Recent surveys have shown that anxiety and depression are up amongst school-aged children and teens. Parents and teachers are also reporting a decrease in motivation amongst young adults. My guests today argue that both issues stem from the same problem and can be solved with the same solution.
Their names are Bill Stixrud and Ned Johnson. Bill’s a clinical neuropsychologist and Ned is a college test prep coach. In their book, The Self-Driven Child, they make the case that modern helicopter parenting and highly structured school schedules and after-school activities are part of the problem of increased anxiety and decreased motivation amongst young people. The solution is to start letting your kids make their own choices and experience the consequences of those choices — both the good and the bad. Today on the show, we discuss specific ways parents can let their kids make their own decisions and why this doesn’t mean you let your kids do whatever they want. With each tip, they explain the science of why it helps increase intrinsic motivation. Lots of great actionable advice. Even if you’re not a parent, you’ll find the advice on developing intrinsic motivation to actually be pretty helpful for grown-ups too.
- Why anxiety and depression are on the rise among young people
- Why having a strong sense of control over your life is so important
- What factors are in play in kids feeling in less control than in decades past?
- Internal locus of control vs. external locus of control
- Why kids need to be allowed to make decisions
- How parenting has changed over the course of the last 100 years
- The importance of play
- How can parents help kids have more control over their lives
- How to cultivate an “authoritative” style of parenting
- Seeing yourself as a parenting “consultant”
- So what does a parent do when the kid is really failing or on the brink of disaster?
- How to cultivate intrinsic motivation in children
- Balancing a sense of control with the role of fate and luck
- Why kids need “radical” downtime (particularly without devices)
- The devastating effects of sleep deprivation on adolescents
- Why you should buy your kids an alarm clock
- What to do if you have a child who is just naturally a little more anxious or high-strung
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- My podcast with Kevin Ashworth about managing anxiety
- AoM series on Overprotective Parenting
- My podcast with Lenore Skenazy about free-range parenting
- How to Become a Self-Starter
- Dr. Jean Twenge
- Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?
- My podcast with Jess Lahey about giving your kids the gift of failure
- Taking Control of Your Life
- My podcast with Earle Labor about Jack London
- Heading Out on Your Own
- The Benefits of Family Meetings
- Default Mode Network
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Recent surveys have shown that anxiety and depression are up among school age children and teenagers, and parents and teachers are, also, repeated a decrease in motivation amongst young adults. My guests today argue that both issues stem from the same problem. It can be solved with the same solution.
Their names are Bill Stixrud and Ned Johnson. Bill is a clinical neuropsychologist and Ned is a college test prep coach. In their book, The Self-Driven Child, they make the case that modern helicopter parenting, and highly structured school schedules, and highly structured after-school activities are part of the problem of the increased anxiety and decreased motivation amongst young people. The solution, they say, is to start letting your kids make their own choices and experiencing the consequences of the choices, both the good and the bad.
Today on the show, we discuss specific ways parents can let their kids make their own decisions, and why this doesn’t mean you let your kids do whatever they want. With each tip, they explain the science of why it helps increase intrinsic motivation. Lots of actionable advice in this episode. Even if you’re not a parent, you’re going to find the advice on developing intrinsic motivation to actually be pretty helpful for grownups as well.
After the show is over, check out the show notes at AOM.IS/SelfDrivenChild. Also, if you don’t know this, we have all of our archives at the site, along with full transcripts if you go to ArtofManliness.com/podcasts. If you want to read all the old transcripts, they’re there, so check it out.
So now, Bill Stixrud, Ned Johnson, The Self-Driven Child join me now via Skype.
Bill Stixrud and Ned Johnson, welcome to the show.
Ned Johnson: Thanks.
William Stixrud: Thanks for having us.
Brett McKay: So you guys wrote a book together, The Self-Driven Child, The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control over Their Lives. Bill, you are a neuropsychologist.
William Stixrud: Yep.
Brett McKay: And Ned, you founded a SAT prep test company.
Ned Johnson: Test Prep Geek.
Brett McKay: Yeah, Test Prep Geek. So I’m curious. How did a test prep geek and a neuropsychologist get together to write a book about children and autonomy, and giving them a sense of control?
William Stixrud: Well, somebody introduced … This is Bill talking, and somebody introduced Ned and I several years ago, and it turned out that we really deal with very similar issues in that kids come to me if they’re having trouble, and I see a huge number of kids with anxiety disorders, and depression, eating disorders, and Ned sees all these kids who are incredibly stressed out about high school and think that their whole future depends on how well they do on the SAT.
We started to talk about what we knew about stress and motivation, and what struck us was that a low sense of control is probably the most stressful thing you can experience, and we figured this must be related to this incredible proliferation of anxiety and depression in young people. And, also, we knew that you can’t become truly self-motivated in a healthy way unless you have a sense of autonomy over your own life.
