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The Self-Driven Child

The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives

By William Stixrud and Ned Johnson
13-minute read
Audio available
The Self-Driven Child by William Stixrud and Ned Johnson

The Self-Driven Child (2018) shows us how our instinct to control our children’s lives can result in stressed-out, uncooperative, and poorly motivated kids. Instead, the book argues, we should try to help our children come to informed decisions themselves – and trust them to make the big calls. 

  • Parents of stressed, overworked kids
  • Child psychologists and pediatricians
  • Anyone interested in the complex dynamics between parent and child

William Stixrud is a clinical neuropsychologist and founder of The Stixrud Group, a group of clinical psychologists. He is a member of the teaching faculty at Children’s National Medical Center and an assistant professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine. 

Ned Johnson is the president and founder of PrepMatters, a tutoring and educational advising company in Washington, DC. He has been featured on NPR, NewsHour, U.S. News & World Report, as well as in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Time.

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The Self-Driven Child

The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives

By William Stixrud and Ned Johnson
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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The Self-Driven Child by William Stixrud and Ned Johnson
Synopsis

The Self-Driven Child (2018) shows us how our instinct to control our children’s lives can result in stressed-out, uncooperative, and poorly motivated kids. Instead, the book argues, we should try to help our children come to informed decisions themselves – and trust them to make the big calls. 

Key idea 1 of 8

Children suffer from stress when they feel like everything is out of their control.

We all like to feel in control. That’s why we’re more at ease when we drive to a destination instead of flying – on a plane, our fate is in the pilot’s hands rather than our own. It’s why we like to study the menu carefully before we order.

In fact, having a sense of agency is the most important factor when it comes to our happiness and well-being. This was the dramatic conclusion of a study done in the 1970s, which found that nursing home residents who were told that they had responsibility for their lives lived longer than those who were told that nursing staff would take care of everything.

When everything feels beyond our control, we get stressed. And stress has serious consequences for the health and well-being of children as well as adults. 

The key message here is: Children suffer from stress when they feel like everything is out of their control.

Imagine a 15-year-old, named Zara, who attends an expensive private school. Her life is structured around a strict timetable. During the day, she shuttles back and forth between classes, with just a few short breaks. Then, after school, she has hockey practice and volunteers for an environmental charity, as her parents advised her to do. 

As soon as she’s home, her parents have more plans for her, starting with four hours of homework. Weekends are structured just the same: if Zara wants a little free time, she has to make sure her homework is all done. 

Her parents push her because they’re desperate for her to get into an elite university. But Zara suffers from migraines. She’s not sleeping well. And she frequently gets into screaming fights with her parents. 

Is all of this “for her own good,” as her parents claim? Of course not. Constantly being told what to do both at home and at school causes children to suffer from stress and anxiety. This kind of toxic stress can impair a critical stage of brain development, which happens between the ages of 12 and 18. This could lead to long-term mental and physical health problems. 

The problem is widespread, and it affects affluent households – in which the pressure on children to achieve tends to be particularly high – most of all. In fact, a recent study found that 80 percent of students at one elite Silicon Valley high school suffered from anxiety caused by stress. 

So what can parents do differently? We’ll find out in the next blink. 

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