated. In addition to the effect on health, a lack of control over their own lives encourages children to push back. This could come in the form of rebelling against anything they're told to do – even when those instructions are wise. Like, for instance, “You need to get your homework in on time. Otherwise, you’ll fail this school year.”
The problem with this statement is it’s delivered as a command. When done so, there’s a good chance it’ll get an uncooperative response. So what to do? Rather than plotting out every detail of their lives, parents need to let their children breathe.
kk: Easier said than done. Do the authors give an example of how to implement this?
vp: Yes, they give a hypothetical example of Jonah. His parents instructed him to stop playing video games and sit down for a few hours of homework every night. And every night, without fail, Jonah sat at his desk and pretended to finish his assignments. In reality, he was just killing time. It wasn’t that he couldn’t do his work, he could, but chose not to. Forcing children to do something, even if it’s in their own best interests, takes away that crucial element of self-control that we all need to feel. By forcing him to sit down for those few hours each night, Jonah’s parents were essentially telling him, You don’t know what’s best for you, but we do. That frustrated him and stressed him out.
kk: No wonder he resisted. That’s a great example of how his parents’ intentions were good, but ultimately, he resorted to feeling control by rebelling against their wishes.
vp: Exactly. Ultimately, the best thing a parent can do is accept that their child’s life is their own. So in Jonah’s case, his parents learned to relax their control. Rather than force him to do his homework, they’d ask, “Do you have any assignments that you need help with tonight? If so, let us know so we can plan our evening.”
kk: And did that work right away?
vp: No, at first Jonah continued to play video games, but when he saw that he alone was responsible for his grades, began to change his ways – especially when it looked like he might not graduate with his friends. Soon after, he began to buckle down of his own.
kk: What is the parents’ argument for why they initiate control?
vp: The simple truth is parents tend to think they know best, which makes sense as they’ve lived longer and have more knowledge of the world. But, what parents should do is help their children make informed decisions on their own. The authors give an example of this.
Chelsea recently transferred from a public school to a private school. She’s miserable and wants to go back to her old school with her old friends and teachers. But her father insists that she stay put. In the end, he thinks she'll get excellent grades and have a successful career, and thank him.
But the authors bring up some important points to contradict her father’s actions. What if it turns out that her unhappiness prevents her from learning? What if she doesn’t get great grades at the private school? What if she actually would’ve done better in the more relaxed atmosphere of her old school?
kk: What should her father have done differently in this scenario?
vp: To be a parent that helps their child make their own decisions, he has to think of his role differently. The authors say that Chelsea’s dad should view himself more like a consultant rather than acting like a boss. Rather than dictating everything, he should present all the options and information, his opinions, and then trust his child to make the right call.
kk: That also probably helps the child prepare for when they are adults and have to make decisions independently.
vp: That’s very true.
kk: One question I have, and I’m sure other parents have, is whether or not you can actually trust your child to make good decisions?
vp: I thought the same thing until the authors presented a fascinating study. In this study, researchers looked at the ability of children and young adults to make decisions. The participants were between the ages of 9 and 21. They were asked how they’d respond to a sensitive situation: a boy who refused to come out of his room or speak to anyone for several weeks.
kk: What solution did most children propose?
vp: The same one as most adults, actually – to get the boy to outpatient psychotherapy. When it came to making the right call, the 14-year-olds scored virtually identically to the 19- and 21-year-olds. The 9-year-olds weren’t far behind either; they scored a little lower, but not because their decision-making was necessarily worse. They just had a lack of knowledge, and some of them weren’t familiar with what psychotherapy is.
kk: Wow, that's interesting. So clearly, children are capable of making good decisions. Then the parents’ role is to help them by presenting all the relevant information, then trusting them to make up their minds.
vp: Sounds easy, right? Parents worry about their children and always have. But one thing that has changed over the past decade is technology. Technology provides more ways to keep track of kids’ movements and more information about potential threats.
