In the book "Self-driven Child," the authors outline the case for giving students more choice and control over their lives. According to the authors (and 30ish years of research), the way kids are currently "managed" by the most well-intentioned, loving, and attentive adults in their lives might have some unintentional repercussions that might surprise you. Sounds crazy, we know. Hear us out.
Recent research shows that not allowing young people to make important, meaningful choices about their lives might be limiting the development of their prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain that sets goals, manages behavior, delays gratification, etc) as well as contributing to increased levels of anxiety and depression in our youth population. The authors walk us through the evidence for this assertion and how we might shift our intentions a bit from making sure our kids jump through the right hoops and check the right boxes, to helping them become well-informed individuals who are able to govern themselves, manage stress, and progress academically for a purpose.
We’ve chosen to highlight this book first because, more than any other book we have come across, it is the most comprehensive summary of the work we are doing at Prenda. The ideas and methods outlined in this book are a light and a path for anyone who wants to be a positive, inspiring influence in the life of young humans regardless of where or how you interact with them--parent, educator, administrator, coach, or community leader--this book’s a game changer.
In this post, we’ll outline a few key takeaways, point out all the things you are doing wrong, and attempt to convince you to start doing everything our way. Actually. You know what? Considering the fact that you are a self-driven adult and come with a will that does not like to be convinced, pressured, shamed, corrected, or forced, that approach probably won’t work.
So instead, let’s just take a meandering tour through some interesting ideas and you can decide what to do with them. Or in the words of today’s authors, Bill Stixrud and Ned Jonhson, “It’s your call, you’ve got this.”
We all want more or less the same things for kids growing up around us. We want them to be successful, prosperous, happy, and to be doing something meaningful. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, society has picked up some false assumptions about the pathway to success and a meaningful, fulfilling life. After tutoring and supporting thousands of students over several decades, Bill and Ned have identified what they call the “four false assumptions.”
These are beliefs that we as parents and adults, in general, tend to believe about the pathway to a successful life that drives our thinking about what’s best for our kids.
Taken together, these four false assumptions outline the thinking behind much of how we approach education and our children in general. Essentially, we are parenting (and teaching and leading) out of fear. This fear is why we overschedule our kids as parents, pile on the homework as teachers, and build education systems that push kids to be constantly competing as administrators and legislators.
But, as Bill and Ned point out, these things don’t necessarily lead to a successful life. In fact, more often than not, they lead to poor mental health, disengagement, a distaste for learning, lack of motivation, burnout, and a general sense of hopelessness from kids (for evidence of this talk to any teenager you know).
The statistics show that we clearly have a youth mental health crisis on our hands as 1 in 5 K-12 students have been diagnosed with anxiety and 1 in 4 K-12 students with depression. Suicide rates have never been higher and 1 in 5 kids report being bullied. Something about the world we have built for young humans to grow up in is broken. These statistics should be much scarier than an ivy league college rejection letter, a less-than-perfect GPA, or a subpar SAT score.
But for some reason, we haven’t yet heard what the young humans are trying desperately to tell us. We have accidentally created a combination of cultures, environments, and relationships that are at best making young humans stressed, worried, and sad and at worst, literally killing them.
The good news is that there are a few things we could change about the way we interact with young humans that would actually improve their mental health and support them on their path toward a successful adult life for real. Double great news…it's very simple and doesn’t cost anything! It’s just a little more control.
Ned and Bill share an interesting bit of research about rats to illustrate this point:
“...when a rat is given a wheel to turn that will stop it from receiving an electric shock, it happily turns the wheel and isn’t very stressed. If the wheel is taken away, the rat experiences massive stress. If the wheel is then returned to the cage, the rat’s stress levels are much lower, even if the wheel isn’t actually attached to the shocking apparatus. In humans, too, being able to push a button to reduce the likelihood of hearing a noxious sound will reduce their stress levels… It turns out that it's the sense of control that matters, even more so than what you actually do. If you have confidence that you can impact a situation, it will be less stressful. In contrast, a low sense of control may very well be the most stressful thing in the universe. “ (p 9)
Giving kids more control over meaningful life decisions is perhaps the single most powerful way we can lower stress levels and increase the mental health and wellbeing of our kids. That’s great, you might say, but what if they make bad choices? What if they choose to not do their homework or only take one AP class or what if they don’t want to apply to your alma mater? It just seems too risky, right? And what about kids who are already underperforming? The last thing we’d want to do would be to lessen the pressure they feel to step up their game, right?
Well, actually according to 30 years of research--wrong. Numerous studies in the fields of education, neuroscience, and psychology show that making decisions on behalf of our kids is actually detrimental to them in the long run, even if the decision you made was a “good” one (from your perspective).
