The Self-Driven Child by William Stixrud and Ned Johnson

The Big Idea: A parent’s ultimate job is to raise a strong, confident, and responsible adult by giving the child 1) space to make (and learn from) mistakes, 2) space to explores their interests, and 3) the right balance between guidance and freedom.

INTRODUCTION: Why a Sense of Control Is Such a Big Deal

We really can’t control our kids — and doing so shouldn’t be our goal. Our role is to teach them to think and act independently, so that they will have the judgment to succeed in school and, most important, in life.

We hope to convince you that you should think of yourself as a consultant to your kids rather than their boss or manager.

We will try to persuade you of the wisdom of saying “It’s your call” as often as possible.

We’ll offer ideas to help you help your kids find their own internal motivation.

We’ll coach you in navigating an educational system that is often at odds with giving kids autonomy.

CHAPTER ONE: The Most Stressful Thing in the Universe

Chronic stress wreaks havoc on the brain.

So what does a sense of control have to do with all of this? The answer is: everything. Quite simply, it is the antidote to stress.

Agency may be the one most important factor in human happiness and well-being. We all like to feel that we are in charge of our own destiny.

It’s also why the surest way to get a picky five-year-old to eat his vegetables is to divide the plate in half and let him choose which half to eat.

Over the last sixty years, study after study has found that a healthy sense of control goes hand in hand with virtually all the positive outcomes we want for our children.

In fact, when kids are constantly shielded from circumstances that make them anxious, it tends to make their anxiety worse. We want them to learn how to deal successfully with stressful situations — to have a high stress tolerance. That’s how they develop resilience.

Positive stress motivates children (and adults) to grow, take risks, and perform at a high level.

Tolerable stress, which occurs for relatively brief periods, can also build resilience.

Toxic stress is defined as frequent or prolonged activation of the stress system in the absence of support.

Four major brain systems are involved in developing and maintaining a healthy sense of control: 1. the executive control system, 2. the stress response system, 3. the motivation system, and 4. the resting state system.

  1. The Pilot (The Executive Control System)
  2. The Lion Fighter (The Stress Response System)

A healthy stress response is defined by a very quick spike in stress hormones followed by a quick recovery.

That can be a problem, in part, because chronically elevated levels of cortisol will impair and eventually kill cells in the hippocampus, the place where memories are created and stored. This is why students have trouble learning when they are under acute stress.

Stress disorganizes the brain. It reduces brain wave coherence, the desire to explore new ideas and to solve problems creatively.

  1. The Cheerleader (The Motivational System)
  2. The Buddha (The Resting State)

The main thing to remember for now is that chronically stressed kids routinely have their brains flooded with hormones that dull higher brain functions and stunt their emotional responses.

The times when our brains seem to be the most sensitive to stress are : 1) prenatally (highly stressed pregnant women tend to have children who are more responsive to stress), 2) in early childhood, when neural circuits are particularly malleable, and 3) during adolescence, that powerful but vulnerable period between childhood and adulthood.

In fact, it is through working with kids like Jared that Bill concluded that being too tired and too stressed for too long is a formula for anxiety and depression.

We get into dangerous territory when we take all that on ourselves and believe we can control the uncontrollable.

A major goal of this book is to help parents help their kids increase their stress tolerance — their ability to perform well in stressful situations — and to “ throw off ” stress rather than accumulate it.

CHAPTER TWO: “I Love You Too Much to Fight with You About Your Homework”, The Parent as Consultant

In this chapter, we’re going to explain why trying to control your child will not give you the results you want, and why it risks creating kids who must then constantly be pushed because their own internal motivation has either not developed or has been eroded by external pressure. We’re also going to ask you to consider a different philosophy than that of parent as enforcer: that of parent as consultant.

When parents come to us concerned about a lack of motivation, difficulty with peers, or poor academic performance, we begin by asking them a simple question: “Whose problem is it?”

Remember that your job is not to solve your children’s problems but to help them learn to run their own lives.

Parents commonly feel responsible for policing homework without thinking about the underlying goal: to raise curious, self-directed learners.

Second, when parents work harder than their kids to solve their problems, their kids get weaker, not stronger.

Third, and this is perhaps the most critical point, you can’t force a kid to do something he’s dead set against.

But virtually all child development experts, including influential psychologists and authors like Madeline Levine and Laurence Steinberg, have advocated a third option: authoritative parenting. This entails being supportive, but not controlling.

