“Remember the job is not to solve your children’s problems but to help them learn to run their own lives.”
With that, I was hooked. My sister sent me this book review two weeks ago and I have to say, it is one of my favorite things I’ve read about children in a while. The book, The Self-Driven Child by Stixrud and Johnson, details “the science and sense” – the why and the how – children need to be in control of (certain) elements of their lives. The book is phenomenal and I highly recommend it – yet it focuses overwhelmingly on K-12 and leaves our young learners mostly untouched – which is where I step in!
The general ethos of the book is highly congruent with some of my recent Notes (here and here), and my dissertation research at Teachers college, focusing on “adult-imperialism”. This is a concept which I define as the extension of control from one person (parent or teacher) into the life of another (child or student), guided by a cultural paradigm in which children are seen as inherently dependent on adult regulation. Adult imperialism is benevolent in intention, typically driven by love for children and desire to see them grow and be successful. Yet, when see through the young child’s eyes (as I experienced spending nine months with a two year old child for my research with this lens in mind), adult imperialism often unwittingly represses or rejects the child’s agency and autonomy.
Stixrud and Johnson eloquently describe that a child’s path to both happiness and success lies in what is referred to as “self-determination theory”, or more commonly as intrinsic motivation. In empirical research proven time and again over four decades, psychological researchers Ryan and Deci have explored “why we do what we do.” They find, time and again, that people thrive – they are happy, successful, and make good choices – when they have three key ingredients: autonomy, competency, and purpose (also referred to as relatedness or social context) (fortunately they wrote a slim, easily-digestible book summing up their work, it is a really insightful read).
Stixrud and Johnson assert something that is easily missed if you’re not looking for it, yet seems ubiquitous once stated: parenting culture in America has become one in which competency (skills) and purpose (being on a team, making friends, etc) have been prioritized – and autonomy has been ignored (and likely significantly repressed, as sociologists have well-documented over the past 50 years the steady decline of truly “free” time that young children have). Stixrud and Johnson explain that these three ingredients for happiness and success are like a stool – if you stretch out two legs but not the third, you don’t end up higher – you end up wobbly.
I can write all I want about why children need freedom from imperialism – but as a parent asked me in response to my Notes on this topic (linked above), “So, I buy into it, but what can we do as parents to support our child’s agency and lessen our imperialism?”
Before sharing my ideas here, one caveat: as Stixrud and Johnson lucidly state, “Kids need responsibility more than they deserve it…waiting until they are mature enough before giving up on the enforcer role means you’ve waited too long.” And also, “First, set boundaries within which you feel comfortable letting them maneuver. Then cede ground outside those boundaries.” Their point is – to do this well, it will push both you and your child into potentially uncomfortable situations. We know that we only grow when we face new challenges. Challenge yourself, and your child, to stretch beyond what you are comfortable with.
Here are my suggestions, some particular and some general:
Let your child walk in front of you. Give them a feeling of being the leader, a sense that they are the vanguard. Let them experience navigating Manhattan pedestrians, figuring out how to get around a puddle (and the consequences of a wet sneaker if they walk in it!), and learning to look around for obstacles instead of having you point them out. When Jonah and I take the train to work/school each morning, as we approach the turnstile I say, “You choose which one, I’ll follow you.” He has to figure out how to establish himself at the turnstile as a crowd of people are coming out, and through this experience, challenges himself to be autonomous instead of relying on my guidance.
Listen to your child and repeat back what you’ve heard, rather than ask questions. Then pause. Them hearing your words, followed by a silence, shows them two things: (1) This adult is really listening, not just waiting for their turn to talk. (2) I can now keep saying what was on my mind, instead of being pushed around by the adult question (adult-imperialism is also the agenda-like control that adults often have over conversations).
Actively engage your child in real, adult conversations. At the doctors, prep your child by seeing if they have any questions about their body. That rash you’ve been putting lotion on? Remind your child to ask his doctor about it. When you’re child makes a new friend in the sandbox and his mom asks you, “How old is he? What’s his name?”, re-direct her to your child to speak for himself. Same goes for adults asking you, within earshot of your child, about upcoming plans – Where are you going from here? What are you doing for the summer? Find ways in which you are speaking for your child, in areas you know they can talk about with some coaching, and let their voice replace your voice.
Give in. This is the hardest one! Think about all of the (many!) ways in which we force children to follow our directions. Find some of them (push yourself) that you can, simply, give in on. Speaking with a parent recently, she asked about her daughter’s apprehension about a new gymnastics class. Her daughter wants to bring a lovey to class with her. If she brings the lovey, she is happy but watches instead of participates (Ryan and Deci’s autonomy). If she doesn’t bring the lovey, she participates and learns the skill (Ryan and Deci’s competency), but this also means an argument between mother-daughter about leaving the lovey at home. Each of these areas to “give in” are values-laden. My point is, inspired by Stixrud and Johnson, we should see autonomy value-added, just like we see skills and competency as value-added. If you want to get competency out of this, stick to your guns and leave the lovey at home; if you want autonomy, allow your child to bring it. Then, talk to them afterwards – “I noticed you brought your lovey, just like you wanted. I also noticed that even though you love gymnastics, you just watched the whole time. What can we do at next week’s class to help you participate?” By giving in, and then reflecting with your child, you highlight their autonomy and hopefully also have them contribute to planning for next time. With Jonah, I’ve learned to allow him to put his sweatshirt and jacket on in our lobby. It’s annoying, it slows us down. But when I’m getting everything but it allows him to say “No” and me to listen.
Remind your child of the general framework of responsibilities and expectations, rather than telling them what to do. “When we’re on scooters, we always stop before the ramp. You remember where to stop, right?” or “After we enter the apartment, and before dinner, each person in our family has to wash their hands. Everyone has to make sure they do this for themselves.” Giving your child responsibility instead of directives can shift the whole nature of the power dynamics in the relationship. Arm them with information and remind them of what is expected – and then back off and let them find their own way to it. Your child doesn’t want the clothes you’ve picked out for them? Don’t run around trying to find the right ones. “Everybody needs pants before leaving the apartment. You know where your drawers are. I’ll be putting my sneakers on while you find new pants.
Somewhat selfishly – send them to a progressive nursery school! Daily in our classrooms, our teachers pull back to afford your children high degrees of autonomy. Making choices of how to spend their time, both as individuals and as a group; moving materials around the classroom at their own volition; co-creating rules rather than being told what they are by imperial adults.I encourage you to take a mental tally for the next few days – what are you deciding for your child, or making them do, that would be OK if they decided, or did, on their own? Yes, all of our children have inherent biological limitations. Yet, our culture of “parenting” picks up where biology leaves off and often further constrains our children, unnecessarily restricting their agency. Where can we shed cultural constraints, and allow our children to own their own lives?
I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic – please email me with questions or challenges! If you find time to read Self-Driven Child, I’d love to know what you make of the book.