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The Self-Driven Child

William Stixrud and Ned Johnson

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We are raising the anxious generation, and the conversation about the causes, and the potential cures, has just begun. In The Self-Driven Child, authors William Stixrud and Ned Johnson focus on the ways that children today are being denied a sense of controlling their own lives—doing what they find meaningful, and succeeding, or failing, on their own. Screen time, the authors say, is part of the problem, but so are well-meaning parents and schools, who are unwittingly taking from children the opportunities they need to grown stronger, more confident, and more themselves. Stixrud and Johnson answered questions from Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.

What makes you think that children do not have enough control over their lives?

Stixrud: We know that a low sense of control is highly associated with anxiety, depression, and virtually all mental health problems. Researchers have found that a low sense of control is one of the most stressful things that people can experience. And since the 1960’s, we’ve seen a marked rise in stress-related mental health problems in children and adolescents, including anxiety, depression, and self-harm. Just in the last six or seven years, there has been an unprecedented spike in the incidence of anxiety and depression in young people.

From a neurological perspective, when we experience a healthy sense of control, our prefrontal cortex (the executive functioning part of our brain) regulates the amygdala (a part of the brain’s threat detection system that initiates the fight or flight response). When the prefrontal cortex is in charge, we are in our right minds. We feel in control and not anxious. So, the fact that kids are feeling more anxiety, by definition, suggests that their amygdalas are more active, which indicates that they are more likely to feel overwhelmed, stuck, or helpless.

Research on motivation has suggested that a strong sense of autonomy is the key to developing the healthy self-motivation that allows children and teens to pursue their goals with passion and to enjoy their achievements. But what we see in many of the kids we test or tutor is motivational patterns that are at the extremes of one, an obsessive drive to succeed and two, seeing little point in working hard. Many of these clients say that they feel overwhelmed by the demands placed on them, that they feel tired all the time, and that they don’t have enough downtime in their lives (related, in part, to the increasing presence of technology). Many talk about the expectations that they feel they have to live up to, and many complain about the fact that they have little “say” over their own lives.

Is this a new problem?

Stixrud: It’s one that has progressed over several decades. When psychologist Dr. Jean Twenge compared college students from the 1960’s to college students in 2002, the latter reported a dramatically lower sense of control over their lives. Changes in our culture in the last 10 or 15 years appear to have contributed to an even sharper decline in a sense of control. For one, kids play much less than they did even a decade ago, as their time is taken up by more school hours, more scheduled activities, and more screen time than ever before. Researcher Peter Gray was one of the first to connect fewer opportunities to play to a decline in a sense of control. When kids could spend most of their Saturday playing, they could choose their own games and how to play them. They had a lot more autonomy and a lot more agency than kids do today. A typical Saturday now is often packed with homework and organized sports events.

Also, for a whole host of reasons, ranging from technology to packed schedules to anxiety, kids today sleep much less than they did even a few years ago. Fifty percent of teenagers fifteen years and older now sleep less than seven hours a night, whereas adolescents on average require 9 ¼ hours of sleep not to feel tired. When we don’t get enough sleep, the connections between our prefrontal cortex and our amygdala are weakened, resulting in lower ability of the former to regulate the latter. When children are tired, they invariably experience a lowered sense of control, as they are more easily stressed, have reduced coping skills, and are more apt to experience frustration and discouragement.

Then there’s technology, which obviously has grown ubiquitous. More kids are reliant on social media, and there may be nothing more externalizing or control-lowering than posting a photo of yourself on the internet and waiting for people to judge you. A recent article by Dr. Twenge actually suggested that the smartphone and social media have likely contributed enormously to the dramatic increase in mental health problems seen in adolescents since 2012. And studies have found that at least 10% of boys have an addictive relationship to video games. Kids who are addicted to things often tell themselves, “I know I shouldn’t be doing this but I can’t stop,” which is a pretty clear indictor that they lack a sense of control.

We agree with Dr. Twenge that this problem has been increasing since the 1960’s because our culture has increasingly valued extrinsic and self-centered goals such as money, status, and physical attractiveness, and devalued community, affiliation, and the pursuit of meaning in life. Also, with technology driving an increasingly fast pace of life, it will only get worse unless we recognize how important having a sense of control is and make some changes.