At least sixty years of research has validated the fact that authoritative parenting is the most effective approach. 2 It emphasizes self-direction and values maturity over obedience.

The brain develops according to how it’s used. By giving your child the opportunity to make decisions for herself while still young, you will help her brain build the circuits that are necessary for resilience in the face of stress.

Anything worth doing well is worth doing badly first.

You shouldn’t be absent during this process; you should be standing behind them, offering support and guidance the whole time.

Teachers can teach, coaches can coach, guidance counselors can outline graduation requirements, but there’s one thing only parents can do: love their kids unconditionally and provide them with a safe base at home.

When home is a safe base, kids and teens feel freer to explore the possibilities away from home in healthy ways. They’ll return periodically, checking back in for reassurance and security.

“I love you too much to fight with you about your homework.”

You should set limits, and you should be involved in problem solving, both of which we cover in the next chapter. Kids feel safer and will be more self motivated when they know that adults will take care of the things they’re not yet ready to take care of themselves.

In no way do we think you should shrug your shoulders and say, “Sink or swim, buddy.” Offer a life raft every step of the way, in the form of your counsel.

Because it’s impossible to make a truly resistant kid practice, and because chronically fighting about anything is not healthy for families, we recommend taking the same approach that we recommend for homework: consult, but don’t force.

But trying to force a kid to play a sport is painful for everyone.

We encourage parents to teach their children that movement is crucial for good health, and we want parents to help kids find ways of moving that they really enjoy. We suggest parents say something like, “In our family, everybody does something active. Let’s try different things and find out what works for you.”

We also recommend swimming, rock climbing, horseback riding, and martial arts — all things that kids can get better and better at through practice, and where most of the competition is with one’s own previous personal best.

Be clear with the school that you’re willing to help, but that you’re reminding your child it’s her responsibility.

You can work overtime, but only as a reward to your child for good effort. If she’s worked hard the whole time you’ve allotted, but the material is particularly challenging, by all means, help her until she’s done.

Your consulting hours are clear, and she can either take advantage of them or not. That said, if she procrastinates only occasionally, you should feel free to make exceptions and help her out.

Remember, while teachers can teach and coaches can coach (and cut your kid from the team), only you can be the safe base.

We think that developing a clear sense of who’s responsible for what is more important than always doing well. That is the key to raising a self-driven child.

We recognize that there comes a point when a child no longer needs help getting dressed or putting on her shoes, and we also need to recognize the point when that child no longer needs our help managing her homework.

“Would it be okay if your child turned out like you?” If the answer is no, Bill knows his real work is to help that parent be more accepting of himself or herself.

Kids won’t reach their potential by constantly being driven. In fact, the opposite is true; they will do what is necessary to get you off their back, but they won’t do more. People go the extra mile when it matters to them, not when it matters to you.

But we would all do well to remember the big picture: that we want our kids to be thoughtful learners, and want them to be self-disciplined, not well disciplined.

CHAPTER THREE: “It’s Your Call”, Kids as Decision Makers

Adopt the following three precepts when it comes to your kids: “You are the expert on you.” “You have a brain in your head.” “You want your life to work.”

“It’s your call. I have confidence in your ability to make informed decisions about your own life and to learn from your mistakes.”

“It’s your call” does not mean kids get to call all the shots.

“It’s your call” does not conflict with limit setting, which will always be an essential part of parenting.

“It’s your call” isn’t about giving kids unlimited choices.

“It’s your call” isn’t about manipulation, or sneakily getting kids to think a decision is theirs.

There are a number of situations in which a child can’t be trusted to make a good decision.

If a child is seriously depressed or suicidal, all bets are off.

Likewise, if a kid is dependent on alcohol or drugs or engaging in self-harm, he or she cannot adequately weigh the pros and cons and come to a good decision.

Remember that magic line: “I have confidence in your ability to make informed decisions about your own life and to learn from your mistakes.”

Giving kids a sense of control is the only way to teach them competency.

“Wisdom comes from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions.”

You don’t always know what’s best.

Research has found that by the time kids are fourteen or fifteen, they generally have adult-level ability to make rational decisions.

“I trust you to make a good decision, and this will ultimately be your call, but I want to be sure you make the best decision possible, so I’d like to help you think through the pros and cons of either option. I also want you to talk to people who have more experience and to get their feedback. Finally, I think it’s important that we talk together about a possible Plan B if your decision doesn’t go the way you want.”