So we both felt that so much of our work is trying to reduce the extent to which chronic stress screws up kids’ lives, and trying to help them develop healthy motivation. So we just started to think this is a really powerful organizing construct.
Ned Johnson: And my job as a test coach guy is helping kids be successful on things that, at least in theory, matter a great deal to them anyway, doing their best on something that matters a lot to them when they feel under a lot of pressure, and I just had the experience over and over of having kids who were really capable and performed at a high level in practice, and then go in the day of the test and under performing. If it was once or twice, it was anomalous, but when I kept seeing it over and over, I tried to figure what happened there, and the more I started learning about how brains work and optimal performance, I started to pay attention to the things that improve brain function.
In the book, we talk about a certain amount of stress is good, but too much stress is distress, and so pulling kids back from too much pressure to the point where they’re optimally … They’re excited. They’re into it, and a huge number of the tools that I was using was simply trying to give kids a greater feeling of control under a situation where they otherwise would be pretty stressed.
Brett McKay: So, Bill, you said just now that you’ve seen an increase in anxiety, and depression, et cetera, amongst young people, and as the research suggests and which you’ve found is that a lack of sense of control is a cause of this stress that leads to this anxiety and depression. So, to me, that sounds like kids feel like they have less control of their lives more today than maybe say 20 years ago. Is that a proper deduction? Do you think that’s what’s going on?
William Stixrud: Yes, I do, and I think that one of the great social scientists in our country, Jean Twenge at San Diego State, demonstrated several years ago that young people, adolescents and young adults, have increasingly external locus of control compared to young people 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago, and she correlated that with this increased vulnerability to anxiety and depression, and a year ago, Jean Twenge wrote an article in the Atlantic, Has the Smart Phone Destroyed a Generation, where she’s arguing that the smart phone has had such a terrible effect on young people’s mental health, and from our perspective, it’s all because of social media. Social media just is the most externalizing thing you can experience, where you post something and you wait for other people to judge you.
Brett McKay: And what else do you think is going on besides the social media, because as you guys talk about, there’s this increased pressure at school. Why do you think kids feel like they have less control at school, in their own personal lives, et cetera, that’s causing this increase in anxiety and depression, besides the social media aspect, because definitely we can totally see that.
William Stixrud: Yeah, yeah. Sure.
Ned Johnson: Well, there’s probably a few things that immediately come to mind. One is that our culture has this idea that there’s a very narrow path to success, and that it runs through being a top student, and then only top students are going to have successful lives, and so by definition, only 10% of kids are going to be the top 10% of the schools, so the other 90% are either really stressed out, or they’re just going to give up and say, “Why even bother?” For the 10% who are there, they feel like, “If I’m top 10, I need to get top five. I’m top five. I’ve got to get top one,” or they’re terrified of falling out of that, the winners bracket, and thinking, “If I screw up anywhere along the line, whatever beautiful life I imagined for myself will simply evaporate.”
We’ve just created this funnel where it feels like, to a lot of people, that all great things in life, the wonderful career, the great college, the right spouse, the big home, vacation home, whatever, all goes through how kids are doing academically, and, of course, we know that’s not true. There’s so many paths that people can take to find success, but those aren’t ones that we talk about, when the drum beat at school is grades and scores, and grades and scores, and grades and scores, and then you certainly compound that by the effects of sleep deprivation, and there are lot, everything from use of technology to just the acceleration of life, where really the proper model for success is to work hard and rest hard.
But we feel like we’re this culture where we brag about how hard we work, that we’re constantly busy, and the competitive martyrdom of who has slept the most, who has slept the least rather, and so you have this toxic brew of people all the time worrying about what other people think about them, of what colleges think, what do my teachers think, what are my grades, and they don’t have enough rest and enough downtime to recover from that and to regain energy for the next day, nor do they have an opportunity to think about themselves as people, as students, as members of society in ways that are much broader than just what their GPA and SAT scores are.
Brett McKay: And, Bill, I mean you’re a neuropsychologist. One of the fascinating parts of the book, where you guys get into the detail about what happens to the brain whenever we feel like we’re in control or when we don’t feel like we’re in control, or when we live our lives, habitually come from this internal locus of control, how the brain changes, or how the brain changes when you come from an external locus of control. So can you walk us through the big picture of that?
William Stixrud: Sure. When we think about what’s the opposite of a healthy sense of control, we think about words like helpless, hopeless, passive, resigned, and overwhelmed, and what the overwhelm part often means is this, that for us to feel like we’re in our right minds and we aren’t highly stressed, we can think clearly and keep things in perspective, the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is the fairly recent evolved part of the brain that can think logically, plan, organize, put things in perspective, regulates the amygdala. It has a lot of control over the amygdala, which is a very primitive part of the brain. It’s part of the brain’s threat detection system. It’s very alert to anything that can be potentially threatening, and if it perceives potential threat, and it could be a physical threat or just somebody looking askance at you, it will start your stress response.
