Deborah Offner Ph.D.

Progress Report

Prudent, Practical Advice for Parents of Teenagers

A new book offers wise counsel about how to be a better parent, right now.

Posted Nov 29, 2018

The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives. (2018) Stixrud, William & Johnson, Ned. Viking. New York.

One of this year’s most useful parenting books is co-written by a clinical neuropsychologist and a test prep guru. Each discovered in the course of his work with students that kids feel and perform much better when they have a sense of control over their lives.

Neuroscience, yes, rocket science, no—but perhaps still news to those of us who are inclined to micromanage/helicopter parent our middle and high schoolers.

One convenient piece is that Stixrud and Johnson seem to have already met many of our kids!  

In their chapter entitled, “Inner Drive,” the authors describe “common motivation problems and how to approach them.” They describe four types of students with motivation issues.

The Saboteur, so “unmotivated” he seems “like he’s deliberately sabotaging himself.”

The Enthusiast, motivated as all get out—“just not about school.”

The Eeyore, who can’t seem to figure out what he wants, let alone how to go about getting it.

The Hermione Granger, an overachiever, holding herself to such high standards she is stressed beyond belief—and beyond utility.

Following these characterizations, the authors offer practical advice about how parents can support kids of each “type” most effectively.

Using research findings in neuroscience and developmental psychology, along with real-life clinical examples of students and families they’ve guided, the authors illustrate why and how parents should allow their children to pioneer their own decisions, test their own strategies, and—this is the tricky part—experience their own mistakes. In Stixrud’s and Johnson’s view, failure presents some of the most valuable (and arguably necessary) learning opportunities for adolescents. What’s important is not preventing failure or molding our children, but supporting them as they learn how to cope with inevitable disappointment and failure, developing lifelong problem-solving skills as a result.

Drawing on wisdom gleaned from decades of parenting research, the authors advocate for a parenting style well known among psychologists to create the most positive outcomes for children. “Authoritative” (as contrasted with “authoritarian” or “permissive”) parenting involves high expectations, along with high level of responsiveness to a child’s emotional needs. (The other two involve high expectations/low responsiveness, and low expectations/low responsiveness, respectively.)  So, their approach is not a “free range” or “laissez-faire” one; rather they counsel we support our kids and hold them accountable, but stop trying to control them —or their choices.

The book is geared primarily, though not exclusively, toward more privileged families—those that can afford private neuropsychological testing and targeted test prep. Nothing wrong with this, as said students are, by both anecdotal and empirical accounts, extremely stressed. Among this book’s key strengths are its solid organization, “readability” and practicality—perhaps attributable to Dr. Stixrud’s sophisticated understanding of how our brains learn best. One of my favorite features is the section at the end of each chapter called, “What to do tonight.” Finally, the book concludes with a chapter that helps you assess whether your high school senior is actually ready for college, and another that broadens and softens the landscape with ideas about productive, fulfilling “alternative paths” for students that may not be best served by attending college right away, or at all.

A final note is that both Stixrud and Johnson are transcendental meditators who plug meditation and mindfulness throughout their book; they even cite recent research on the benefits of the app, Headspace, for disadvantaged inner city students. I happen to agree that meditation, and apps like Headspace, Buddhify and Simple Habit offer tremendous benefit to anxious adolescents (and their parents, now that I think of it). But even if you aren’t a meditation fan, there’s plenty of thoughtful, well-substantiated parenting advice here that can help you do right by your teenager. It’s worth your time to read this book, as it may well save you time—and heartache—going forward.