When engaging in collaborative problem solving with teenagers, know that they have this bias and put a special focus on helping them to really think through the possible downsides.

Tell her you will always be willing to pick her up from a party or to send her home in a cab or an Uber if she feels pressured to do things she doesn’t want to do, but avoid giving her the message that she can’t be trusted.

Letting them get stuck every once in a while, while you’re available to help them get out of the ditch, can actually help them grow.

“If I let you sit around and not do anything all summer, I’ll feel like I’m a terrible parent. That’s not what good parents do. So I want you to decide. I want you to have at least one extracurricular activity. Let’s brainstorm about what that might be.”

If children will not consider the relevant information, we don’t support letting them make the decision.

To improve your legitimacy, you have to show your child that he is being heard. So give him credit for making good arguments, by sometimes changing your position so that he knows that a well-thought-out argument is in fact a worthwhile pursuit.

CHAPTER FOUR: The Nonanxious Presence

Parental anxiety isn’t new. Parents have worried about their kids ever since having kids was a thing, but we believe it’s worse now than before.

Most Americans are living in the safest place at the safest time in human history, but it doesn’t feel that way.

Our anxiety is seeping into our kids.

Children don’t need perfect parents, but they do benefit greatly from parents who can serve as a nonanxious presence.

Bad news first: anxiety tends to run in families.

There are dandelion children (resilient) and there are orchid children (sensitive but beautiful).

One of the ways we pass on anxiety to our kids is through something called epigenetics.

When parents worry about their kids, it undermines the kids’ confidence.

Calm is contagious.

When we’re calm, we can let kids experience discomfort and learn to manage it themselves.

To be — and not just fake being — a nonanxious presence, you have to get a handle on your stress.

Make enjoying your kids your top parenting priority.

Your kid needs to feel the joy of seeing your face light up when you see him because you are genuinely happy to spend time with him.

“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I couldn’t stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

We worry about our kids, and they worry about us. So slow down. Exercise. Get enough sleep.

Make peace with your worst fears.

Your responsibility is to love and support your child. It isn’t your responsibility to protect him from pain.

We are trying to make everything safe and sanitized, but it’s a fool’s errand.

If you want to keep your children as safe as possible, the best thing to do is to give them experience and teach them judgment.

Your kids need practice managing and taking nonlethal risks. After all, life isn’t exactly risk free — we take risks in love, in work, in finance all the time.

It is what it is.

Acceptance is a powerful stance. For one thing, accepting your children the way they are conveys respect.

Consider that for all we know, our kids may well be exactly who and where they are supposed to be right now.

Spend private time with your child, ideally without electronics.

If you’re highly anxious, do something about it. Treating anxiety is one of the best things you can do for yourself and your family.

Avoid making decisions for your child based on fear.

It cannot be your responsibility to see that everything goes well for your children at all times.

Model self-acceptance and tell your kids what you’re doing.

CHAPTER FIVE: Inner Drive, How to Help Your Kids Develop Motivation

Our aim is to focus on the self-motivation necessary for the long game — the inner drive that we want our kids to have so that they commit to something and persevere, develop their potential, and take steps toward living the lives they want to live.

Research over the last four decades has repeatedly demonstrated that incentives like sticker charts, consequences, and other forms of parental monitoring that are “ laid on ” children actually undermine this type of motivation.

Our aim is to largely take away the carrots and sticks and to offer you instead a deeper understanding of the brain.

Motivation = autonomy + competence + relatedness.

Carol Dweck argues a growth mindset offers students a sense of control.

Promoting a growth mindset is one of the best ways to improve your child’s sense of control, to foster their emotional development, and to support their academic achievement.

In Dweck’s words, “a focus on inner effort can help resolve helplessness and engender success.” A growth mindset is the MVP of the self-motivated child.

Self-determination theory (SDT), which holds that humans have three basic needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

When something really cool happens, and especially when you’re anticipating something really cool happening, you have a surge of dopamine.

So how do you help a child develop a healthy dopamine system? The answer is surprisingly simple: encourage them to work hard at what they love.

When kids work hard at something they love and find challenging, they enter a state of what’s come to be called “flow.”

Researcher Reed Larson has studied the development of motivation in children and teens, and he’s found flow to be the secret sauce.

The best way to motivate him for the things you think he should focus on is to let him spend time on the things he wants to focus on.

Girls tend to like to be on top of things and to feel stressed when they fall behind or have too many things on their to-do list.