And so what we want as kids get older is for them to have this experience of the healthy regulation of the prefrontal cortex of the amygdala, and that there are some kids who come out of the womb more easily stressed, and some from genetic factors or prenatal factors, and there are kids who vary a lot in terms of genetically, in terms of how reactive their amygdala is, how sensitive it is to threat, how they process the neurotransmitter serotonin. It really can make a big difference in determining how easily stressed they are and how easily. That amygdala can basically start to regulate the rest of the brain, as opposed to the prefrontal cortex regulating the rest of the brain.
Brett McKay: Got you. So the big point of your book is we want … If the prefrontal cortex is what keeps the amygdala in check, if we want to develop that prefrontal cortex, we have to allow our kids to use it, and you do that by allowing them to make choices, sometimes even dumb choices.
Ned Johnson: Yep. That’s right.
William Stixrud: We’re pretty big fans of … We think that it’s really helpful, Brett, for parents to think pretty early on that it’s the kid’s life, and that often we don’t necessarily know what’s in a kid’s best interest, and, also, and often if a kid is trying to make a decision, we don’t always know what’s best, and we’ve found that if we help kids think things through carefully, we say, “I want you to make an informed decision,” and we insist that they think through the pros and cons with us. They even map out the pros and cons of a decision, they can make a good decision for themselves as we do almost all the time.
Brett McKay: This is kind of interesting, because it’s about a sense of control, right, and I feel like parents, the reason why they don’t let their kids … They kind of put their kids on the path and encourage them, “Okay, grades matter. School matters. You need to do this, do this,” because parents want to feel in control, right?
Ned Johnson: Right, exactly.
Brett McKay: But by doing that, you’re hindering your child’s ability to develop their own sense of control.
Ned Johnson: Well, that’s exactly right, and it’s a little bit … Only one person gets to control the remote control, right, and people fight for it, and certainly because as parents we want to protect our kids, we want them to be happy, we want them to be successful, it’s hard to ever watch your kids stumble, particularly if you can see it coming. But wisdom comes from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions, and we have kids who are absolutely perfectionist, and they’re terrified of making a mistake, and in part because they’ve never made.
So we want kids to make decisions, and sometimes they’ll make the wrong decision, because they’ve made what they thought was the best decision. Well, we want to tell kids that we have confidence in your ability to make good decisions, and that if you make a mistake, when you make a mistake really, we have confidence that you’ll figure out the best plan from there, and we need to have that experience over and over to develop our decision-making abilities, and to your point, to give our prefrontal cortex a chance to develop, and it’s just hard as parents to sit there and watch, and know that this might be a train wreck coming.
This is why we have an entire chapter in the book about being a non-anxious presence, that just because you can see a problem coming and you can do something about it, doesn’t necessarily mean you want to. Experience is a heck of a teacher, and rarely, I think, do parents, much like teachers, much like political leaders, get a lot of credit for avoiding a problem that someone else never saw coming. We’re probably better off letting kids experience some of these things along the way, and be there to help them, if they want it, when they want it, rather than jumping in and never letting them suffer anything that might be a bruise, or a bump, or a skinned knee.
William Stixrud: And, Brett, I’ll add that we think that … I tested a kid years ago, who said we really shouldn’t call it raising children. We should call it lowering parents, because it’s hard, and we think that one of the things that makes it particularly hard is the idea that somehow we’re responsible as parents to make sure our kids’ lives turn out a certain way, that we’ll be able to make them do this or that, and we think that our experience is that it’s very liberating for parents to really realize, “I really can’t make my kid do stuff. I don’t always know what’s in his best interest, and if I communicate to my kid, I have confidence in your ability to make decisions about your own life. I want you to have tons of practice before I send you off to college,” it goes well. The kids want their life to work, and when you trust them to make decisions, in our experience, they almost always make as least as good decisions as we can make.
Brett McKay: Yeah. It’s funny. We’ve had a lot of podcast guests come on and talk about historical figures, and what always strikes me is how parenting style has changed, because you have some of these guys, take a look at Jack London. We had a guy, Earle Labor. He’s a Jack London biographer. He’s talking about you hear about what Jack London did as a 14 year old or a 15 year old. He was an oyster pirate in San Francisco, just like stealing oysters from other oyster pirates … And he’s-
Ned Johnson: That would make a great college essay.
Brett McKay: But his parents are like, “Yeah. That’s fine.” They probably didn’t know what he was doing, but they just like, “Whatever,” and now we have this thing. It’s like that would never happen, like a 15 year old being an oyster pirate in America.
William Stixrud: Right. Right. I mean we have this idea that kids … We think that part of the reason that kids have so little control of their lives is they don’t play very much anymore, and a couple generations ago, kids would spend all weekend outside. Their parents had no idea where they were, what they were doing, playing with their friends, and they were completely in charge of their life, and yet just not very long ago, many high school kids, if not most, had part time jobs. They were working, and they had a lot of unsupervised time that doesn’t really exist so much anymore.
