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Do You Have a Self-Driven Child?

I recommend the 2018 book, The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives by William Stixrud, Ph.D. and Ned Johnson. Most books on this topic target elementary students, even if they don’t say that. This book does a good job of including teens, and it has gems, persuasive anecdotes, peer-reviewed studies, and practical suggestions for your parenting partner or child.

First, here are some obvious points that unfortunately we leave buried:

  1. People want control over their lives
  2. Teens in large schools have relatively little control over their lives
  3. Most teens hardly even question how little control they have. They just assume school and all its controls are required. (Hey, teens, they are not not!)
  4. Therefore, teens are stressed out and often improperly motivated. The Self-Driven Child does a good job of addressing this fundamental problem.

I’m going to get out of the way and simply post some of the best lines from this insightful and liberating book. Early on in the book, Stixrud and Johnson remind us,

...think of what their days are like: they have to sit still in classes they didn’t choose, taught by teachers randomly assigned to them... They have to stand in neat lines, eat on a schedule, and rely on the whims of their teachers for permission to go to the bathroom.

No parents would live like this and little in nature supports the structure of today’s schooling as a healthy way of living and learning:

It is frustrating and stressful to feel powerless, and many kids feel that way all the time. As grown-ups, we sometimes tell our kids that they’re in charge of their own lives, but then we proceed to micromanage their homework, their afterschool activities, and their friendships. Or perhaps we tell them that actually they’re not in charge—we are. Either way, we make them feel powerless, and by doing so, we undermine our relationship with them.

Grauer's High School Robotics Team

Grauer's High School Robotics Team - December 8, 2018

Let’s set the record straight: not all stress is bad. Stixrud and Johnson differentiate between three distinct types of stress:

Positive stress “motivates children (and adults) to grow, take risks, and perform at a high level. Think of kids preparing for a play, nervous and a little stressed beforehand, but then filled with a sense of accomplishment and pride afterward.”

Tolerable stress, “which occurs for relatively brief periods, can also build resilience. Critically, there must be supportive adults present, and kids must have time to cope and recover. . . [An] example of tolerable stress might be an episode of being bullied, so long as it doesn’t last too long...”

Toxic stress “is defined as frequent or prolonged activation of the stress system in the absence of support. . .  [Supportive adults] aren’t readily available. The child perceives that he or she has little control over what happens. There seems to be no reprieve, no cavalry coming, no end in sight.”

II. 

Parents (and teachers): try this thought experiment with me. Let’s say you come home to your spouse each day and hear something like this:

How was work today? Did you get a good report on your project? You understand how important it is for you to take your work seriously, right? I mean, I know it isn’t always easy or fun, but you really should see if you can get a promotion so you’ll have more options in the future. It just seems like maybe you aren’t doing your best all the time. Like maybe you could work a little harder.’

To this verbiage, the authors issue a useful warning:

“If you act as if it’s your job to see that your child does his homework, practices the piano, or plays a sport, you reinforce the mistaken belief that somebody other than he is responsible for getting his work done. He doesn’t have to think about it because, on some level, he knows that eventually someone will ‘make’ him do it.”

They add:

Teachers can teach, coaches can coach, guidance counselors can outline graduation requirements, but there’s one thing only parents can do: love their kids unconditionally and provide them with a safe base at home. For children who are stressed at school or in other parts of their lives, home should be a safe haven, a place to rest and recover. When kids feel that they are deeply loved even when they’re struggling, it builds resilience. Battling your child about due dates and lost work sheets invites school stress to take root at home. So instead of nagging, arguing, and constant reminding, we recommend repeating the mantra, ‘I love you too much to fight with you about your homework.’

Grauer's Middle School Robotics Team

Grauer's Middle School Robotics Team - December 8, 2018

But what if you give your teen autonomy and he/she makes a terrible decision?  Stixrud and Johnson strike a balance on this tricky one:

...when we say we want children and teens to make their own decisions as much as possible, what we really want is for them to make informed decisions. It’s our responsibility as parents to give the information and the perspective that we have—and that they lack—in order to enable them to make the best possible choices.

And:

[Kids] need to experience the natural consequences of their choices, ranging from being uncomfortably cold when they decided not to wear a coat, to getting a bad grade on a test because they decided not to study. We commonly see adolescents and young adults go off to college without having had much of an opportunity to make decisions about the things that matter, including how they want to structure their time, what they want to commit their energy to, or whether they want to be in school at all.

 “By the time kids are fourteen or fifteen, they generally have adult-level ability to make rational decisions,” the authors point out.