Finally, it can be helpful to remember that what motivates one child will not necessarily motivate another.

When parents pay attention to these differences, they can help their kids understand what motivates them — and what’s truly important to them.

If a child can visualize himself accomplishing a goal he has chosen for himself, it tricks the brain into thinking he’s done it.

Writing down our goals reminds us to play the long game.

Frequent exercise.

Social support.

A healthy, high-protein diet and enough rest.

Circuit training. Saboteurs often do well when they work intensely for short periods marked by a timer and then take a prescribed break.

“Working hard to get better and better at something that’s important to you is one of the best things you can do for your brain.”

“The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything” emphasizes the importance of looking for that intersection of passion and skill.

Remember, if a kid isn’t motivated by school, he’s not motivated by school, and you can’t make him want to do better.

But the most important thing you can do is express confidence that they will find something they love to do.

It may be helpful to know that Eeyores commonly lack flexibility and confidence in their ability to adapt to new situations, which can lead to anxiety about trying new things.

Remember that some people have fewer interests and smaller friendship groups throughout their lives, and are perfectly happy.

Physical activity can be motivating to all kinds of kids.

Read “How to Raise an Adult.”

Even if you are proud of your child, she may come to believe that she is loved because of her accomplishments.

University found that the type of college students attended (e.g., public versus private; highly selective versus less selective) made very little difference to their workplace engagement and well-being.

So, being a standout at a lesser-known school is often better in the long run than getting lost in the crowd at a more competitive school.

While it can be frightening to fail at something, a poor grade does not translate to a permanently closed door.

When she saw that the worst-case scenario actually didn’t destroy her or close off her future, she was more empowered to take risks and more capable of living her life without feeling that a monster was chasing her around every turn. And that, ultimately, made her more successful.

Help her set goals that are values based, because when we set goals we’re in control of, our minds are happy.

Support autonomy, support autonomy, support autonomy.

Explore where your child’s true inner motivation lies. You can do this by asking when in life he or she feels “really happy.”

Make a point of speaking with your kids about what it is they want in life.

Help your child articulate (and write down) goals.

Encourage flow.

Teach and model a love of challenge and persistence in the face of difficulty.

Teach your kids not to be overly preoccupied with pleasing others.

CHAPTER SIX: Radical Downtime

IN INDIA’S ANCIENT Vedic tradition, it is said that “rest is the basis of all activity.”

Yet as the pace of life goes faster, we need to radicalize our downtime.

In this chapter, we will delve into two powerful forms of radical downtime: daydreaming and meditation.

The Benefits of Daydreaming

Raichle has led a new wave of research that suggests that the unfocused downtime that activates the default mode network is absolutely critical for a healthy brain.

The default mode network is where the all-important work of personal reflection takes place.

But here’s the thing about the DMN: it cannot activate when you’re focused on a task.

Our culture values getting things done. But research shows us just how important it is to do that mind wandering.

Einstein’s breakthrough on relativity came shortly after a year spent in Italy “loafing aimlessly” and attending occasional lectures.)

People with an efficient DMN do better on tests of cognitive ability, including measures of memory, flexibility of thought, and reading comprehension. People who are efficient at toggling their DMN on and off also have better mental health.

Think of your typical American family driving somewhere in the car: the kids want to listen to something, watch something, or play a game. They’ve forgotten how to look out the window, chitchat, or daydream.

Alternate periods of connection and activity with periods of quiet time. When you’re waiting for a doctor’s appointment, or for your bus to arrive, do you immediately pick up a magazine or check your phone? What if you just sat there for a couple of minutes instead?

We need to actively choose to not take our phones with us, or to turn them off.

Learning to tolerate solitude — to be comfortable with yourself — is one of the most important skills one acquires in childhood.

“Meditation is so powerful that I ask all of you who don’t yet meditate to learn meditation — and then call me in a year to tell me how it’s changed your life.”

In this section, we’ll briefly discuss mindfulness and Transcendental Meditation, the two forms of meditation that are used most widely with children.

Mindfulness in schools sometimes includes guided meditations, visualizations, affirmations, breathing exercises, mindful yoga, exercise set to music, and writing and visual art exercises for promoting positive self-expression.

Transcendental Meditation (TM)

Meditators are given a mantra, which is a meaningless sound. When a practitioner silently repeats his mantra, the mind settles down and experiences quieter levels of awareness.

