The Gist: “Kids need responsibility more than they deserve it”.
A review of The Self Driven Child by William Stixrud and Ned Johnson, and the Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt.
What if the reason that younger adults act like children is that older children (i.e. teenagers) are not treated like adults?
Figure 1. Or perhaps what if it’s because teenagers are not tried like adults? Ever since teens stopped fearing the death penalty…
Georgetown neuropsychologist William Stixrud and tutor Ned Johnson co-wrote the Self-Driven Child, which argues that while parents should model good behavior and offer sound advice, they also need to let their children make more of their own decisions (and mistakes).
Stixrud and Johnson start from the basic premise that all “humans have three basic [psychological] needs.” First, we need to feel a sense of competence, not necessarily of Olympic caliber, but more in the sense of comfortably handling our day to day responsibilities and challenges. Second, we need to feel a sense of relatedness, where we feel a caring connection to others. And third, we need to feel a sense of autonomy, in which we decide what we might do and whether to do it.
Figure 2. Unclear how that summary fits within Freud’s crucial insight that we are really just attempting to displace our fathers to be with our mothers.
Various authors suggest that teens today are especially lacking in the last, autonomy – legally obligated to spend most of their time in regimented educational institutions, heavily encouraged to take on specific extracurriculars, assigned mandatory homework, relatively restricted from employment opportunities, and closely regulated in what remains of their personal life. Dr. Peter Gray argues that, “I doubt there has ever been a human culture, anywhere, at any time, that underestimates children’s abilities more than we North Americans do today. Our underestimation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because by depriving children of freedom, we deprive them of the opportunities they need to learn how to take control of their own behavior and emotions.” Teenage angst may be a well-worn stereotype, but a former editor in chief of Psychology Today found that “teenage distress – whether mild or severe – is a distinctly American phenomenon.”
Figure 3. Who knew that American exceptionalism boiled down to mopey teenagers?
Over-scheduled, overwhelmed, and over-protected, today’s kids can become anxious, angry, or resigned. Indeed, one definition of anxiety is feeling a lack of control. Stixrud and Johnson believe that “autonomy is key to developing motivation” and report that over the last sixty years, “students have steadily reported lower and lower levels of internal locus of control (the belief that they can control their own destiny) and higher levels of external locus of control (the belief that their destiny is determined by external forces).” Gray notes, “the average young person in 2002 was more external (more prone to claim lack of personal control) than were 80 percent of young people in the 1960s.” Stixrud gives a practical example of this in action: “If you act as if it’s your job to see that your child does his homework, practices the piano, or plays a sport, you reinforce the mistaken belief that somebody other than he is responsible for getting his work done. He doesn’t have to think about it because, on some level, he knows that eventually someone will ‘make’ him do it.”
This sense of helplessness among the young could be leading to broader social phenomena. The very essence of the American dream is that you, through your own efforts and hard work, can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps to achieve prosperity. But if an increasing proportion of young people believe that the events and outcomes of their life are directed from elsewhere, what motivation do they have to do much of anything? Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt warn in the Coddling of the American Mind that kids have embraced three untruths: that they should always trust their feelings, that challenges make them weaker, and that evil people are keeping them down. But, of course, feelings are not facts, overcoming adversity can make people stronger, and modernity seems to have lost a good deal of its understanding of good and evil. Sheltered kids grow into adults craving safe spaces, constantly assuming the worst of others’ microaggressions. Instead, Lukianoff and Haidt say that parents and educators should “prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.”
Stixrud and Johnson concede that kids, inherently, are still developing but “kids need responsibility more than they deserve it.” Their advice consists of a total rejection of helicopter parenting. “if you want to keep your children as safe as possible, the best thing to do is to give them experience and teach them judgment. Let them climb that tree and fall when they’re six—it will teach them important skills about risk and about being in their bodies.”
But Stixrud’s ideal may require an adjustment for lots of parents. Stixrud and Johnson encourage parents to be less bosses and more consultants. Gray makes the distinction between “trustful parenting” and two related alternatives – “protective parenting,” where parents personally remove or insist on avoiding every possible challenge their kids could face (you can’t play football because it’s dangerous), and “directive parenting,” where parents take command of their kids’ lives to do whatever Mom and Dad think is best (you must play football because it builds character). The authors argue that the source of teenage angst, and often bad decisions, is an outcry for autonomy. Parents’ “attempts to assert control triggered [a child]’s determination to reassert his own control, even if it meant doing the opposite of what was in his own best interest.” To give you a sense of your kids’ feelings,
“Imagine if you had a conversation with your spouse in which he or she said something like: ‘How was work today? Did you get a good report on your project? You understand how important it is for you to take your work seriously, right? I mean, I know it isn’t always easy or fun, but you really should see if you can get a promotion so you’ll have more options in the future. It just seems like maybe you aren’t doing your best all the time. Like maybe you could work a little harder.’”
