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

Bill Stixrud and Ned Johnson picked the perfect subtitle for The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives. The book presents data and theory from fields such as neuroscience and psychology in support of the proposition that “you should think of yourself as a consultant to your kids rather than their boss or manager,” and then follows through with loads of practical advice on what, exactly, a more hands-off approach looks like.

selfdriven child

As a clinical neuropsychologist and a tutoring company founder, respectively, the authors work with both perfectionists and kids who “don’t seem to care about anything.” They’ve found that those at both ends of the motivation spectrum “suffer from a low sense of control” which is “enormously stressful.” The antidote? Giving your young child space to “practice managing and taking nonlethal risks.” Only by experiencing “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,” will “her brain build the circuits that are necessary for resilience in the face of stress.” Going the other way, with sticker charts “and other forms of parental monitoring,” the authors say, creates “kids who must then constantly be pushed because their own internal motivation has either not developed or has been eroded by external pressure.”

Let kids be bored. “Ask your child if there are things he feels he’d like to be in charge of that he currently isn’t.” Explain the reasons behind a request “and then allow[] as much personal freedom as possible in carrying out the task.” Make sure your child knows “that he is responsible for his own education.” Try to say—and say and say and say—“It’s your call.” But don’t “let go of all restrictions and rules.” Join with your kids in setting parameters “and let them work within them,” knowing that you’re there to offer counsel.

It’s good stuff, the writing is tight enough, and the authors offer up a few stellar explanations (e.g., “Today, we think about the long-term consequences of concussions: ‘Yeah, he looks okay now, but too many more of those and he’s not going to remember his kids’ names.’ We think stress should be talked about in this way, too.”), but the text lacks the artistry or narrative element needed to shake that eating-of-the-vegetables vibe. A second flaw lies in statements such as “Girls are generally more interested by—and more consistently motivated to achieve in—school” and “Girls generally have more empathy.” Drawing distinctions without citing solid empirical evidence of their existence, analyzing just how significant any differences are, and nodding to socialization as a possible sole cause simply is not acceptable in light of modern neuroscience and social science research on pre-pubertal gender differences, and the inclusion of these statements makes me doubt the authors’ other assertions.

Putting those concerns to the side, Stixrud and Johnson truly offer a wealth of information, albeit with the specifics mostly angled toward older children. The key ingredients for motivation, they say, are (1) the right mindset; (2) a feeling of autonomy, competence, and relatedness; (3) the optimal level of dopamine; and (4) flow. Then they offer “empowering mental strategies” for getting the recipe right, “like planning ahead and visualizing goals … or thinking of what you will do if what you want doesn’t come through.” They suggest teaching kids that replacing “I have to” with “I want to” or “I’m choosing to” increases their odds of success. It also helps to “avoid catastrophizing” by thinking, “This is annoying but it’s not awful,” or “This is a setback but it’s not a disaster.” Tests too are about mindset: “Look to conquer, rather than survive,” they counsel. Focus on strengths.

Increasing downtime, meditation, sleep, and movement are all more standard suggestions than my favorite piece of advice, one I’ve already used with my nine-year-old who tends to engage in “negative self-talk.” When she called herself “stupid, stupid, stupid” for misplacing a folder, I used the authors’ words: “Imagine if we were on a softball team together. A routine ground ball is hit right at me, but goes between my legs. What would you say? Probably something like, ‘It’s all right. You’ll get the next one.’” Offer yourself the understanding you’d give your best friend, I told her, getting my money and time’s worth from The Self-Driven Child in that little gem alone.


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