Brett McKay: What’s interesting, as I was reading this, I think the most powerful idea I got from this is that we want our … In order to be successful as an adult, you have to have this developed prefrontal cortex, where you can control those impulses and that anxiety, et cetera, that comes up when you’re not sure, but in order to do that, you have to exercise it and use it.
Well, it’s funny how we parent these days is we’re very controlling of our kids, make sure they’re safe, make sure they’re happy, make sure they have a great experience as a kid, and then when they hit 18, they’re like, “All right, kid, get out there and make your own choices, and do adult things. I know you’ve never done this before, but you’ll figure it out,” and then the kids come to you, Bill, with, college kids, anxious, depressed, et cetera.
William Stixrud: Part of the reason that we focus at the end of the book on this idea of who is ready for college, is we’ve both seen so many kids who have gone off to college and failed in the first year, and just not been successful at all, and most of those kids really had very little experience in running their own lives before they went to college.
We want kids to have tons of experience. I tell parents, “Don’t send your kid to college unless he’s had six months, he’s demonstrated for six months that he can pretty much run his own life, because that’s what he’s going to have to do in college.”
Brett McKay: Right. So let’s talk about how we parent in order to help this. So you’re not advocating, just so you’re clear, you want kids to make choices, but you’re not telling a 12 year old you’re just going to do whatever you want, because when parents hear, “Oh, yeah, let kids make choices,” they’re like, “Well, what are we talking about here? Are we going to let them do whatever they want, or are we going to put constraints or limits?” What does this look like?
Ned Johnson: In a workplace, everyone has autonomy with his job. You don’t get to do whatever you darn well please. People have to stay in their own lanes a little bit. The choices that kids can appropriately happen when they’re three or four might be, “Do you want to wear this shirt, or do you want to wear this shirt?” It’s like this game or that game? Do you want to read that story at bedtime or after dinner, whatever. When they’re 12, there are choices about what do you want to be doing? Do you want to play soccer or do you want to play baseball? What do you want to be doing on the weekend?
But it isn’t the idea that a 12 year old gets to run the whole household. That’s really an aggregation of parental responsibility. It’s just that there are tons of things that kids can and really should do that we, as parents, want to make those decisions for them, simply because we’re better at it, because we have more experience doing it. It’s so much quicker for us to do, to make that judgment or that decision for them.
And it’s a mistake, because anything that you want someone to do well, you have to be tolerant of him doing it poorly first, because that’s how we learn.
William Stixrud: And, Brett, there’s at least 60 years of research on parenting styles, and just conclusively the most effective parenting style is authoritative, as opposed to authoritarian or laissez-faire. Authoritative parents means that we set limits, but we negotiate more with kids and we teach kids respectfully, like they have a brain in their head, and we value their opinions, and we want them to make decisions. But it’s not laissez-faire. It’s not anything go. We’re very much involved in their life, and certainly laissez-faire parenting, where you’re on your own kid, is terrible.
That’s not at all what we’re suggesting. We want parents to be very intimately involved in their kids’ lives. We just don’t want them to think that they’re supposed to control everything.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I like how you describe parenting should … You should see yourself as a consultant, which I thought that was an interesting way to think about it.
Ned Johnson: Yeah. Very much, and we had a story in the book about my wife. My wife is an educator, who was helping my son when he was in middle school with some assignment, and then she says, “Well, why didn’t you hand this in,” or do whatever it was, and he froze and looked at her and said, “Well, because you didn’t remind me,” and I’m like, “Hold on. Time out, people,” and jumped in this middle of this and said, “Look, kiddo, you don’t throw your Mama under the bus. She’s not responsibility for your doing this work, because it’s your work. To the contrary, you’re responsible for doing this.” I looked at her and said, “He has every reason to expect that you’ll remind him, because you always have,” and my wife is like a lot of them, just super organized. She can run my kids’ life, my life, Bill’s life, probably your life if you could give her the time, but just because she can doesn’t mean that she should.
We just really tried to change and said, “Would you like help with that?” We just changed the language from shouldn’t you be doing your homework, shouldn’t you do this, why aren’t you doing that, to would you like some help? Would you like me to look at that? Anything I can do? “No, Dad, I got it.” Okay, great.
Well, I’ve never had the experience of giving people advice that they just told me they don’t want and having that go well. But by constantly saying, “Anything I can do to help tonight?” “No, no, I’ve got it.” He knows that I’m always there. He knows that my wife is always there, and sometimes he asks for advice and sometimes he doesn’t.
