Janet’s guest is Dr. William Stixrud, a clinical neuropsychologist and co-author of The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives. Bill Stixrud’s decades of experience counseling children and their parents have led to conclusions that complement and support Janet’s own parenting philosophy, especially topics such as encouraging self-confidence, intrinsic motivation, and inner-directedness. And since many of Bill’s clients have been with him from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood, he has the benefit of seeing the results of his practice. Bill and Janet discuss the value of giving our kids opportunities to make choices, discover and pursue their passions, and the challenges and benefits of being a nonanxious presence (because our “calm is contagious”).
Transcript of “Raising Motivated, Self-Confident, Less Stressed Kids in an Age of Anxiety (with Dr. William Stixrud)”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.
Today I’m pleased to host Dr. William Stixrud. He has a wealth of experience and wisdom to share from his decades of working with families as a therapist for children with learning and mental health challenges. He often sees the same client from childhood through adolescence and adulthood, so he’s able to see the results of his practice.
He’s the co-author, with his associate Ned Johnson, of two popular books: The Self-Driven Child, which to me feels in many ways like the perfect counterpart to the ideas I share for caring for kids in early childhood and how they might translate to understanding our role as parents with grade school, middle, and high school age children. I love this book and I’m looking forward to reading their recently published follow-up offering, What Do You Say? How to Talk with Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance, and a Happy Home. I’m hoping Bill will share his secrets for encouraging our children’s healthy motivation and their and our sense of control, which, as he believes, is the key to mental health. I’m excited.
Hi, Bill. Welcome. Thank you so much for being here.
Dr. William Stixrud: Thanks for having me, Janet.
Janet Lansbury: Well, I just adored your book. It’s so compatible with the kinds of messages that I try to give to parents as well, so it was wonderful to experience how this looks and feels in your work with children who are mostly grade school and older. Right?
Dr. William Stixrud: I would say that, yeah. I test kids, I’m a neuropsychologist and I test kids for a living, and I test kids from four to about 40 or so. But mainly I see school-age, middle school, and high school kids.
Janet Lansbury: And you work with them and their parents as well?
Dr. William Stixrud: Yeah, I do evaluations and then I tell parents what I learned, I tell kids what I learned. And probably most of the kids I follow over time. So I’m seeing a lot of kids now that I tested initially 20 years ago.
Janet Lansbury: And did they come to you because they have issues or concerns?
Dr. William Stixrud: Yeah, I see kids primarily because they’re having learning problems or attention problems or emotional problems or social problems, and I try to figure out what they’re good at, what’s going right, and what’s going wrong and how to help them.
Janet Lansbury: And you’ve written this book, The Self-Driven Child, a bestseller, with Ned Johnson, who is, what is your connection with him?
Dr. William Stixrud: Well, we became friends probably 10 years ago, maybe 12 years ago. Somebody introduced us and said, “You guys think so much alike.” And we’re very different. I’m 20 years older, I’m a neuropsychologist. Ned is the Washington, D.C. area’s test prep guru. He has a big business helping kids do better on standardized tests. And he realized that the way he does it is very similar to the kind of things that I’ve been lecturing about for many, many years. And we started lecturing together about motivation and about how too much stress affects kids’ brain and their development.
And we realized as we worked together that we saw we had two major concerns, and one was this, what people are calling an epidemic of mental health problems in adolescents and young adults, but also in the last several years in kids from five to 11. And then also so many of the kids we see have what we considered to be unhealthy motivation in the sense that either they’re obsessively driven, they’ll sacrifice anything to get into the most elite college. Sacrifice their health, their friends, and their family. And other kids who do as little as possible, don’t seem to have any kind of internal drive.
And we realized that there’s something that connects these two things, that points to a cause and a solution. And what we concluded was that what connects these two things is a low sense of control, because a low sense of control is at the root of all the mental health problems. I mean, think about it. If you’re anxious, your thinking’s out of control. If you feel depressed, you’ve got no sense of control. If you have substance use problems, your life is chaotic. So we realized that that’s the key to mental health.
And also every place we looked, Janet, to try to understand how do kids, little kids, grow up to be self-motivated, all the arrows point in the direction of autonomy. They have to have a sense that this is their life, and they aren’t continually being forced to do things.
Janet Lansbury: And they don’t have these areas that are free and clear for them to be autonomous.