But amidst this plea for autonomy, there’s also something to be learned from the Founding Fathers, who insisted that liberty can only really work alongside virtue. The authors dance around this without necessarily calming all concerns. Stixrud and Johnson insist that “‘It’s your call’ does not conflict with limit setting, which will always be an essential part of parenting.” The trick is probably establishing firm outside limits but giving kids lots of space within them. Your teenage daughter might be free to decide how to spend a Saturday afternoon, but she won’t be allowed to sleep at her boyfriend’s house. And, of course, you do not need to subsidize bad decisions – giving your kids’ latitude does not require you to buy them a video game console on demand. The specific limit Stixrud and Johnson cite is that “if frequent chemical use is a problem, remember, all bets are off and you need to intervene.” But otherwise, Stixrud encourages a thoroughly honest ongoing conversation where you “Tell your child what you’re worried about, and talk those points through. In this way, you are supportive and engaged, but you’re not steering the boat.” Generally, you want to transmit: “I have confidence in your ability to make informed decisions about your own life and to learn from your mistakes.” Ultimately, “For most judgment lapses, though, we suggest asking Dr. Phil’s question, ‘How’d that work for you?’ and discussing ways to make better decisions next time.”
Or take a cue from Chief Justice John Roberts, who told his child’s graduating class:
From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either… I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.
Stixrud argues that you really cannot compel anyone to do what he really does not want to do – the question is what does your kid really want to do? Have an open-minded conversation, encourage your children to handwrite their very own personal goals, and then try to help them strategize how to get there. It’s very hard for an angsty teenager to say their parents are ruining their life if he has substantial choice about how his life is going. If your kid is an ambitious high-achiever, then it’s pretty simple to give her advice about how to set herself up for success. Stixrud’s practice inherently dealt with kids who were the least interested in school – but he found that when he talked to kids outside of their parents’ expectations about what they really wanted to do, suddenly they could find their motivation. One kid was not meeting any requirements for getting a high school degree until he realized that it would mean the embarrassment of not graduating with his friends – and experienced a dramatic turn-around. Another thought school was useless in his ambition to become a firefighter – but, after being genuinely encouraged for the first time to investigate it as a career – discovered that he needed a high school degree and became keenly interested.
Figure 4. Even if your child’s deepest ambition is to become a country music superstar, you can note that most of them did in fact graduate high school.
A challenge for some parents in trusting their kids is that it may mean widening their definition of success – a kid who is making his own decisions (and mistakes) may not be ready for college immediately after high school graduation. But there are plenty of worthwhile alternatives: take a cue from the Mormons, whose young men go on an evangelizing mission for a couple of years when they turn 18. Or from the Israelis, most of whose young people serve in the armed forces. Each person has got to figure out life for himself. My wife’s grandparents were educators who were passionate about school and dedicated to sending their only son to college – but he was not that interested in the classroom and instead had the skills and passion to become a master welder – and he has led a great life! Or, put another way, if you had a heart attack in the middle of a restaurant, who would you rather rush to your aid, an attorney or an EMT?
Stixrud insists that parents need to let go of some of their stress and control without giving up caring about their children. And it means embracing a literal world of opportunity for children and adults to make their own way – on their own time. Indeed,
If a thirty-year-old came into Bill’s office and said that his life had been wasted because he’d made a bad decision in the eighth grade, or in high school, and had closed off all his options, Bill would say, “Buddy, get over it. You still have plenty of opportunities to shape your life.”
In our next correspondence, we’ll talk about a specific way of embracing kids’ autonomy in their education but I also want to observe that, even to the degree that teenage angst is an American phenomenon, it’s not obvious to me that teenage empowerment is the norm elsewhere. Indeed, tiger parenting would seem to suggest the exact opposite of the advice that Stixrud et al offer in the preceding paragraphs, with rather dramatic results in the form of BAs, MDs, JDs, and other letters following names. Generally, in the United States, do we suffer more from over-parenting or under-parenting? As a former child myself, I certainly appreciate the idea of autonomy to pursue things of interest – but I also had lots of interests to pursue. I look forward to exploring this more with you but I think it’s certainly safe to say that the most important thing kids need is engaged parenting.
Figure 5. Click here to acquire The Self Driven Child, a book about how to give kids the space they need to grow up.
Figure 6. Click here to acquire the Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. While both authors fear the collapse of the marketplace of ideas to oversensitive kids, neither has ever voted for a Republican. They agree with former UChicago President Hanna Holborn Gray that “education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think.” and have found that cognitive behavioral therapy is especially effective at countering the tricks one’s mind plays.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, forward it to a friend: know anyone who is a parent? How about a grandparent? How about anyone who is a former child?