Although transcendence is the epitome of doing nothing, over forty years of research has found that this experience of deeply quieting the mind and body improves physical and mental health, as well as learning and academic performance.

Kids who meditate for as little as ten or fifteen minutes twice a day will experience a significant reduction in stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms and express less anger and hostility.

But he quickly learned that he could accomplish more even though he was taking twenty minutes twice a day to meditate.

Look for opportunities during the day to let your mind wander.

Consider learning to meditate yourself.

CHAPTER SEVEN: Sleep, The Most Radical Downtime

IN THE EARLY YEARS of the twentieth century, adults in America slept nine hours a night or more.

Sleep is arguably the single most important thing for healthy brain development.

Sleep is brain food.

Sleep deprivation is a form of chronic stress.

Emotional control is dramatically impaired by sleep deprivation.

Sleep loss is like a “negativity bomb.”

Sleep deprivation, like chronic stress, can trigger anxiety and mood disorders in children who are already vulnerable to getting them.

Sleep deprivation has physical implications. It impairs blood sugar regulation and contributes to obesity.

Sleep is critical to learning. There’s almost nothing more important to learning than being well rested.

Later school start times have led to decreased absences and tardiness, reduced sleepiness in school, and improvement in mood and feelings of efficacy.

Often when the advice comes from a third, nonparental party, kids are more willing to take it seriously.

With school-aged kids and younger, you can enforce an agreed-upon lights-out time.

For older kids, make privileges like driving contingent on getting enough sleep — since driving while sleep deprived is so dangerous.

Encourage your child to do screen-time homework earlier and save reading homework for later so she gets less late light exposure.

Our recommendation is to not serve caffeinated foods and beverages to children.

The biological clock of night owls is often delayed by exposure to electronic media and electric light.

Make sleep a family value, and set a family goal of sleeping more.

Assess whether your child has an effective wind-down routine before bed.

If your child is a light sleeper or struggles to fall asleep, consider a white-noise generator.

Talk as a family about creating technology-free zones in the bedroom at night.

Suggest that your high school child ask her friends or other kids in her grade who do get eight-plus hours of sleep a night how they do it.

If your kid’s circadian clock is off, exposure to bright light early in the morning can be an effective tool.

Also, if weather permits, go camping.

Continue reading about sleep. Books we recommend are Helene Ensellem’s Snooze…or Lose! and Dr. Richard Ferber’s Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems.

CHAPTER EIGHT: Taking a Sense of Control to School

In an ideal school, teachers have autonomy and kids have choices.

Most reform has been focused on what to cram into children’s heads — and testing them ad nauseam to see what sticks — rather than on developing their brains.

We believe that recognizing the importance of a sense of control can guide our thinking about the all-important place where our kids spend upwards of seven hours a day nine months of the year.

Get Them Engaged

The best thing you can do to facilitate engagement in the classroom may be to give your kid autonomy outside of it.

There is evidence that teachers teach better and feel less stressed when they have a choice about what they teach and how they teach.

If your child isn’t learning, try to find a tutor or educational games to engage him in math or science.

You could even encourage them to learn some of the material before the teacher addresses it in class.

You can also encourage your kids to learn on their own and to teach what they’ve learned to someone else — a parent, a sibling, or a fellow student.

Reduce Academic Stress and Pressure

When we’re too stressed, we can’t think straight.

You may see a third of kids in the optimal state of learning, called “relaxed alertness.”

When students know it’s all right to fail, they can take the kinds of risks that lead to real growth.

Also, remind your children that what’s important is that they develop themselves, not that they get perfect grades.

Homework: Inspire — But Don’t Require

Small amounts of homework (one to two hours a night) can contribute to academic achievement for middle and high school kids, but any more than that backfires when it comes to actual learning.

We believe in recommending assignments and encouraging kids to do them — or an alternative task that would contribute to mastering the objectives — but not requiring or grading them.

Finnish students — who have among the highest educational outcomes in the world — have the lightest homework requirement, rarely receiving more than a half hour per day.

Ned deliberately assigns very little homework. He has no interest in busywork.

Try to switch to a school that focuses on brain-centered learning instead, a school that aims to develop inquisitive learners, not score seekers.

The problem is that while children from the 1920s to the 1970s were free to play, laying the groundwork for key skills like self-regulation, modern kindergartners are required to read and write.

Most eighth graders don’t have sufficiently developed abstract thinking skills to master algebra.

Starting test prep too early is not just totally unnecessary, it is actively counterproductive.