Dr. William Stixrud: Right.
Janet Lansbury: That downtime and self-directed play, it’s everything, right? It’s therapy for them. It’s how they learn, it’s how they practice taking on different roles.
Dr. William Stixrud: It’s so interesting. Two of my granddaughters, their mother was very strict about very limited technology, virtually none for the first few years. And all they did when they were five years old is play. They’re 10 and seven now, and whenever they have a minute, they play, they make up games. They go to the dentist, they come home and they play dentist. That’s the way that mammals have always learned to be adults. As you said, that’s the way they manage their feelings. That’s the way they try things out. That’s the way they learn how what they do affects other people.
Janet Lansbury: And I think on the parents’ end, it can be hard. I mean, there’s all this peer pressure to have your children in classes from the time they’re infants and have these schedules during the week where you have these scheduled events and you can’t really have that kind of play that you’re talking about and that I promote also, which is about good periods of time each day where there’s really nothing that children have to do. And I think if children aren’t used to that, then it can be tough for them to kind of wind down into that space. So that can be tough for parents sometimes, but it’s really everything.
Dr. William Stixrud: It’s huge. I agree.
Janet Lansbury: It’s interesting what you said before, how you saw the two different ways that this manifested, this feeling of lack of control. That it manifested in obsessively wanting to try to keep control, in terms of, I’ve got to keep achieving, I’ve got to keep doing, I’ve got to keep holding this all together and keep on this track, or I can’t handle what happens if I feel like it’s falling apart, and then the other end of it where they kind of give up and say, What’s the point? I can’t control anything, and so I don’t want to do anything.
Dr. William Stixrud: Yeah, yeah. The more I’ve been thinking about and lecturing about and writing about this sense of control for, I guess about six or seven years now, it’s a really, really powerful construct. The research on anxiety problems, it looks like they’re all rooted in low sense of control. Same thing with depression. And the research is looking at cognitive behavioral therapy, which is probably the most effective approach for treating children’s anxiety and mood problems. The reason it works is it increases their sense of control. And again, every place that we looked to try to understand how do kids develop that healthy self-motivation, that drive to develop themselves, and as they get older to realize, I need to develop myself to provide useful service to this world. That’s the kind of way that I think about developing kids’ motivation, is that healthy self-drive to develop themselves to have something useful to offer this world.
Janet Lansbury: And that starts with them getting a chance to connect with themselves and see who they are, which goes back to the play thing. From the time that they’re babies, they can feel a sense of agency about, Do I want to reach for this ball or do I want to suck my fingers, or do I want to look over here at this corner of the room where I see a shadow that’s interesting? Allowing them to have those kinds of options gives them this sense of, This is what I like to do.
Dr. William Stixrud: Yes, yes. It’s so interesting that some years ago I was reading the work of this guy named Reed Larson who studies adolescent development, and at one point in his career, he was looking at how do young children turn into self-motivated adolescents and adults? And he said, it’s not through dutifully doing their homework every night. It’s through what he called the passionate pursuit of pastimes. He described that flow experience, that experience of flow where you’re actively engaged in something that you’re interested in or that’s fun for you, or trying to solve a hard problem where it’s not so easy to be boring and it’s not so hard that it’s wildly stressful, but it’s kind of in your sweet spot and you’re working hard to figure it out, to solve something, or to beat somebody for competing.
And so the idea is if a three-year-old is building a little fort out of Lincoln Logs or playing with Legos and building something, they’re really concentrating on it, they’re really focused on trying to make it right. That experience shapes the brain in a way that develops that intrinsic motivation, that self-drive. And so it wasn’t through somehow doing what’s expected of me, what other people are telling me to do. It was through that passionate pursuit of pastimes. And we can start, as you said, by respecting that they may have different tastes and they may like some things and they may see something differently than I do. And respecting that individuality I think is really healthy, at the same time that we’re helping them be part of a family and part of a community.
Janet Lansbury: You made a really good point in your book, and it’s a question that I’m asked often about, “Well, if you’re allowing children to play as they wish and you’re not trying to engage them in focusing on certain kinds of learning that you think they should be working on, in the early years especially, then what happens when they get to school and they can’t focus?” And you made this great point that my mentor, Magda Gerber, used to also make, you say: “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.”
