A lack of control is one of the most stressful things an individual can experience, yet we are raising (with well-meaning intentions) a generation denied the opportunity and experience to exert their own control and autonomy. In a world of helicopter parenting, tiger moms, and an increasing pressure to ensure children overperform to earn acceptance into top universities, we are finding that kids aren’t benefiting from more attention but instead becoming less happy, less healthy, and less adept at tackling the real world once they reach adulthood.
"We know that a low sense of control is highly associated with anxiety, depression, and virtually all mental health problems," notes William Stixrud co-author of The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives with Ned Johnson. In a recent article in Scientific American, the two authors present their arguments for empowering children with more freedom of choice and decision making and suggest healthy strategies for raising a self-driven child.
"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," observes Stixrud. "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."
Even the most well-meaning parents and schools are contributing to taking away opportunities children need to grow strong into strong, confident individuals. The authors note how cultural differences in more recent years have contributed to young individuals' sense of loss in control. They see that children today feel overwhelmed by the demands placed on them, are tired all the time, and express not having enough downtime. Longer school hours, more scheduled activities, and certainly more screen time all contribute to this diminishing of sense of autonomy.
Stixrud and Johnson present three suggestions for how to raise a self-driven child.
Encourage personal pastimes. “Give your kid every opportunity to stretch himself through music, sports, coding, after school jobs, hiking, martial arts, whatever inspires his passion,” says Johnson. “That sense of mastery and autonomy in an activity he loves can cascade into other facets of his life.
Allow time for sleep, rest, and unplugging. Johnson insists that above all, promote rest. “Encourage sleep, meditation if they’re interested, and downtime,” he suggests. “Many of the students I see complain that the moment they have a free hour, their parent rushes in to fill it.” He reminds that rest isn’t laziness but instead allows mind-wandering (often confused with boredom), which activates neural circuits.
Enjoy your kids. “Lastly, make it your highest priority to simply enjoy your kids. As they are. Right now. Flaws and all,” advises Johnson. “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.”