Earlier isn’t necessarily better; and likewise, more isn’t better if it’s too much.

Choose schools that are developmentally sensitive in their curriculum.

Relax and take a long view.

Don’t go overboard on AP classes.

While the word “test” has a very negative connotation, it’s still one of the most powerful learning tools available.

Testing helps you recognize what you’re missing.

Testing can also mitigate test anxiety.

A heavy reliance on standardized testing is an ineffective way to improve educational outcomes.

Many kids shine most brightly in classes that aren’t core academic subjects (or in activities that aren’t classes at all) — like art, music, shop, and drama.

Schools should focus more on nurturing healthy brain development and less on test scores.

As Robert Sapolsky has said, depression is the cruelest disease.

Teach your kids that they are responsible for their own education.

Remind your child of the big picture, that grades matter less than the ways he or she develops as a student and person.

Resist the pressure to push your child if he’s not ready, be it reading in kindergarten, algebra in eighth grade, or AP classes in high school.

Consider advocating for brain-friendly experiences in school such as exercise, the arts, and meditation.

CHAPTER NINE: Wired 24 / 7, Taming the Beast of Technology

How can I get my kid to stop playing video games every second he’s not in school?

Technology addiction is the new norm for young adults.

Technology is an incredible tool with the great power to enrich lives, but the things it displaces — family time, face-to-face interaction with friends, study time, physical activity, and sleep — are invaluable, and the way technology trains the brain to expect constant stimulation is deeply troubling.

The king of tech himself, Steve Jobs, was careful to limit his kids’ technology use, and wouldn’t get iPads for his own kids.

Learning to tame the beast is a powerful skill — one that will stay with them for years to come.

From a brain science perspective, video games produce spikes in dopamine and induce a state of flow.

Scientists have concluded that gaming satisfies the needs for competence and a sense of control — and that multiplayer games satisfy the need for relatedness.

There is no compelling evidence yet that the sense of control and motivation one feels when playing video games translates to real life.

Due to their exposure to technology, kids’ brains work “completely differently” from their parents’ and from kids’ brains of previous generations.

Many kids can’t stand a minute of boredom or tolerate doing just one thing at a time.

Technological breakthroughs almost by definition must make life more stressful, because they quicken the pace and raise the bar of what can be accomplished.

A typical adult checks his smartphone forty-six times a day.

When you refresh your e-mail, look at your text messages, or check your Instagram account, you get a hit of dopamine.

Screen time is an independent risk factor for many of the things we don’t want for our kids.

Every hour of screen time is associated with increased blood pressure, while every hour spent reading is associated with decreased blood pressure.

Screen time brings violent news.

Social media takes control away from you and gives it to your peers.

Technology sucks time away from activities the brain needs to develop a healthy sense of control: sleep, exercise, radical downtime, unstructured child-led play, and the real-life, face-to-face social interaction.

While social media is a greater concern for girls, video games tend to be a bigger problem for boys.

Just having a phone or a tablet in the bedroom increases sleep problems.

Technology appears to lower empathy.

Technology offers easy access to pornography, leading to a more violent sexual culture.

We strongly recommend letting your child know that you will be checking her texts and social media until you feel comfortable that she’s safe.

Giving kids a sense of control doesn’t mean that you let go of all restrictions and rules, and in order to feel safe themselves, kids need to know that you’re there to help them navigate deep waters.

You have to model responsible use of technology.

Seek to understand.

Get back to nature.

Studies show that kids feel and perform better after they’ve been immersed in nature.

Inform rather than lecture.

Collaborate on a solution.

Understand your leverage.

With teenagers, you simply can’t monitor their tech habits all the time. But here’s what you can do. Always know their password, and let them know that you will always know it.

It used to be that when parents asked us about video-game time, we suggested no more than an hour a day.

For starters, encourage everyone in the family to make a technology-use plan.

There is no evidence that young children need technology to develop optimally.

If you recognize your child is vulnerable to excessive use of technology, it’s important that you negotiate firm limits with him.

There’s been a resurgence in the popularity of quieter, hands-on activities like baking, sewing, and crafting among millennials.

Have a family meeting in which you talk about setting up technology-free times or zones.

Model healthy use of technology.

Try to have at least thirty minutes of unplugged “private time” every day with your kids during the week and at least an hour a day on weekends.

When out and about, point out social situations in which one person is ignoring the other through their use of a phone.

