the cover of the book The Self-Driven Child by William Stixrud and Ned Johnson

Book review: The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Children More Control Over Their Lives by William Stixrud and Ned Johnson

Why responsibility and a sense of control are critical for children

"We can't really control our kids—and doing so shouldn't be our goal.

Our role is to teach them to think and act independently, so that they will have the judgment to succeed in school and, more important, in life. Rather than pushing them to do things they resist, we should seek to help them find things they love and develop their inner motivation."

In The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Children More Control Over Their Lives (Penguin, 2018), William Stixrud and Ned Johnson argue that having independence and autonomy makes people more motivated and resilient. Why? Because people need to feel responsible, to feel a sense of control, to feel that their actions can have a meaningful impact on the world, to stay able to successfully act in that world.

As Stixrud and Johnson describe early in the book, having a sense of control leads people to be more motivated, more successful, healthier, less stressed, with greater internal motivation, greater emotional well-being, and greater ability to control their own behavior. On the flip side, feeling a lack of control is associated with being anxious and depressed, having issues with anger management, being more likely to have substance abuse issues, and other negative outcomes.

"Agency may be the one most important factor in human happiness and well-being."

You can't control others: Parents as consultants

The authors start off with a list of assumptions that many people have about raising kids. The items on the list revolve around the importance of school, the need for adults to make decisions for children because otherwise children might make the wrong decisions, that the only way to make children succeed more is to push them more, and that children need more supervision because the world is dangerous.

These assumptions are all false. School is not as important as most people think it is. Children need to make their own decisions and learn from their own failures (giving them advice is acceptable, of course). Backing off may lead to better results than pushing. The world is less dangerous than it used to be, and supervision can backfire.

The authors point out that even if you buy into these assumptions, even if you want to control everything about your child's life, you can't actually make anyone do something against their will. So, when it comes to activities parents think their children ought to do—like homework, sports, or practicing a musical instrument—what should they do?

The key, argue Stixrud and Johnson, is for parents to be consultants:

"[W]hile we should guide, support, teach, help, and set limits for our kids, we should be clear—with them and with ourselves—that their lives are their own."

The idea is, if parents take responsibility for children's activities, then the child doesn't have to. Children learn to offload that responsibility. They learn not to care. But, if children are allowed to take responsibility, then ultimately, they will learn to be responsible for the things that matter to them.

Let Grow and independence

I was reminded of Lenore Skenazy's Let Grow organization, which encourages parents to step back so kids can step up. One of the biggest problems in both modern education and modern parenting is the lack of independence afforded to children.

As I mentioned in my review of How Children Succeed and in this post on independence in learning, children—people—learn the most on the edge of their comfort zone, when they're given the freedom to explore, when the challenge presented matches or just exceeds their abilities.

The science of control and motivation

The authors draw on research from neuroscience, physiology, psychology, and education to present the case for letting children be responsible for more than many parents these days would be comfortable with—and why children shouldn't be protected from failure. They give practical suggestions for how to challenge children without overwhelming them, and how to gradually increase children's responsibilities.

I appreciated the dive into various physiological systems involved in control, motivation, and reward. The authors discussed the brain systems for executive control (the prefrontal cortex), stress response (the HPA axis, the amygdala), motivational systems (rewards, dopamine), and the "calm" system (the default mode network).

For example, dopamine is a key neurotransmitter for motivation and drive. Low dopamine is associated with feeling bored. Under chronic stress, dopamine tanks, which is one reason why chronic stress makes it hard to get stuff done. High dopamine, on the other hand, is a reward, while optimal dopamine levels are associated with feelings of flow.

How to develop inner drive and intrinsic motivation

The most interesting parts of the book, for me, were the sections on developing inner drive, because these sections helped me connect a few dots I've been thinking about: How do you motivate children? How do you encourage self-discipline? More generally, how do you help children develop the character traits that predict success?

Another term for inner drive is intrinsic motivation—it's the kind of drive that the authors say helps children get places in life. It's about doing things for you, not because someone else wants you to do them or for some external reward.

This kind of drive or motivation is undermined by your typical carrot and stick, by incentives, and by parental monitoring. The authors discuss research showing that rewards and grades can be detrimental in the long term—in part, because these external motivators reinforce the idea that someone else is responsible for the child's life. That someone else has control.