Dr. William Stixrud: Right. And for my co-author and me, our north star in thinking about motivation is self-determination theory, which is one of the best supported theories in psychology, developed about 30 years ago. And the main idea is that to develop that intrinsic motivation, the drive is coming from you, you have to have three needs met: one’s for a sense of competence, and one’s for a sense of relatedness, and a sense of autonomy. And I think that when we respect autonomy, that kids feel respected and it really helps our relationship with them, and those two things. And as we foster competence and we point out, “Gosh, look what you just did. Six months ago or three months ago, you couldn’t do this.” You foster that sense of competence, that they can develop skill. These are the most important ways that I know of for us to build that kind of healthy self-motivation in kids.
Janet Lansbury: Well, that reminds me of another quote that I wrote down from your book. You talked about competence: “It’s an internal rather than external barometer of accomplishment (growth mindset—you’re getting better). Remember that you can’t develop competence for them, and any attempt to do so will just undermine their own motivation.”
Dr. William Stixrud: Makes sense to me.
Janet Lansbury: Me too. But it’s very powerful actually, because I think that a lot of times as parents, we’ve put that on our job description that we’ve got to help them achieve this and help them achieve that, and it really can create a lot more anxiety in us and isn’t helping.
Dr. William Stixrud: Right. It’s so interesting because anytime a kid tries to do something, whether they’re two years old, they try to do something or they’re three or four, and they can’t do it, and they try again and they figure it out, it changes the brain, it develops the circuits in their brain to when something hard happens, to cope and to feel confident they can cope. Because when you’re dealing with something hard, even something that’s stressful, what happens —unless you’re just overwhelmed— what happens initially is that your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that can think logically and put things into perspective and calm yourself down when you’re stressed, your prefrontal cortex activates and leaps into action. And when the prefrontal cortex activates, it dampens down the stress response.
So we want kids, ideally even when they’re little, as much as possible, with our support, to solve their own problems, to deal with the stressful things they handle, but also just when they’re playing— the kid is trying to get a Lego construction together and it’s frustrating for him and he eventually figures it out, that’s what builds competence. And if we pointed out to him, “Man, you just stuck with that incredibly. A lot of kids would’ve given up.” You made those just kind of off-hand comments, in my experience, those are the things that really structure in a kid’s brain: I’m a competent person. I can learn, I can get better.
Janet Lansbury: And when they do need help doing the smallest thing, if they say, “I can’t do this, I can’t do this.” “Hmm, well, what are you trying to do? Where are you trying to put that one?” Asking questions, but keep bouncing the ball back to them, just being an emotionally supportive person. And it’s hard to do. It’s kind of like an art, to be able to give that minimal intervention.
Dr. William Stixrud: It’s true. One of the things I used to do, Janet, when my kids were little, if they get frustrated, “Daddy help me with this,” I’d say, “Well, I’m going to look at my watch here, and if you try for a minute and a half to figure out on your own and you still can’t do it, then I’m going to help you, but I want to give you a chance to figure it out.”
Janet Lansbury: Oh, that’s a good idea.
Dr. William Stixrud: And then if they still couldn’t get it, I said, “Well, I wonder what would happen if you tried it this way.” That kind of suggested way as opposed to telling them what to do.
Janet Lansbury: Yeah, you can always break something down into steps and just give them the first step. I remember my son had to draw a picture for a book report, and he had to draw a picture of this wolf and he said, “I can’t possibly draw this picture.” I think he was maybe in third grade. And I said, “Yeah, I mean it is hard to draw pictures. What do you want to draw first? Which part of it do you want to draw first?” And he said, “The nose.” And I said, “Okay, what shape would the nose be? How would you like to draw that?” And it was amazing. He made this pretty cool picture. I was so proud of myself, because it was an experiment on my end. But to see how that worked with an older child.
I work a lot with the younger children, I’m used to doing it with them, and it’s amazing. And they don’t naturally have this feeling like being stuck is a bad thing. That’s something that we can unfortunately influence them to feel more when we’re worried they’re not going to finish it or get it, or that we’re starting to feel for them, Oh gosh, maybe they can’t do it and I’ve got to help. I’ve got to rescue. And then they start to pick up from us that anxiousness and receive that same sense of urgency from us and see that, Oh gosh, this isn’t a safe place to be, just in the middle where I’m not getting it.