We tell the story when we talk at schools, we had the experience about a month ago, my wife and I were out for a walk. My kid, he’s a sophomore now, at a school dance, and he got invited to that party that’s after the dance. It was the cool thing. My kid is a little geeky, so this is a new experience for him. We went out for a walk and he says, “Dad, I got a question.” I said, “Yeah, kiddo, what’s your question?” He said, “Some girl from that party after the dance.” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “What do I do if people are drinking alcohol there,” and inside I’m doing this little victory dance like, “Oh, I’m a great dad. My kid just asked me about drinking.” But I tried to play it cool.
But I convinced that if I had the last four years, since middle school, being on him about every single homework assignment, he never would have brought that kind of question up to me. I want to be a consultant to him. To Bill’s point, I want to be an authority, so that when he has real questions, he asks my advice. But it’s a respectful way. It’s an asking way. I’m supporting him, not my jamming it down his throat and making him feel like someone else is in charge of his life.
Brett McKay: So this means, this consultant approach to parenting, let’s take homework as an example or school as an example. This could mean if we’re trying to put the onus on the child to take control of that part of his life, this could mean that he doesn’t do his homework, or he forgets, or he doesn’t really engage in school. How do you, as a parent, maintain that unanxious presence when you see, oh, my gosh, my kid’s got a 1.5 GPA, and he’s about to get expelled for academic-
William Stixrud: Yeah.
Brett McKay: So how do you manage that part?
William Stixrud: So I wrote about this idea of the parent as a consultant for the first time 30 years ago, and as a response to in my clinical practice, seeing family after family who would say stuff like, “God, I dread dinner time, because after dinner, it’s two and a half hours of World War III trying to get my kid to do his homework,” and it just seemed like such a waste of life, and, also, that what I noticed is that if parents spent 80 units of energy trying to get the kid to do his homework, the kid spent 20, and I thought, “This isn’t helping anybody.”
So what I suggested was that you say to your kid … This is the title of the second chapter of our book, you say to your kid, “I love you too much to fight with you about your schoolwork, but I’m willing to help you any way I can. I’m willing to get a tutor if we need a tutor. I’m willing to support you a thousand percent, but I’m not willing to act like it’s my responsibility. I’m not willing to fight with you all the time. You’re the most precious thing in the universe to me. Why would I want to have all this stress and tension about your frigging homework?”
Our experience is that when you change the energy and you say, “I love you. I support you. But I’m not going to try to force with you. I’m not going to fight with you about this,” that kids, for the most part, they aren’t necessarily Johnny on the spot the next day, but before very long, they start to get the idea, and just as Ned’s kid, they start to ask their parents for help.
I have two kids who got PhDs, and neither one of them had … I never knew about their assignments unless they asked me. I always took this, “I’m willing to help. Anything I can do,” attitude, and it just works, and with families over the years that have done this, it just works.
Brett McKay: What about say … I mean one thing parents worry about is I want to help my child develop a solid work ethic. I want them to be contributing members of the household, right? What if you have kids that are just like they’re not cleaning their room, because you did that for them. What can parents do to shift that, so kids have that intrinsic motivation to help out and do things around the house?
William Stixrud: I think that as much as possible, we’re big fans of family meetings. Other people call it collaborative problem solving. In our book, we call it collaborate problem solving. Whereas because you can’t make a kid clean up his room … I mean all he’d have to do is just go spread eagle on the floor, and you can’t make him clean it up. I think making peace with that and not trying to force is helpful.
But I think that we talk about it. We talk about it and we bring it up and say, “I know that either it’s boring to you, or that it is stressful for you to clean up your room, but it’s really stressful to me when I see this level of disorganization,” and I think that as kids get older particularly, I think we want to be respectful, and as adults, we have differing levels of need for neatness and tidiness, and I think that as parents, my own daughter who lives in college, an outstanding student, her room looked like a schizophrenic’s room in high school, and I’d help her clean it up once a month, because she wanted me to help her.
But I think that fighting over that kind of thing, cleaning up your room, it is usually not very effective, although we want kids to contribute to their families, and that’s why we think that having family meetings where we talk about what chores to do you want to do? You map out here’s what needs to be done in the family. What do you want to do, and giving kids some choice about how they contribute to the family, tends to be pretty effective.
Ned Johnson: There’s an argument to be made that everyone deserves some space of his own, right? Your kids’ room is your kids’ room, and so he can’t leave his sneakers on the kitchen table, or she can’t have her art supplies strewn all over the kitchen floor, because these are common spaces, and you can have a family meeting, come to some agreement about we’re going to clean this up every night, or we’re going to clean this up once a week, or what the negotiating rules are there.
But within his own room, he probably deserves a little more latitude, in part because it’s not been my experience that harping on kids over and over will make them intrinsically want to do that. I mean I think most of your listeners, if they reflect on it, there’s a pretty darn good chance that the level of cleanliness of their rooms as teenagers was a good deal below what they’re hoping their kids would do now, and part of that is development of the prefrontal cortex. As they get more maturity, it’s just intrinsically a little bit easier to be organized and to keep things organized.