Learning to trust young humans with big decisions is scary and seemingly counterintuitive. Don’t worry. Nobody is asking you to let your 4-year-old play with knives. What we (and Bill and Ned) are suggesting is that we try to increase the number of control kids has over meaningful decisions as soon as it is safe and reasonable. Why? Well, besides the fact that it is good for mental health as we have already outlined, there is a deeper reason.
As it turns out, you can’t really control another human, at least not for long. Young humans are tiny, less knowledgeable, afraid, dependent, and pretty gullible. It’s not difficult to accidentally (or purposefully) extort these weaknesses in our interactions with them. This sounds terrible when you say it like that, but in real life, it sounds like:
The fact that we have to resort to these kinds of micro-manipulations is evidence of our inability to control others. The best we can do is try to make young humans “want” to comply. We do this by making compliance enjoyable and non-compliance less enjoyable. As adults, we control food, access to desired items, money, transportation, entertainment, etc. So if kids want any of these things they need to stay in line to get them (PSA: they know this and they don’t like it).
These methods work for a while, but eventually, tiny humans become bigger humans that can access these things themselves. If, when they arrive at this point in their development, you have only relied on force and control, kids will not have developed the skills to manage choice well and what’s more… you will have lost a lot of influence with them along the way.
So how is it done? How can we maintain influence with the young humans in our lives and help them develop the ability to manage choice all while keeping them safe and ourselves (at least somewhat) sane?
There’s no way we can go into enough depth here to really get these ideas across (you’ll have to read the book!) but here are the highlights…
In 1985ish, researchers Edward Deci and Richard Ryan developed their “Self-Determination Theory” which is now one of the best-supported theories in psychology to date. In this theory, Deci and Ryan outline 3 basic things humans need. Bill and Ned describe these elements as a three-legged stool. They are
Competence is the idea that you can be good at something--that you can be the answer to the problems around you. It is tied to having a growth mindset, an internal locus of control, demonstrating mastery, and being able to figure things out on your own.
Autonomy is the idea that you can make meaningful choices about your life. It doesn’t mean you have to make these choices alone or without consultation from more knowledgeable others or that you have to have complete control over every choice, but rather that you have a general sense of power over your own person and your decisions.
Relatedness is the idea that you are connected to a community of others that care about you and that their care for you is at least somewhat unconditional. When kids feel accepted and loved regardless of their performance, true psychological safety can be reached and we see a wide range of positive benefits including increased motivation, work ethic, and internalization of the values of caring adults.
“If you believe in education and hard work, and want your children to as well, we don’t recommend scolding them each time they come home with a subpar grade. Though you may think it's the best way to communicate values, it’s actually counterproductive because it signals conditional love. Chances are that they are already irked by the grade, so offer a sympathetic, ‘I know this is upsetting to you. I know you worked hard on that. I’d be happy to talk through things to help you for next time if you want.’ Note that this response is sympathetic (relatedness). You’re also reminding your child that there are ways to get a better outcome next time (competence). And by ending it with “if you want,” they see they are in control, that you are a consultant, not a manager (autonomy). (111)
When we build environments, cultures, and relationships that foster these 3 things we set ourselves and the young humans around us up for success. We can do this by thinking of ourselves as “consultants” more than managers. It’s helpful to think about your child or student as the CEO of their life and that you are a consultant with the goal of helping them become successful. Consultants suggest, model, question, share personal experiences, help weigh out options, explore possibilities, and help with accountability.
They don’t decide, scold, withhold, or scare. This framing might seem silly when you think about your 4-year-old and her tantrums or your 10-year-old and their messy room, or all the risky stupid stuff your 17-year-old does, but eventually, these folks grow up into something that feels more like a peer-to-peer relationship and however you treated them as a young human will invariably bleed over into your long term relationship.
Another thing to keep in mind is that “kids need responsibility more than they deserve it” (p. 36). This means that trusting them and treating them as if they are already a capable CEO and you, their trusted consultant, will help them live into that reality. When trust is extended and kids feel the weight of responsibility put on them, their behavior actually improves. This is because the part of the brain that manages goals, computes cost-benefit analysis, judges cause and effect and all sorts of other wonderful things develop through use (59), The brain that is always thinking, “oh, my mom will remind me” never builds the ability to remember and manage tasks because it doesn’t have to.
So the moral of Bill and Ned’s story is that giving kids more control over their lives is associated with just about every positive outcome you could ever imagine for the young humans in your life. We couldn’t agree more and we are so grateful to Bill and Ned for teaching us these truths and showing us the way forward.
This all might sound so paradigm-shifting and counterintuitive that you are ready to close this tab and head back to Twitter, and that’s OK, but if you want to go deeper into these ideas, we highly recommend reading this book in its entirety! We also recommend the sequel, “What Do You Say?” which outlines more practical “how to” applications and examples of these ideas!
Listen to our podcast on this book HERE
Thanks for reading!