For example, a mother can closely monitor the progress of her child’s first bike ride on Google Maps. A new dad can look up all kinds of deadly diseases when his baby has a minor rash. It’s no wonder many parents have become intensely anxious. And even worse, all this anxiety is seeping into their children. With anxiety easily rubbing off on children, now the task at hand is for parents to try and maintain a calm presence.
kk: If only that were an easy task.
vp: Yeah, I wish it was a piece of cake, but it’s not impossible. If we’re anxious, our kids will pick up on it no matter how well we try to hide it. As psychologist Paul Ekman says, “If we knew what was on our face, we would be better at concealing it.”
kk: That is very accurate.
vp: Children pickup on our facial expressions, and they know when something is wrong. Additionally, they’re likely to interpret an anxious facial expression as being their fault. The authors say that dealing with your anxiety is critical to avoid passing it on to your children. And another thing to remember is that feeling happy and calm are just as contagious as anxiety.
kk: I love that. So how do you become a calm presence in your child’s life?
vp: The author’s advice is to start with the basics: exercise regularly, and get more sleep. If it’s your thing, you could also try practicing yoga. Most importantly, learn to rationalize the worries you have about your children.
Another interesting fact the authors found by experimenting is that children perform better at tests when they are in the same room as someone who presents a calming influence. What result shows that children are happier, healthier, and more successful when they’re calmer.
kk: That makes sense. Are there any other areas that cause parents to worry?
vp: Another area parents worry about is the overuse of technology and the effect on their children. In essence, children need technology-free time. The authors argue that the current use of technology is transforming children’s brains. But, not only in the wrong way, some of this transformation is for the better. Playing video games, for instance, can help children develop better multitasking skills; it can also help them get better at remembering visual language and landmarks.
However, everything can be good in moderation. Continuously being plugged into a smart device or gaming system has serious negative effects so there are some justified reasons to worry. Psychologist Larry Rosen argues that, due to constant exposure to technology, childrens’ brains work entirely different than their parents. They’ve become less able to regulate their impulsive urges and focus their attention. And with children often playing video games or messaging friends until late into the night, they’ve also become more sleep-deprived and stressed-out than ever before.
kk: So what can be done if you’re a worried parent but at the same time you want to foster your child’s independence? How can parents get their kids to understand the effects of technology and self-regulate their technology use?
vp: The first step is to evaluate your technology habits and set a good example. Most of us are guilty of having unhealthy habits. In one British study, 70 percent of kids felt that their parents used technology too much! So before you begin to lecture the kids, take a look at yourself.
kk: Wow, that’s ironic haha. So after you look at your habits, I’m assuming the next step is to look at your child’s habits?
vp: Yes, if you feel that their technology habits are a problem, talk openly about it with them. Be understanding and set up technology-free times as a family, aiming to spend at least 30 minutes of “unplugged” time together per week. Perhaps that’s a Sunday morning when you make pancakes together or go for a walk in nature. Hopefully, through gentle prompting and discussion, you can ease your child into a much healthier relationship with the technology that surrounds them. This way, by the time they leave the house for college or work, they have control over their habits.
kk: So the goal is to help your child make important decisions on their own, by the time they are getting ready to leave for college. How do you know when your child is ready?
vp: The authors’ position on sending your child to college might not be what you were expecting. Say, as a parent, deep down, you know your child isn’t ready, or they aren’t mature enough for the college experience. They’ll get there, but not everyone gets there by age 18. And as college is your investment – and an expensive one, at that – this is one area where you should feel able to have your say. As humans, we mature at different rates, and for some, it may be a year or two before they are ready to go off to a new place and be on their own for 3 or 4 years.
kk: What are some signs of why someone might not be ready to go off to college? Should parents be looking for these?
vp: Most children are more than prepared at age 18, but not all are, and that’s okay. They might not feel responsible for their own life yet. For instance, if your child wasn’t the one who initiated her college search or couldn’t fill out the application without lots of help, they are likely not ready yet.