Dr. William Stixrud: Right. And as you said, it’s hard because we’re mammals. We evolved to soothe and protect our young. And in our second book, we talk about this research of a person by the name of Jessie Borelli. She studies what she calls parental overcontrol. And she has a study where these kids are in a room with some kind of computerized puzzle and they’re trying to put it together and the moms are in the room and the moms are only given one instruction: Don’t help. And they’re measuring the kid’s heart rate and the mother’s heart rate. And so the kid starts to solve this puzzle and it looks easy, but it’s much harder than it really is. As he starts to get frustrated, the kid’s heart rate goes up. Mother intervenes and says, “Honey, try it this way or this way.” Mother’s heart rate goes down when she is doing something that gives her a sense of control, but the kid gets more stressed as the mom gets involved.
Janet Lansbury: Wow.
Dr. William Stixrud: Yeah. So I think it’s not that we don’t want to be supportive. It’s not that we don’t want to help our kids. It’s just that we don’t want to jump in. I did this exercise, I did it with a parent educator some years ago, where we thought about, Well, let’s say your second-grade girl comes home and she’s crying because everybody in her friend group got invited to a birthday party and she isn’t invited. And what we asked the parents to do was to ask themselves, Whose problem is it? Because the way that we’re wired, it’s so hard to do that. It’s hard to resist wanting to start soothing or, That’s okay, I’ll call the mom. And just remind them that we can listen, we can try and understand, but if we jump in and solve it for them, we deprive them of that opportunity to solve it themselves and to shape that brain, this experience of going into coping mode.
Janet Lansbury: And it makes it harder for them the next time because they feel dependent on us for making them feel better.
Dr. William Stixrud: Yeah, that’s exactly right.
Janet Lansbury: You talk also in your book about the concept of the non-anxious presence. What are some of the keys to being able to be that for our children?
Dr. William Stixrud: Well, can I just mention how I got to this idea?
Janet Lansbury: Please.
Dr. William Stixrud: When my daughter was just turning two, her language was coming along really well, but she stuttered and she started to stutter really badly, and she went for a couple days where she didn’t talk. And I’ve never been more panicked in my life, Janet. I’m thinking, Oh God, if she doesn’t talk, she’ll never get better. She’ll be teased the rest of her life. And a couple days later, basically her mouth caught up with her brain and she just stopped stuttering. And I realized that all of our fear as parents, it’s about the future. It’s about, They’re going to get stuck in some ways and never get better. So that was a really formative thing for me was realizing that all our worry, all our fear, it’s about the future. That kids are going to get stuck.
And my experience is, if we as parents don’t get highly anxious and too involved, kids, they go through stuff and they grow out of it. The other thing was when I used to do therapy, I’d sit with parents and one of the parents would start to cry and they’d say, “I just want him to feel good about himself.” It struck me many years ago, I said, “Well, I think it would be easier for us to help him feel good about himself if we weren’t worried sick.” And then somebody introduced me some years ago to this idea of a non-anxious presence. I love the idea. I love the term, and I didn’t make it up unfortunately, but I was introduced to it. And somebody at an independent school in Washington, D.C. asked me to do a program with parents on how to become a non-anxious presence.
And I never quite thought about it in terms of parenting that exact way. But then I realized if you’ve got an infant who’s crying and wailing, it’s a lot easier to soothe them if you stay calm. If you’ve got a two-year-old who’s having a tantrum in a store, it’s a lot easier to handle if you stay calm. If you’ve got a 16-year-old who’s coming home and his girlfriend just dumped him, if you can stay calm, you can be much more helpful. And we know that kids are certainly much more stressed now, much more fearful. It is like the message that young kids get is, Be very afraid. As they get older, it seems to be be very afraid, given how many kids are so anxious and fearful.
Janet Lansbury: And you’ve really seen that rise in time?
Dr. William Stixrud: Oh, yeah. I see it in my own practice, but the statistics on it are just mind-boggling. The surgeon general now calls the status of mental health in adolescents the defining public health crisis of our lifetime. And I think for parents of young children, there’s so much we can do to strengthen them. And I think in part by, if we move in the direction of being a non-anxious presence, we help kids in just dozens of ways. For example, if a little kid falls in the playground and we go, “Oh, oh, are you okay?” Kids learn to react to things that happen to them in part by watching how their parents react. And so, many kids, they fall on the playground and they look to see, Should I cry? Am I okay? If we stay calm, it’s different than if we’re, “Oh, honey, are you okay?”
