“He sleeps all weekend!”
“She doesn’t seem interested in anything.”
“Homework is a nightly battle. He’ll never get into a decent college. Oy vey!”
If you’ve experienced concerns like these about your children, you’re not alone. If you’ve responded by charging in and trying to take the bull by the horns, welcome to the club.
But in their 2018 book “The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives” (Viking), Dr. William R. Stixrud and Ned Johnson contend the secret to motivating children and preparing them for success in adulthood is giving them greater autonomy.
Stixrud will be the featured speaker Dec. 9 at “Reaching for the Stars: Raising Motivated, Secure and Successful Children” at the Park Heights Jewish Community Center. The talk will be sponsored by Shemesh, which provides educational support for Jewish children with learning disabilities, Baltimore Yachad and the Macks Center for Jewish Education.
A Silver Spring-based clinical neuro-psychologist, Stixrud said in a phone interview with Jmore that he and Johnson, president of a tutoring center in Washington, D.C., wrote their book to address what they view as an epidemic of stress, anxiety and depressive disorders among young people.
To a considerable degree, today’s kids are being set up for these disorders, says Stixrud. The 24/7 availability of technology, intense academic pressures and the fact that today’s teenagers are more sleep-deprived than previous generations are actually re-wiring their brains, he said.
“When we’re tired and stressed … we feel helpless, passive, resigned and overwhelmed,” said Stixrud. “Kids today have a low sense of control over their lives. They need a sense that, ‘This is my life. I can make choices. I can direct my life.’ We wrote this book to let [parents and educators] know we’re off-course. So many of the things we do with kids undermine their sense of control. And a lack of control is the most stressful thing there is.”
Stixrud said parents should attempt to think of themselves as consultants to their children, rather than being micro-managers.
“We write about the wisdom of saying, ‘It’s your call.’ Be clear about who’s responsible for what,” he said. “Don’t work harder than your kid to help them get things done. Help them think through the pros and cons, but encourage them to make their own decisions. And let’s require kids to get practice making important decisions before they go to college. If you look at mental health problems at colleges, they’re off the charts.”
Stixrud believes many of the mental health challenges experienced by college students are caused by their lack of problem-solving abilities, confidence and resilience.
“One of the best things you can say [to children] is, ‘You’re responsible for your own education, for developing yourself,’” said Stixrud.
For many parents, he said, giving up control is daunting because they fear their children will use poor judgment.
“But you can’t control your kid, and kids can make bad decisions,” said Stixrud. “The most powerful message is, ‘I have confidence in your ability to make decisions and to make your own mistakes. I want you to make mistakes, and I want you to make a lot of them before you go to college.”
He advises parents to support their offspring’s decisions “unless you think it’s crazy. Exceptions are if they’re using drugs or are depressed. …. Most kids turn out well. They have to go through stuff in order to understand themselves and become resilient.”
Regarding higher education, Stixrud said parents’ emphasis on getting kids into top-tier colleges is woefully misguided.
“We want kids to have an accurate model of reality,” he said. “Grades don’t follow you your whole life, and many kids — especially Jewish kids — grow up thinking there are only five professions. There are so many ways to make your way in the world. There’s plenty of research to show that more money doesn’t make you happy, and it doesn’t matter where you go to college.”
Parents should always encourage their children to discover a passion in life, Stixrud said, as long as it combines “high effort, high focus, high determination and low stress. That’s where we want to be as adults.”
Stixrud said he understands that parents will always worry about their children. “Worrying about one’s child’s future makes it difficult for parents to stay in the moment,” he said. “Make enjoying your kid the highest priority, so the kid experiences him or herself as a joyful organism.
“If kids aren’t doing well, we tend to focus on changing the kid. But so much of the work is focusing on yourself,” Stixrud said. “Try to have a non-anxious presence. Most families and organizations work best if the people in charge are less stressed. Accept kids where they are and provide unconditional love.”
For information about “Reaching for the Stars,” email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 410-843-7524.
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