Let kids know you’ll check their texts and Twitter page randomly.

Make video game use contingent on not freaking out when it’s time to quit.

CHAPTER TEN: Exercising the Brain and Body

We don’t want our kids to be afraid of taking risks or to unravel when things don’t turn out as they’d hoped.

Exercise # 1: Set clear goals.

For some, writing a simple list of goals works well.

For others, it is much more effective to have a visual picture of their goal to refer to.

We are also big believers in setting “personal best” goals in the classroom.

Exercise # 2: Pay attention to what your brain is telling you.

Using simple language and vivid imagery and explaining the science of emotions can be remarkably effective,

Exercise # 3: Practice Plan B thinking.

Plan B thinking (“What are some other things you could do if it doesn’t work out as you hope?”) is key to maintaining a healthy approach to potential setbacks.

For some, Plan B thinking may include considering radically different routes to success.

Exercise # 4: Talk to yourself with compassion.

Teach your kids to be as supportive of themselves as they are of their best friend.

Third-person self-talk is much more powerful than first-person self-talk. If your daughter refers to herself by name, she is more likely to take the more distanced, supportive-friend stance than to act as critic in chief. 4

Exercise # 5: Practice reframing problems.

We like to think of life as a game of “Choose Your Point of View.” You get to decide how to frame events.

Reframing involves looking at our own thoughts with care and actively redirecting them. This is the basis of cognitive behavioral therapy.

A simple way to help kids avoid catastrophizing is to teach them to ask themselves, whenever they’re upset, “Is this a big problem or a little problem?”

In cognitive behavioral therapy, kids are taught to distinguish between a disaster (like famine) and something that’s temporarily frustrating or embarrassing.

Exercise # 6: Move your body and/or play.

Exercise is more generally good for the brain and body. It increases levels of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, which provide stability, focus, mental alertness, and calmness.

In short, it’s often said that exercise does more to help clear thinking than thinking does.

Finland is at the head of the class here: they mandate twenty minutes of outdoor play for every forty minutes of instructional time.

Yoga, martial arts, horseback riding, fencing, drumming, and rock climbing all fall in a category of exercise in which you are using your mental and motor skills to develop your executive functions.

Play is how children strengthen their cerebellum and learn to master their world.

Encourage your kids to set their own goals — and to visualize achieving them.

Build on your child’s SMART goals to add in mental contrasting. Are there inner obstacles?

Make Plan B thinking a family practice.

Model positive self-talk and self-compassion.

Make physical fitness a family value.

CHAPTER ELEVEN: Navigating Learning Disabilities, ADHD, and Autism Spectrum Disorders

Six and a half million American kids and teens received special education services in 2013 – 2014.

We’re hard pressed to think of a family with three kids in which at least one does not have a learning disability, ADHD, or an autism spectrum disorder.

In the end, help that is forced on kids usually doesn’t do much good.

Fight homework that isn’t necessary.

Encourage self-understanding.

Offer but don’t force help.

Kids with autism struggle with stress tolerance and self-motivation.

Kids on the spectrum benefit greatly from strategies that reduce novelty and unpredictability, and that increase their sense of control.

The best documented intervention for autism, applied behavior analysis (ABA), uses predetermined goals and a specific set of behavioral strategies (including rewards and negative consequences) to reach young children on the spectrum, and places minimal emphasis on promoting a sense of autonomy.

“If you’ve met one child with ASD, you’ve met one child with ASD.”

Parenting a child with special needs is stressful.

That’s why our most fundamental message is to focus on being a nonanxious presence.

Do everything you can to minimize homework-related stress.

Offer your child as much choice as possible about the kinds of interventions he receives and when he receives them.

Find a school that will accommodate your child.

Encourage your child to try different ways of working and learning to figure out what works best for him.

Give your kids opportunities to serve, such as helping younger children or working with animals.

Because kids with ADHD and ASD are at such high risk for sleep problems, pay careful attention to their ability to fall asleep.

CHAPTER TWELVE: The SAT, ACT, and Other Four – Letter Words

There’s a lot to be said against standardized tests.

Sometimes standardized tests provide the first sign of an issue.

The bottom line is that it helps to do well on those tests for the purpose of applying to college.

It’s worth remembering that the SAT and AP tests don’t impact your future nearly as much as you think.

Things that make life stressful: Novelty, Unpredictability, Threat to the ego, Sense of control (or lack thereof).

Take practice tests, he reminds them, and the novelty goes away.

