The Secret to Raising Self-Driven Kids

7 tips for helping children take control of their lives
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The idea of an independent, confident teenager is quintessentially American. But somewhere between the self-esteem movement of the 1990s and society’s apparent obsession with perfection, there’s a school of thought out there that today’s kids have gotten off track.

The pressure to be perfect is inescapable. Kids absorb it from well-meaning parents, peers at school and social media. As a result, rising numbers of young people suffer from self-doubt and anxiety.

The antidote? According to neuropsychologist William Stixrud and self-proclaimed test-prep geek Ned Johnson, the key to overcoming anxiety and becoming a confident adult is control. Stixrud, who has spent 30 years helping teens with learning and anxiety disorders, teamed up with Johnson, who has spent 30 years calming overachieving teens, to write “Raising the Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives” (Penguin, 2018).

Whether you have a toddler or teenager, there are steps you can take to help your child take control of his or her life and move toward that confident, self-motivated American ideal.

Be a Consultant

What kind of parent are you? If you are a “Tiger Mom” who pushes your child to hit tennis balls six hours a day and practice piano for six hours a night, it’s unlikely your child has much opportunity to be in control of his or her life. On the other extreme, if you are a permissive parent, it’s unlikely your child has a chance to develop the sense of discipline he or she needs to be independent and self-motivated.

There is, Stixrud suggests, a parenting “sweet spot” — somewhere between authoritarian and laissez-faire, where a child is given just the right amount of independence and just the right amount of guidance.

“Be a consultant, not a director,” he recommends. A “consultant” parent provides basic rules and structure, and as much advice as needed, but does not insist on definite goals.

Consider also your definition of “success.” If you immediately picture your child as a wealthy banker in New York, that’s fine. But keep it to yourself. Your child is already facing a world in which success is narrowly defined, Stixrud says.

“Kids believe that if they don’t have straight A’s they won’t get into an elite college, and that if they don’t go to an elite college, they are going to have a C+ life,” Stixrud says. He laments that low-achieving kids often give up before they start, and high-achieving kids lose sleep over an A-. Make sure you’re helping your child see the broader possibilities rather than further limiting the field.

Avoid Comparisons

Every child is different and will require responsive adjustments in parenting style. Avoid comparing your child to his peers — or even siblings. An older sister might thrive playing club soccer and easily get straight A’s, while her younger brother might need quiet afternoons perched in his treehouse and earn mostly B’s. Stixrud points out that there is a low correlation between high school grades and later success.

Instead of casting about for ideals in the media, or imposing your own expectations, take a close look at your child. Encourage her interests. Pursuing a passion — whether for modern dance or rock collecting — allows a child to experience the satisfaction of working hard at something she enjoys.

Remember that your child will change as he matures. “We see kids who are a disaster of motivation, but as their prefrontal cortex develops, they come out of it,” Johnson says. “A child might be killing it at age 10, but might not be at the head of the pack at age 30. Prodigies don’t typically end up being musicians. And kids who are a mess now, are not necessarily a mess forever.”

Address Anxiety

A certain amount of stress can be good, Johnson says. He and Stixrud call this “optimal” stress, and explain that stress and competition actually increase motivation and productivity, up to a point. “Past that point,” Johnson says, “the fear of totally blowing it outweighs the motivation to excel.”

If anxiety is affecting you or your child’s daily life, address it. “Stress is contagious,” Johnson says. “It can affect the whole family.”

You can normalize stress by bringing it up at the dinner table.

“Talking about a situation you are dealing with is a great way to introduce coping mechanisms,” suggests Abby Pressel, a licensed psychologist with Chapel Hill Pediatric Psychology. “You can mention practical ways you manage anxiety, such as focusing on relaxing your muscles and regulating your breathing.”

When your child is worried about a specific problem, listen and acknowledge her concerns. At the same time, gently challenge her assumptions. “Often, anxiety can be irrational,” Pressel says. “Try to put data behind the fear.”

David Graham, a counselor at Davidson College, says students who successfully navigate the stresses of college are those who have outlets for stress, like a sports team, exercise class, favorite club or religious group. Help your child find some activity that allows him to relax.

Let Your Child Take Ownership

“Autonomy research is dramatic,” Johnson says. “There have been studies in retirement homes that show if you give people choices, they live longer.”

