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Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives


I saw a segment on The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives by William Stixrud, Ph.D. and Ned Johnson a couple of months ago when it came out. I was thrilled to then get approved for a review copy, and I'm purchasing a paperback to take notes in. I love it when my work and my child-rearing intersect. 

We live in a world that is very different from that in which our parents were raised, and you can see it every day in every way. I sure do. I often explain to people that my parenting style is laissez faire so that no one will be surprised when I don't follow my toddler around like a helicopter. In general I receive praise, then I watch the person who just praised me worry over my child as the helicopter parent that I work hard to avoid being. It's absolutely fascinating to me that the same people who will start their sentences with, "When I was coming up/raising kids, we didn't [insert whichever obnoxious phrase one wants to utter here]," are the very same ones who will start pointing fingers and screaming, "BUT WHERE ARE THE PARENTS" and "IT ALL BEGINS AT HOME."

I should take a moment and describe what I mean by laissez faire parenting before you think I let my kid juggle knives. We are with our son constantly, and if we aren't, we have a babysitter or grandparent with him. He is, after, all, almost a year old and not quite able to turn on the stove yet to make himself dinner. He still needs supervision. But I don't say no very often -- unless it's dangerous, which electrical outlets are, and I made him cry the other day by yelling at him -- because when I say no, it's dangerous, I want him to understand that I'm being serious. I let him explore and yes, I even let him tumble, never in a serious way, but so that he will learn his own limits without me imposing them on him. He gets to make choices about what he does most of the day, and as long as it isn't going to kill him, I let my controlling nature take a backseat. This is because I want my child to be self-driven. (See where this is going now?)

So reading this book wasn't exactly eye-opening for me -- after all, I teach child development and am intimately familiar with the research on developmental psychology -- but it was confirmatory in that I have made the right decisions both in my teaching and in my parenting. One of my best friends said to me as a warning that it's very hard to let your children become who they are without controlling them. I knew then, and I stand by it now, that it's not as hard for me as it is for most people. It may be if you want them to turn out a specific way, instead of who they are meant to be. (On this note, I also highly recommend Alison Gopnik's The Gardner and the Carpenter.)

It is mind-blowing to me that parents have such a difficult time allowing their children to just be, but it is also so easy to understand. The desire for control is a part of us, whether it's hard-wired or socialized. This trickles (or maybe flows like rapids) into parenting, much swifter than even the best parent would like. I have seen it in my friends, my partner, myself. I just happen to be much better at taking a backseat with my son than most people I know, and I'm thankful for my training and my work to teach me how to do this.

I want every single one of my friends with kids to read this. I want every single one of my teacher education students to read this. I want everyone in the world to read this, because these men tell you how to get results. This is backed up with research, and it's backed up by experience. I am so thankful that my parents raised me to be self-driven, as much as my mother would have loved to control so much about me. I was never paid (or otherwise reinforced) for my grades, and at first I was jealous that my friends received cash for A's and I didn't. Then again, I never had much of a desire to make A's. I was a solid B student with an occasional A and a more-than-occasional C. My parents never cared, or at least they never told me they did. My mom would ask, "Are you proud of these grades?" If my response was affirmative, she was fine with it. If my response was negative, she told me to fix it then, because they were my grades and I was the only one responsible for them.

Wow. Radical, huh?

But it worked. I realized very young that the power of learning is so much stronger than the power of numbers. I didn't go to an Ivy League school, and thank goodness for that. I am a product of the public education system, including college and two Master's degree (and one day I will finish my damned PhD), and I'm damned good at my job. I love what I do, and it turns out I'm happy. Happier than someone with an Ivy League diploma and $200k in student loans? Who am I to say?

I see how this manifests itself in my teaching. As the years go on and I find that I am "blamed" for students not doing well, I have emphasized in my classes that I don't give grades, you earn them. It's a radical notion that many young people still have a hard time understanding, but it's true. I have also had to add a syllabus clause stating that "OK does not mean A," and I go on to say that if you request to leave my class early, come late, or miss the whole class, I will always say, "OK," because you are an adult who can make the decision for yourself. You are not a hostage in my classroom. However, choices have consequences and you must abide by those. Have you heard the phrase, "For every syllabus clause there is an awkward story behind it"? Yeah. It's true. Most of these are because we have to remind young people that they are self-driven, and we are not their keepers.

This past semester, I had a student I will call Jenny, who has a four-year-old son. She was telling me about the fights she would have with him over homework, so I asked her what homework was doing for him. She spouted off what we all believe -- that we need to learn to do our assignments so we can succeed in school. I asked her, "What if I told you that the research shows no correlation between homework and academic success?" She was shocked. I asked her what the penalty would be if her son didn't do homework. She looked dumbfounded when she said probably nothing, because it's preschool. No one had ever told her that before. I explained that she needed to tell her son, "I love you too much to fight with you about your homework." It's a phrase I've been using for a while that figures prominently in this book. I explained that even at 4 years old, her son could make choices and then deal with the consequences. The following week she came to class and I asked her how the week went. She lit up and said, "Oh my god, it was AMAZING." She explained that she took my advice on Monday night, and her son went to bed without doing his homework. The next morning he woke up and insisted on doing it to make his teacher happy, and they hadn't fought another day that week.

The point of this book is to help you help your children become self-driven. They are more than a number, and they are more than their accomplishments. They are people who are being driven into stress levels that are unprecedented in teens. Teach them to take care of themselves, and work with them to set limits. Whether it's homework, technology, extracurricular activities, or college prep -- all of which are covered in this book -- CTFO. Chill the &%#$ out. Success isn't a high GPA or a certain seal on a diploma. It's being a person who feels confident, competent, and autonomous. I love how strongly Ryan & Deci's self-determination theory figured into this book. It's my jam, and now definitely my favorite book. 

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