“Practice like you’ll play so you can play like you’ve practiced.”

By focusing on process, you will minimize unpredictability.

The other way to counter the stress of unpredictability is through Plan B thinking.

Test scores are not an accurate reflection of intelligence.

Another option is to go into warrior mode.

The “predator” mentality proved the key to these soldiers’ success; by reducing their anxiety, it enabled them to outperform their more fearful peers.

Look to conquer, rather than survive. Athletes have all sorts of rituals to help them “get into the zone” on game day.

When you feel that you have control over a situation, you are likely to be calmer, more relaxed, and more able to think. You are also likely to make better decisions.

In short, if you focus on process instead of outcome, whether taking a test or jumping out of an airplane, you will have a much greater sense of control.

What if when your mom or dad says they think you should do something, you reply, “Thanks for telling me, Mom” or, “That’s a good point.” When your parents feel validated, they are much more likely to pat themselves on the back and say, “You’re welcome, dear” and go back to doing whatever it is that adults do when they aren’t telling their kids what to do.

In the week before the test, think of yourself as a marathoner. Runners don’t train too hard the week before a race — rather, they taper.

Remind them that you care much more about them than any stupid test score.

If your child is anxious about test taking, offer to sit in the room while they take a practice test.

Talk through Plan B scenarios weeks (not the week) before a test, to help your child ward off anxiety.

Drive your child to the testing site the week before so he can check it out.

Plan for your child to take the ACT or SAT more than once.

Know that a little stress actually helps kids perform better.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN: Who’s Ready for College?

The college environment is drastically different from most kids’ experience in high school, and many teens haven’t developed some of the fundamental skills they will need to function in that environment before leaving home.

This is because college is often a brain-toxic environment.

College housing may be the most stressful and dysregulated living environment outside of a war zone.

Currently, in many middle-class and upper-middle-class families, college is seen as an entitlement, not something that’s earned.

Almost 50 percent of the students who enroll in four-year colleges don’t graduate.

If a student is not able to complete his applications and college essay independently, or with some help that he seeks out, he is probably not ready to start college.

You won’t get a sense of control over your life by avoiding hard work or receiving unearned trophies. It comes from diligence and commitment.

If your kid doesn’t have healthy ways to relieve stress, he will find unhealthy ones.

In places like Germany, Denmark, Australia, and the UK, taking a “gap year” (or two) to travel, work, or even serve in the military is highly encouraged.

But if you are providing some financial support for the college years, it’s reasonable for you to identify yourself as a stakeholder. You might say, “Go to college if you like. But if you want me to make an investment in your education, I need to see certain criteria met before I feel comfortable.”

Start suggesting as early as ninth grade that college is something that needs to be earned.

Encourage your child to get work experience.

Prepare yourself for the transition. Stay connected but keep a strong focus on your own life.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN: Alternate Routes

The reality is that we become successful in this world by working hard at something that comes easily to us and that engages us. We need to tell our kids that the skill set required to be a successful student is, in many ways, very different from the skill set that will lead you to have a successful career and a good life.

Being a straight-A student almost by definition requires a high level of conformity, which is not the route to a high level of success.

It turns out, in fact, that high school valedictorians are no more successful than other college graduates by their late twenties. Ability is not a simple matter of grades.

The idea that you have to get a college degree is, for many, a toxic message.

The majority of Americans do not graduate from college.

Many people who finish college or graduate school end up taking a circuitous route to academic success.

Many adults who were top students and have forged successful careers are miserable.

Where — or if — you go to college does not set the path for your life.

Following your passion is more energizing than doing what you feel you have to do.

Albert Einstein said, “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Howard Gardner pointed out, there are many different forms of intelligence.

Successful people are good at some things and not so good at others, but wisely make a living doing something they’re good at.

You only have to be “smart enough” to do something interesting in this world.

That said, there are many advantages to having a college degree (and advanced degrees). We want kids to go to college and graduate if they can. But what we really don’t want to do is discourage the many kids who can’t make it through college.

After a fairly low level of financial comfort, there is no correlation between increased income and greater happiness.

The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love, by Kristin Kimball.

Make a list with your child of all the different jobs you can possibly think of together.

Share the stories of alternate routes.

Be open about the surprises or disappointments you encountered on your own path, or that your parents or grandparents did, and how you pivoted.

Ask your child, What do you love to do? What do you think you’re better at than other people?

Encourage your child to find a mentor.