Brett McKay: As we’ve been talking about this idea of sense of control, right, a lack of sense of control, feeling helpless, causing anxiety, depression, et cetera. But if there’s too much of a good thing, I mean I can imagine if you feel like you are in control of your life, that could become unhealthy, because you think, “Okay. Anything that happens to me, I am responsible for. If I work really hard and I do all these things to get into a good college, and I don’t get into a good college,” because it might be something … Have nothing to do with you. It’s just like they ran out of space.
Ned Johnson: You’re absolutely right. I mean if there’s an illness, you don’t say, “Maybe if you’d gotten there two weeks early. There was nothing you could do about it. The cancer was coming.” If someone has a chronic illness you don’t say “It was just bad luck. You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.” We don’t blame people when bad things happen, because it’s too unkind and it’s too unkind and it’s not true.
The same thing with college admissions, and people have this idea if I do everything perfectly, then I can get into the college of my dreams, or whatever. But there’s so much uncertainty and unfairness built into the system, and so I mean obviously the work that I do on it, a lot of teenagers have this idea that college admissions is made by these gray haired wise people who have done this forever, and they’re like Job or King Solomon, and they can sit there and see everything and know exactly what the right decision to make is.
But the reality is these are human beings and many of them 25 years old, but it depends. Was your essay the third one they read, or the 223rd one that they read, and people make mistakes. People get tired. So you simply say that, “Yeah, you’re not going to get into a good school unless you show that you’re going to be a successful learner there,” but you could be a highly successful learner, and it’s just the luck of the day that you didn’t get into the first choice school. But the good news is there are a lot of great schools. You can be just as successful going to your third choice school as you can to a first choice school.
William Stixrud: I’ll add, too, that what we emphasize in the book is that it’s not … A sense of control doesn’t mean that I’m supposed to be able to control everything. What it means is that I’m not passive. I’m not resigned. I’m not just a pawn in the universe. That I can make decisions. I can direct my own life, and certainly all of this, but part of wisdom is the serenity prayer idea that I want to be able to handle the things I can control, and be able to make peace with the things I can’t, and I think that’s a huge part of what we want to help our kids develop is that wisdom about what I have control over and what I don’t.
Brett McKay: Right. And they can’t learn that without them making choices, or seeing firsthand their actions. Even though they might have control of what they do, they don’t have control over the results or the outcome oftentimes.
Ned Johnson: Yeah. It’s probably why sports are so great. I mean you win some and you lose some, and sometimes you can affect the outcome and sometimes you can’t. You’re one of many players, or the ref made a bad decision, or the ball took a screwball bounce, and that’s part of life, and we get up and we dust ourselves off, and we go out and look for the next adventure.
Brett McKay: All right. So we’ve been talking about things we can do to help our children develop their prefrontal cortex’s ability to act on their own, be autonomous, figure out what things they can control, what things they don’t have control over, but you, also, talk about other things that we need to do as well, and one was interesting, is downtime. Why is downtime so important for kids, and what should that downtime look like?
Ned Johnson: We talk about really not just downtime, but radical digital downtime, and the idea that the world is so fast paced today, and people are busy so much the while, and then oftentimes when they’re busy doing something active, we pick up our phones, our tablet, our computer and we find something to constantly engage ourselves.
It’s a real problem, in part because there’s a brain network called the default mode network, and the whole system uses a bunch parts of our brain, and it activates when we’re not actively doing anything else, and the default mode network, when it engages, it’s perspective taking. We think about ourselves and our place in the world. We think about our past. We think about our future. It helps us develop a coherent sense of ourselves as a human being. It helps develop empathy, and it’s something that’s really implicated by the work of Jean Twenge, who thinks that part of this constant increase in this, which has really spiked within the last decade, of anxiety, and depression, and narcissism is that we don’t have enough time alone with our own thoughts, just to think stuff through, and particularly as an adolescent, a huge part of adolescence is trying to figure out who am I? Who am I trying to become? What do I think about the world? My parents have told me this or told me that, and I’ve learned this from church, or from school, or whatever, but really what do I think about this?
It’s incredibly valuable work. You begin to develop a sense of you are, and we worry a lot about kids that they just don’t have enough time where they can really be bored and left alone with their own thoughts. And so we talk about the importance of building in time when you’re not doing anything, daydreaming and just space out, when you can meditate, which is different from ruminating, right? It’s not going over and over and beating yourself up, but it’s much more letting your thoughts wander.
William Stixrud: And we have a chapter called Radical Downtime, where we talk about the mind wandering and meditation, which we think are when you’re awake, two of the ways of recharging your brain associated with creativity, problem solving, with lowering stress, and, also, we have a chapter on the third kind of radical downtime, on sleep, and arguably, if kids want to perform better, we want our kids to perform better, the single most thing that we could do, the single most important thing we can do is to figure out a way to help them get more sleep.