And I’m not saying if something’s really bad, we shouldn’t be nurturing. We want to be nurturing to our kids. I think in our first book, we quote this book, it’s something with a magical character, and he says to this group of kids, “I’m sorry I couldn’t keep you safe.” And the kids say, “You did something much more important. You helped us feel brave.”
And part of the way I think about this non-anxious presence is not being overly emotionally reactive and not being burdened by excessive anxiety or worry and being able to communicate that courageous attitude as opposed to a fearful one. There’s a lot of things that you could worry about in this world, and I’m not saying we should never worry. Worry helps us stay safe in many ways, but ideally if what we communicate is, Yeah, that makes me anxious too, but I know I can handle it and you can too, it’s a very powerful way to help kids develop confidence that they can handle stuff and also to communicate that courage.
I’d love any thoughts about what I just said, and then I’ll tell you some of the ways that we think about encouraging parents to move in that direction of being a non-anxious presence.
Janet Lansbury: For me, when you said courageous, that really hits home for me because I started to imagine —and this was when I had to take my upset first toddler out of a grocery store or someplace or when I had to do anything— I would see myself, and I’ve talked about this, the parents that listen here probably have heard me say it, but I would put on a superhero suit in my mind to be confident for you. Because I’m very sensitive, I tend to take on everybody else’s mood. So if my child’s afraid, that affects me too, and then I’m sure I affect them back.
And I would imagine, if you were a fireperson coming in here to help somebody that had to jump out of a building, you would be very confident for them. You would know that this is the most important thing, that you weren’t panicking and that you weren’t afraid, and that you believed that they could fall into that net and they’d be okay. So I take it to that level. I really needed a lot of work. And what I found is it’s easier for me to be courageous for my child than for myself.
Dr. William Stixrud: And my co-author, in our second book, his twin brother is an EMT, and what he does, he goes into situations, an emergency situation in a family, and he says, “I think we’re under control here. You don’t have to panic. Should I let you know if it’s time to worry?” Just model it. Because when we wrote our first book, The Self-Driven Child, one of the things we emphasize is the research on what’s called stress contagion. The idea that stress is contagious. I mean, if you’re around a really stressful person, your brain picks it up and it increases your stress level. As we were researching our second book, I learned that one of the mantras of the Navy Seals is “Calm is Contagious,” and it’s contagious because all emotions are contagious. And that’s part of the reason why I encourage parents to move in that direction of being a non-anxious presence in your family, because then what you do is you communicate, you infuse calmness into your family and your kids feel it.
Janet Lansbury: Yeah. And so how else can parents do that when there are so many concerns, especially as parents? There’s a lot of concerns in the world, and then there’s concerns as parents, which magnify everything.
Dr. William Stixrud: One of the things we talk about, I think in the introduction to The Self-Driven Child, is that most human beings are living in the safest time, in the safest place in human history. And many of our fears as parents are related to this 24/7 news cycle and the fear that parents have of young children, like, being abducted. It’s all based on that, we get these alerts. And it turns out that the rates of child abduction are extremely low, except for if parents are divorced, one parent will take a kid without the other parent knowing it. But the perception of danger is much greater than it really is. So that’s one thing.
What I ask parents to do is to take a long view, in the sense that most kids turn out fine. And because I test kids who are having problems and I’ve followed kids for 40 years, I know that in the vast majority of kids, even the ones I see that are having problems, they turn out fine. In fact, I got a Christmas card two years ago, Janet, on the outside it said, “You were right.” And I opened it up and it’s a picture of these three young adults with their spouses, and their parents had written, “They all turned out great.” These are kids who I evaluated at various points starting in probably the mid-1990s through the early 2000s, and I hadn’t seen any of them in 10 years. And I just got an email from a mom who I saw, whose kid I saw when she was eight, who’s now like 38, and she had autism. And mom’s just saying, “She’s so great and doing so great.”
So just take a long view and remember that all our worry about our kids, it’s about, Something’s happening now, oh my God, this is not going to get better. And it’s because a low sense of control is the most stressful thing you can experience in the whole world, that if a kid has a problem and we don’t know how to solve it, it’s very stressful. So we kind of work on ourselves as you did, Janet, to experience more of that kind of inner calm so that we can radiate that calm to our family. We train ourselves to remember that if I don’t get stuck, my kid’s not going to get stuck, that we can take steps to solve these problems. And that usually they turn out really good.