Instead, what you use is the authors' motivation recipe:

  • a growth mindset (from the research of Carol Dweck showing that focusing on effort rather than ability helps kids learn);
  • autonomy, competence, and relatedness (from the self-determination theory of Deci and Ryan, which says a sense of autonomy and control is important for motivation, and relatedness is about unconditional love and connection leading a child);
  • optimal dopamine; and
  • flow (from the research of Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi and Reed Larson).

Being in a state of flow—between boredom and frustration, with the right level of challenge—gives people practice with motivation and focus. It helps their brains associate enjoyment with focused attention, practice, and hard work. Flow reinforces the behaviors that lead to the experience of flow: directed effort, learning, and attention.

Perhaps it should have been obvious to me. Like any other skill, you practice it by doing it. You practice intrinsic motivation by doing intrinsically motivated activities. You practice flow by being in flow. To help children develop self-discipline and inner drive, you encourage them to follow their own interests, letting them choose their own challenging activities.

Stixrud and Johnson remind us that of course, different people will be intrinsically motivated by different things. Relationships, personal achievement, love of learning, long term goals, and so on. We don't all enjoy the same things; we aren't all motivated by the same things. And that's fine. The authors suggest writing your goals down to help them feel like your goals. They also suggest that when you're trying to be motivated, it can be helpful to remind yourself that while you may not feel like doing something, you still may want to do it to work toward your goals.

Finally, the authors suggest that people with a lot of difficulty with motivation may have a dopamine deficiency, and it could be worthwhile to get checked for ADHD, anxiety, sleep issues, or learning disabilities. Alternatively, you can try to "jumpstart" the dopamine system with exercise (dopamine in prefrontal cortex), social support (peer tutoring/learning can lead to dopamine spike), stimulation (more, or less: e.g., music in the background or.a quiet space), a healthy high protein diet, more sleep, circuit training (work in shirt intense bursts), or incentives (to help your brain "wake up" its dopamine system).

The importance of sleep

One chapter talked about the importance of sleep for control and motivation, which I think people in modern culture don't consider enough.

In short, being tired inhibits self control. It's harder to get to bed if you're tired, harder to stop checking your phone, harder to avoid binge eating ice cream.

In addition, Stixrud and Johnson point out that sleep deprivation is a form of chronic stress. Cortisol levels fluctuate throughout the day; in people who sleep enough, their cortisol is higher in the morning and lower at night—it helps you get out of bed and relax once you're back in it—while in the sleep deprived, this pattern is reversed, which makes both sleeping and getting up harder.

If you need an alarm clock, caffeine, or feel sleepy and tired during the day, you're not getting enough sleep. When I was a teenager, my fencing coach would say that if it took you less than ten minutes to fall asleep at night, then you weren't getting enough sleep. I don't know if that's true, but it stuck with me.

The world of school

This book is addressed to your typical stressed parents of typical stressed kids with typical school and homework lives who are worried about getting into colleges. It has its feet firmly planted in the world of school. This is an understandable audience—most children public or private schools; only 6-7% are homeschooled (but the book was written in 2013, closer to 3.5% of children were homeschooled).

However, because of the heavy emphasis on conventional schooling, about half this book felt entirely irrelevant to me. There were chapters dedicated to test taking (SAT, ACT, etc), control at school, homework, and getting into college. And the rest is littered with school-related examples.

The sections on test taking felt particularly irrelevant because of the emphasis on test prep. When I was high school-aged, I took the PSAT and later the SAT. I think my test prep for the PSAT was a practice test. Maybe two? For the SAT, we had a couple books; I did a couple practice tests and signed up for some SAT-question-a-day email service (most of which I probably ignored). I got high scores despite the lack of detailed test prep. Conclusion being that test prep is overrated. Read books. It's more fun.

Regardless of the school focus, I thought this book was a useful read. I was familiar with much of the research on stress, motivation, and learning, so there wasn't anything revolutionary in the book for me. I was happy to find a puzzle piece I was looking for regarding developing internal motivation. But if you aren't as familiar with the science, it's a great introduction, with lots of good material—especially if your children attend a conventional school!

the cover of the book How Children Succeed by Paul Tough featuring the title over a line of colored pencils in the background

Book review: How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough

Why do some people succeed and others fail? This book argues that it's not just how you're born. Instead, the key is noncognitive skills—and the good news is, you can practice and improve them.
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