When the people started this study, this sleep deprivation in adolescence in the mid 90s and continuing into the early 2000s, it is devastating how sleep deprived young people were, and it’s worse now, that 90% of kids who have phones are sleeping with them.
Brett McKay: So in order to encourage this, we want to encourage this radical downtime in our children, but at the same time, we want to act as consultants, right, what you call parenting, is nudge the right word kids to put away the devices? Do we set limits? Do we use that authoritative parenting style by setting limits, and then within those limits, the kids can decide what they do?
Ned Johnson: I think that’s right. I think that’s right, and a big part of this is modeling this as well. I mean parents are over-consuming technology nearly as much as teenagers are. It’s just that our brains are a little bit more hardwired than is the developing teen brain. But I think it’s good for everyone’s brain, and it’s certainly good for our relationships to have times when we’re fully, fully paying attention to the thing that we’re doing, we’re paying attention to one another, and we don’t have the distracting technology.
I mean I’ve said it with my family, “What are rules? Well, there are no digital devices at mealtimes. We don’t have it at the kitchen table.” For me, cell phones charge in the kitchen. Every single student I work with ends up, at some point, getting a version of this lecture where kids will come in. They didn’t do well on this. They did a practice test and hadn’t done well. I said, “Well, tell me what was going on.” They did at home. “Were you distracted?” “No, I wasn’t distracted.” “Well, how did you time yourself?” “Well, I was using my cell phone, but, but, but I had it turned. I wasn’t looking at it.”
There’s a study in the book where they found that three second interruptions would double people’s error rates, and that’s just the time of looking at a text, not even typing a response, just being interrupted with a ping.
And so I then go on in my lecture to the kids about why you’re going to do your homework without a cell phone around, and then I always ask, “And where does your cell phone sleep at night?” “What do you mean?” “Well, when you go to bed, where’s your cell phone?” “By my bedside table. Why do you ask?” Then I launch into the literature of how disruptive it is to sleep and it causes anxiety and depression, dah, dah, dah, and then the Hail Mary of it with teenagers is though, “But, but I use it for my alarm clock,” and then I smile and I look at them and say, “Well, that’s great, but let’s be honest. I think you use your parents for your alarm clock, and you’re telling me that your parents can pay whatever it costs, a thousand bucks now for a cell phone and a hundred bucks a month for the data usage of it, but no one can come up with 20 bucks for a proper alarm clock?”
So I’m buying a kid an alarm clock every week, just because, “Here’s your alarm clock, and I’m going to tell your parents you now have an alarm clock. What’s your favorite color, by the way, and your cell phone should charge in the kitchen.”
So the problem with these technologies is they are by design incredibly immersive, incredibly addictive, and it’s just really hard to put them down, and it’s true for teens and for adults. We think that the best way to do this is just to have rules that after nine o’clock you put your cell phone in the kitchen to charge. On Sunday mornings, nobody has a cell phone. We’re spending time together. We’re going for a walk. We’re having brunch. We’re doing whatever, and just to build in times in our week, and in our day and then our week, when we do things without any technology at all.
William Stixrud: I’ll just add that family rules work great, working democratically to set up rules in the family, and the challenge that many parents have is when kids break the rules, and I think that our experience is that especially with teenagers and technology, if teenagers are sneaking their phone into their room or they’re using their … They’re playing fortnight many more hours than we agree on, it’s healthy for them, then it’s very hard to set limits on them, oftentimes because they’re more technologically savvy than we are.
What we talk about in the book, we come back to this collaborative problem solving. We use our authority where we can in the sense of I can’t in good conscience, I’d feel like I’m a terrible parent if I’m paying for your cell phone usage, and you’re sleeping with it at night. There’s all this research that suggests even if it’s not turned on, it disrupts your sleep. If you have a piece of pottery that looks like a cell phone, it disrupts your sleep, and I can’t in good conscience pay for your phone charges. So if you want to get a part time job and pay for it, I can live with that, but I can’t do it. So if you want to keep your phone, you want me to pay for it, it charges in the kitchen.
But with adolescents, with virtually any kind of issue, we more and more take this collaborative problem solving approach, where we start with empathy about how much they love their phone or love their fortnight or social media, and, also, our concern, we can’t be good parents if we let them use it endlessly, and we negotiate, and then we renegotiate limits.
Brett McKay: You mentioned, Bill, earlier in our conversation how every kid is different. So some kids, they’re pretty resilient, just out of the womb, right. Other kids, they’re a little more sensitive, touchy I guess is an example. How should this adjust, like how we’re acting as a parent consultant? If your kid say is a little more, I don’t know, he’s high strung, is the right word.
William Stixrud: Yeah.
Brett McKay: I mean are the things you should probably be more aware of and consider when you’re working or interacting with them?