III. 

In a point covered well by Dell’Antonia in “How to Be a Happier Parent,” the focus of a recent, popular Grauer School workshop, Stixrud and Johnson cite a recent study, finding that:

...other than showing your child love and affection, managing your own stress is the best thing you can do to be an effective parent.

We need to be careful about role modelling because so many of our kids are “great observers but lousy interpreters”:

...an adult might spend the evening in the company of her grumpy spouse and think, ‘He’s grumpy, but it’s not about me. I think I’ll just leave him be,’ a kid is likely to think, ‘Dad is grumpy. I must have done something wrong. He’s mad at me.’

Parents with unmanaged anxiety create destructive cycles of behavior. If you are a bit of an anxious parent, here are The Self-Driven Child’s two big parenting principles:

  1. Make your home a safe base for kids. 
  2. Make enjoying your kids your top parenting priority. 


No single principle of human behavior is more central to The Grauer School than intrinsic motivation. Stixrud and Johnson boil down the major theories of self-motivation:

There are some things we need our kids to do simply because we need them to get done. . .  Rewards can be effective and in some cases can even spark good habits. They can help encourage your kids to accomplish short-term goals, to modify behavior, and to ensure cooperation. . .  For some kids, especially kids with ADHD, rewards can get the brain to activate for boring tasks, and can help them buckle down to do tasks that are really hard for them to do, like going to bed on time or doing their homework. But these scenarios are not about developing motivation—they’re about enlisting cooperation.

The last sentence is crucial. To clarify:

“It’s astonishing to us how many kids have never asked themselves what it is they want, or have never had someone ask it of them. They’re too busy either trying to please others, or rebelling against others’ control.”

All humans have a basic need for autonomy, competence, and connectedness (to others). Consider this quote from The Self-Driven Child:

So when you see an eight-year-old highly focused on building a Lego castle, lips pressed in concentration, what she is actually doing is getting her brain used to being motivated. She is conditioning her brain to associate intense enjoyment with highly focused attention, practice, and hard work. Just as frequent exposure to high levels of stress can sculpt a young brain in ways that are unhealthy, frequent exposure to states of flow can sculpt a young brain to be motivated and focused... [It’s] also true for a fifteen-year-old who may struggle in school but is passionate about skiing, or drawing, or playing an instrument. The best way to motivate him for the things you think he should focus on is to let him spend time on the things he wants to focus on.

In sum, there is the long-term value of letting kids become “obsessed” with activities where they’re clearly in a flow state. Overall, 

...the most effective thing you can do is to emphasize to your child that he is responsible for his own education.

Much of the rest of The Self-Driven Child reads a lot like an advertisement for The Grauer School in Encinitas:

Students learn and perform best in an environment that offers high challenge and low threat—when they’re given difficult material in a learning environment in which it is safe to explore, make mistakes, and take the time they need to learn and produce good work. When students know it’s all right to fail, they can take the kinds of risks that lead to real growth.

The authors add:

Many of the kids we see aren’t learning in this environment. They’re learning in a brain-toxic environment, where their days consist of stress and fatigue, often accompanied by high levels of boredom. 

Stixrud and Johnson remind us that 4-year college really doesn’t have to start at age 18:

There are many reasons why adolescents might not be ready to go to college right after high school. They may lack the adequate academic skills. They may lack self-awareness or self-regulation skills, or struggle with anxiety or depression. They may not be ready to manage the details of living independently. Or they may be burned out from four years of going pedal to the metal in high school. They may be prone to social isolation. Or their brains simply may not be developed enough.

Winner of Grauer's Battle of the Band - the Guitaerobics Band

Winners of Grauer's "Battle of the Bands" - The Guitaerobics Band - December 11, 2018

Parents: Did your teen initiate his own college search? Did they complete their own application and essay, and did they independently seek help if they struggled? If so, then they will be a whole lot readier for college than those who did not. Luckily, it happens only rarely, but nothing is more painful to our faculty than sending a student off to college when we know they got there through a series of parent-driven support systems. 

The book closes with a fascinating consideration of the whole concept of “working hard,” challenging the notion that students should be focusing on the things that are extremely difficult for them. This is a topic I would love to discuss at great length with any of my readers:

The reality is that we become successful in this world by working hard at something that comes easily to us and that engages us. We need to tell our kids that the skill set required to be a successful student is, in many ways, very different from the skill set that will lead you to have a successful career and a good life.


Dr. Grauer loves to hear from his readers. Please click on the  "Comments" drop-down box below to leave a comment about this column!

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