Or it might be that they don't have any genuine self-understanding yet. They might not have a real grasp of their strengths and weaknesses. And they might not be able to self-discipline, which means they’ll be unable to stop themselves from falling into destructive habits.
kk: So what do you do in this case?
vp: One way to prep high school graduates for college is to let them take a gap year. By taking time out to travel or participate in a volunteer program, for example, young adults can develop their self-understanding and confidence before college.
kk: What if your child is intent on going to college right after graduating from high school? How could you have them show their readiness?
vp: One way the authors suggest is asking them to show you that they can run their own life for six months before leaving for college. That could mean budgeting successfully or managing their time without help. If they can do that easily, then they are good to go. And if not, maybe they just need a little more time to prepare.
kk: Another aspect to keep in mind is that academic success isn’t the route to fulfillment for everyone.
vp: I’m glad you brought that up because the authors do speak on that. Sadly, with all the pressure to succeed academically, many adolescents think they’re a failure if they don’t follow the academic route. But there are many different ways people can achieve success and contribute to the world. The authors give a great example. At a work picnic, one of the authors began chatting to a coworker’s boyfriend. The conversation moved on to college, and the author asked the young man if he’d attended. He answered no; he wasn’t smart enough for college. Then, when the author asked him what he was doing instead, the young man responded that he was just an emergency medical technician. Just someone who saves people’s lives!
kk: Just saving lives, no big deal. The great point here is that there are many different forms of intelligence, all of which come with different aptitudes.
vp: Exactly. There are musical, visual, linguistic, and emotional types of intelligence, among others that may be overlooked. Every one of us can excel at something, so success and happiness for your child come from figuring out what they do best and what brings them joy. It might be that your child struggles with math tests but is excellent at reading people’s emotions.
kk: I’m sure that brings along other worries for the child. So what can you do to ease your child’s anxiety if they aren’t succeeding academically?
vp: First, children need to understand that many of us take circuitous routes to get to where we’re going. Life is very rarely a perfectly executed journey from A to B. So be open with them about any disappointments or surprise twists of fate in your own life. We all have them.
Second, try to find out what your child loves doing most of all. Ask them what they think their strengths are and what they think they do better than other people. Then, if you feel it’s right, offer your view.
From there, you can begin to sketch out a better path forward together.
kk: It sounds like the key takeaway from this title is that when parents assume too much control, they cause their kids additional stress. Parents can improve their kids’ well-being, motivation, and development by loosening their grip and transferring some of that agency. Rather than calling all the shots, parents should help their children make informed decisions – even when it comes to the big, life-changing ones. Parents should also look at their bad habits. They should embody a calming presence and model moderate technology use, encouraging good habits by their example.
kk: That’s it for your briefing. I’m Karsen Kolnicki.
vp: And I’m Vincent Phamvan.
kk: We'll talk with you again next time.

A few years ago, Bill Stixrud and Ned Johnson started noticing the same problem from different angles: Even high-performing kids were coming to them acutely stressed and lacking motivation. Many complained they had no control over their lives. Some stumbled in high school or hit college and unraveled. Bill is a clinical neuropsychologist who helps kids gripped by anxiety or struggling to learn. Ned is a motivational coach who runs an elite tutoring service. Together they discovered that the best antidote to stress is to give kids more of a sense of control over their lives. But this doesn’t mean giving up your authority as a parent. In this groundbreaking book they reveal how you can actively help your child to sculpt a brain that is resilient, and ready to take on new challenges.

The Self-Driven Child offers a combination of cutting-edge brain science, the latest discoveries in behavioral therapy, and case studies drawn from the thousands of kids and teens Bill and Ned have helped over the years to teach you how to set your child on the real road to success. As parents, we can only drive our kids so far. At some point, they will have to take the wheel and map out their own path. But there is a lot you can do before then to help them tackle the road ahead with resilience and imagination.

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