How do attempts at controlling a child backfire?

Johnson: In addition to the physical and emotional consequences (more stress, anxiety, and depression), trying to control a child has really negative effects on motivation. According to one of the best supported theories in psychology, self-determination theory, humans have three basic needs: a sense of autonomy, a sense of competence, and a sense of relatedness.

Autonomy is built in to our wiring, so to speak, in the same way hunger or thirst. When we lack this basic need, we experience decreased motivation, or the motivation we do have becomes fear-based. (“I’d better do this, or else!”) Both are terribly unhealthy. You can’t become a self-driven person if you don’t have a sense that your life is your own. We think the phenomenon of “failure to launch” - the preponderance of people in their twenties and thirties living at home - is in part attributable to the idea that young adults don’t have the same drive for independence they used to have. They want to sit at home and play on their phones. They don’t want to drive as much, date as much, have sex as much. They are accustomed to someone else being in charge of their life, and their internal motivation system is stymied.

There’s another way to look at it, too. Evaluate what you gain when you try to control a child. Let’s say you think your son—who struggles in math—should see a tutor all summer, and he disagrees. But you insist. It’s possible that tutoring would help some, but the truth is that kids benefit very little from academic help they resist and don’t feel they want or need. Even if it does help him, it comes at a great cost. It causes strain in your relationship with him. His competency might be improved, but his relatedness (his relationship with you) and his autonomy are lowered. Think of a three-legged stool where you make one leg longer and the other two shorter. You cannot reach higher on that stool. The most likely outcome is that it will tip over. And, you have signaled to him that you know better than he does, that his opinion doesn’t matter. He also misses out on seeing what it’s like to make decisions for himself. Kids need experience checking in with themselves and their decisions, and they can’t do that if you’re making each one.

Can you please explain the idea of home as a “safe base”?

Johnson: Just as in baseball, when you reach home base, you’re in a place where you can catch your breath and not have to worry about being pegged with the ball or being called out, home should be a place for kids to rest and recover. They are facing stressors each day, from school demands to social dynamics. You want home to be the place they can go to seek a respite from it all, where they feel safe and loved unconditionally, where they can fully relax, so that they can gather the energy to go back out. But if home is a stressful environment—if parents are an anxious or controlling presence—kids will seek that respite somewhere—or somehow—else. And most of the time, it’s a place you don’t want them to go. Or, if nowhere can be that safe base, they are really in trouble, as being chronically stressed is about the worst thing imaginable for brains, especially developing ones. That’s why we tell parents that one of the most important things they can say to their kids is, “I love you too much to fight with you about your homework,” and why we want them to move in the direction of being a non-anxious presence for their kids.

What else can we do to give children more of a sense of self control?

Johnson: We can give kids opportunities to learn to handle as much as they can, without being overwhelmed. Children thrive and grow when they feel challenged but not threatened. Personal pastimes (especially when kids can turn up or down the pace or intensity themselves) are great for this. Think of how video games work: the better you can play and the further you advance, the harder the game gets. You don’t actually die; you just have to try again. It’s fantastic! Games can be incredibly frustrating but almost no one wants a “cheat code” to get ahead. It just doesn’t offer the same satisfaction. In life, kids want to feel that their successes were earned. Give your kid every opportunity to stretch himself through music, sports, coding, after school jobs, hiking, martial arts, whatever inspires his passion. That sense of mastery and autonomy in an activity he loves can cascade into other facets of his life.

You can nurture habits and a lifestyle that support healthy minds: Above all, promote rest. Encourage sleep, meditation if they’re interested, and downtime. Many of the students I see complain that the moment they have a free hour, their parent rushes in to fill it. Rest is not laziness. It is the basis of all activity. Foster what we call Radical Digital Downtime. No phones. No screens. Those times of mind-wandering (some call it boredom) activate neural circuits in the Default Mode Network, a system that involves reflecting on the past and projecting into the future, processing life. Radical downtime increases the control that the prefrontal cortex exerts over the amygdala, keeping you in your “right mind.”

Lastly, make it your highest priority to simply enjoy your kids. As they are. Right now. Flaws and all. For the development of babies, one of the most important inputs is parents who are warm and responsive. When do you think kids outgrow that need? We think, never.

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