He points out that today’s kids have very little autonomy, spending most of their day at school where they have to raise their hand to speak or go to the bathroom. Afternoons and weekends tend to be overscheduled, leaving kids little opportunity for creative play, getting bored or having to figure out how to spend their day. Then, suddenly, in college they are free to do anything they want, Johnson points out. Before they go, help them feel internally motivated and confident enough to make decisions and advocate for themselves.

Lucy Dunning, a licensed professional counselor at Thriveworks in Charlotte, suggests letting your child practice choice-making. “Kids are conditioned to wait and be directed,” she says. “You can boost your child’s confidence — even very young children — by letting them make choices, whether that is deciding on dinner or on what clothes to wear.”

To keep things within the realm of reason, you can offer children a choice among a few safe options, she suggests.

Eric Lipp, a Duke Cancer Institute senior clinical research coordinator whose seventh-grade daughter recently kickstarted a recycling program at her school, swears by the value of chores. Committed to raising self-sufficient and confident children, he and his wife Sharon, a psychiatric nurse, required their two girls to take on responsibility for household tasks before they could read.

“We made them a chart with pictures,” Lipp says. “Brushing teeth, getting dressed, tying shoes, putting away toys. They would put a check beside each picture once they’d finished.”

Stixrud and Johnson point out that while the decision-making part of the brain does not fully mature until a person’s mid-20s, this does not mean young people are bad at making decisions.

Give Your Child Space to Fail

As a parent, watching your child fail can be excruciating. It’s tempting to “fix” things — to talk a teacher out of a low grade, beg a coach for a spot on the soccer team or step in to repair damaged friendships. But your child will struggle in the adult world if she never experiences failure growing up. Part of giving your child the freedom to choose is allowing her the freedom to make the wrong choice, i.e., the freedom to fail.

Graham says a large number of Davidson College students — about 45 percent — visit the school’s heath center for counseling, and that many of them have anxiety issues. “These are high-achieving students, most of whom have always excelled at academics,” he says. “For them, getting a B for the first time can be devastating. They have never had to build up the resiliency.”

Graham advises parents of middle- and high-schoolers to revisit their toddler-parenting strategies. “When your baby is learning to walk, and she falls, you encourage her to get back up. And she does. She gets back up and she walks,” he says.

Introduce your child to role models who have struggled to achieve. Thomas Edison, who failed thousands of times before making a successful lightbulb, is famously quoted as saying, “I’ve not failed, I successfully found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

In addition to external role models, be a model yourself. Teach self-encouragement by embracing your mistakes and sharing your strategies for overcoming them.

Praise effort, not result. “It is helpful to frame experiences in terms of learning and growth rather than on an outcome or a grade,” Pressel says. “Being comfortable with imperfection makes you more confident, and more likely to try new experiences.”

Provide Structure

Dunning believes kids need rules to thrive, but that parents should be authoritative rather than authoritarian.

Parents should be providing kids with a framework for behavior,” she says. “And then, as kids get older, parents should gradually back away.” She says children understand consequences, so parents can define behavior in terms of choice. “If your child chooses to miss curfew, then they have chosen to stay at home the following night,” she says.

Technology and social media are a wild west for rules and structure. Stixrud recommends family-wide policies.

“It’s easy enough to place limits on video games when a child is young, but much harder as they get older,” he says. “Make a family rule that everyone will charge phones in the kitchen at night. Parents included.” It is vital to follow the rules yourself.

Allow for 'Radical Downtime'

Graham says many of the freshmen he counsels at Davidson College are troubled by the 24/7 nature of college.

“It’s hard to find a safe place on campus with no onlookers,” he says. “There is nowhere to let down your guard.” As long as students feel they are “flying under the radar” they are OK, but if they get attention, “it’s like being under a microscope,” he says.

For a high-schooler, home should be that safe place college students are missing. Many of the parents Stixrud has talked to say that evenings with their teens can be like World War III, consisting of constant battles over homework. He suggests that instead of pestering your child about getting his homework done, simply let him know you are there to help. “Tell them you love them too much to fight about homework,” he says. “The fighting makes them less motivated to do the work, and is stressful to you as well.”

To escape what Johnson calls the “mind-numbing effects” of social media, he and Stixrud recommend excluding technology during downtime at home, and have introduced the concept of “radical downtime,” which includes doing nothing at all and allows a child to daydream, meditate, sleep and relax.

“Have Sunday mornings just be for pancakes,” Johnson says.

Caitlin Wheeler is a freelance writer in Durham.