William Stixrud: Yes. I think that many kids from either genetic or prenatal reasons, as I said before, they come out of the womb where they’re just more easily stressed. They look they have a very active or reactive amygdala, and from the time they’re little … I mean we adapt to them. We have to adapt to really sensitive kids just as infants. They have trouble sleeping. We get good at figuring out what they need, what they’re telling us they need, and I think the thing that’s hardest, if kids tend to be on that anxious side, is that our urge as parents is to protect them. It is to try to make sure they don’t experience too much anxiety, and so we tend to protect them and enable them to avoid things that they’re anxious about.
And all the research on anxiety over the last several years in treating anxiety, has indicated that the best way to overcome anxiety is to face your fears, and I think this may be the hardest thing for parents of kids who are sensitive and easily stressed, and the major manifestation of anxiety is avoidance. We tend to avoid the things that make us anxious.
So part of that we talk about in our chapter in being a non-anxious presence, is that as much as we can manage our own anxiety, that really helps kids, but in part because it helps us be encouraging, allowing them to manage stressful situations themselves, not letting them avoid and just being assertive about letting them experience things that are stressful, because that’s how you become resilient. You handle a stressful situation on your own with support as necessary, but that’s how kids become resilient. That’s how they develop high stress tolerance.
Brett McKay: Yeah. That was a really important takeaway. A lot of this is just modeling, right, how you want your kids to behave, and so something I’ve done, I try to do with my kids at least, is when I’m aware of a situation that’s causing a lot of stress, I walk them through, “This is how I initially responded. That wasn’t good, so I did this.” I’m hoping that sinks in. I don’t know yet, but that’s something I’ve done.
William Stixrud: I used to do the same thing with my kids, Brett, and after a while my daughter would particularly say, “I don’t want to hear that psychological crap anymore.” But the next week, I’d overhear her talking with a friend on the phone and telling the friend exactly what she heard me model. I think it’s so important, it helps kids so much by thinking out loud in terms of coming up with a plan. You’re talking about when we handle stressful situations, if we’re good at putting things in positive perspective, same things, and not letting things overwhelm us, let’s teach kids how we do it, and one of the best ways to do it is simply think out loud.
Brett McKay: Right. Ned, did you have something you wanted to add to that?
Ned Johnson: Yeah. I was going to say I have a daughter who is one of these kids . . . she has a more sensitive disposition. She’s anxious, and you see that with her rigidity, and to Bill’s point, with effective therapy, particularly with CBT, we try to help kids face things that are challenging to them or stressful to them, but do it in a measured dose, and the challenges I think with a lot of kids is it’s either all or nothing, and as parents you want to throw kids in the deep end of the pool and say, “You just got to face it.”
But if we are less anxious ourselves, we can negotiate and help them figure out a way to face this and really problem solve or be sort of entrepreneurial about it. But it’s not all or nothing. What’s that middle ground?
My daughter just got a dog, and the first couple days were pretty rocky, and she’s like, “I can’t have this dog. I don’t want to do it. I just want to give her back,” and, oh, my goodness. What it turned out is that there were some specific things there that made her really concerned. She didn’t want to have to get up at 6:30 in the morning to walk the dog. Mom and dad were up anyway. Could they just let the dog out for five minutes to pee, and then she would take it on a longer walk 45 minutes later. Well, that’s a perfectly reasonable thing. I wasn’t prepared to take the dog for a 45 minute walk, but to let the dog out for two minutes, sure.
And so when kids are fearful, Jane can be very rigid and very defensive, “No, no, no. I simply won’t do it,” and oftentimes it’s not the whole thing that they’re afraid of. It’s a piece of it that they don’t have a solution to, and by talking it through with them, we can get to the root of what’s the real thing that they can’t find a solution to, and we can help them find it, and then they can face that, develop some resilience by getting through with some support and a little bit of discomfort, something that otherwise would be overwhelming.
Brett McKay: Well, Bill and Ned, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
William Stixrud: It’s the SelfDrivenChild.com.
Brett McKay: SelfDrivenChild.com. That’s easy. I love it.
William Stixrud: We wrote the book.
Brett McKay: Yeah. That’s fantastic. Yeah. Most people don’t have a … I love how it’s just so easy about that. Well, Bill, Ned, thank you so much for your time. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
William Stixrud: Our pleasure completely.
Ned Johnson: Thanks so much.
Brett McKay: My guests today were William Stixrud and Ned Johnson. They’re the authors of the book, The Self-Driven Child. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can, also, find out more information about the book at TheSelfDrivenChild.com. Also, check out our show notes at AOM.IS/SelfDrivenChild, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at ArtofManliness.com, and if you enjoyed the podcast and you’ve gotten something out of it, I’d appreciate if you can take a minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot, and if you’ve done that already, thank you so much. Please share the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it.
As always, thank you for your continued support, and until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.