Janet Lansbury: So if our children aren’t going to feel that sense of control unless we feel that sense of control, we can maybe derive our sense of control from that visualization or belief, that trust, that my child probably will be just fine and get through these things. And you know what? Our job as parents is not as complicated as I think we can make it. Just like with the news cycles, there’s so much parenting advice out for people now, and it’s overwhelming and it can sound like this is such an intricate thing. Something that we’re putting out there to try to help —the various parenting advisors, like me— it can make it appear as if, Oh, there’s so many details we have to get right. And really those are just supposed to help you if you’re stuck, maybe. But it’s not that complicated.
Dr. William Stixrud: It’s really not.
Janet Lansbury: And you and I, that have adult children, can acknowledge that. I have three adult children also.
Dr. William Stixrud: Yeah. I remember my son had tics and learning disabilities, and I worried about the tics and about being teased and that. I realized that the most important thing that I can do to help myself is to work on my own fear, my own anxiety, and realizing that my fear was all about as he got older, if his tics were terrible, that that might affect him negatively somehow. And he’s a PhD psychologist, he’s a very successful, wonderful human being, beautiful wife, beautiful children. And yeah, I had a lot of worry, but I realized that I was more upset than he was, and I just worked at it.
What I realized is that if I see kids are going through a hard patch, that if I see it as, This is part of their path and I’m going to help them through it, as opposed to thinking, This is a disaster! That perspective of accepting where kids are. If we think about the idea of unconditional love and unconditional acceptance, arguably the most important thing we can do for our kid is to let them know we love them immeasurably, no matter what they do or how hard they try or how they behave. This is one of the ways that we do it.
Janet Lansbury: And if we look back on our own lives, how many rough spots have we all had? And how positive were those for us?
Dr. William Stixrud: Right. Before we started recording this, you mentioned this experience I talk about in The Self-Driven Child where, when I was in first grade, I cried the whole first week. I’d never been in a situation where I didn’t know anybody, none of my friends from kindergarten were in my first grade class, and I was kind of a little bit on the anxious side anyway. And one day the girl sitting next to me said, “Ms. Ward, Billy’s crying.” And she said, “He’s going to be fine.” And I realized, she’s just modeling this non-anxious presence and communicating confidence that I could handle it.
Janet Lansbury: I love that teacher, she should get an award of some kind. And how simple that is: She believed in you. She believed in you, and that feels good.
Dr. William Stixrud: I know. And there’s this new program, this brilliant program out of Yale, for helping kids with anxiety. The acronym is SPACE. It’s Supported Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions. And one of the main things that parents are taught to do is to express empathy. “I know this is really scary for you.” And then, “But I’m a hundred percent confident that you can handle it.”
Because what we do, because we’re mammals, what we do when kids find something stressful, we try to protect them from it. If a little kid is afraid to go into the bathroom by himself, we go in there with him, that kind of thing. And it turns out that when we make that kind of accommodation to a kid’s anxiety, it just makes them more anxious. And so what we’re taught to do is to eventually not make those accommodations. But the first step is you express empathy. “I know that going into the bathroom by yourself makes you anxious, but I’m also a hundred percent confident that you can handle it.” Which requires us to manage our own anxiety and then to communicate confidence that you can handle it so that we communicate that brave, courageous attitude.
Janet Lansbury: That’s so important, I think. But again, it all stems from the trust that we have in, I guess in ourselves as parents, and therefore towards our children. You said it well in your book: “It takes courage to trust a child to make decisions, to trust in a child’s brain development, to ignore the pressures that cause us to protect our kids from themselves, or to be overly involved in their lives. It takes courage to face our fears about the future. It also takes humility to accept that we don’t often know what’s in our kids’ best interest. It takes a change in mindset to focus on ourselves—our own emotions and attitudes—as an extremely important element of our child-rearing.”
Dr. William Stixrud: Yeah, I like that. Five years later, I still like it.
Janet Lansbury: I like it too. But then you also say: “As hard as all of this is, the harder route by far is trying to control what we really can’t.”
Dr. William Stixrud: Yeah. In the book we talk about some postulates of motivation, and one of them is that you can’t make a kid do something against their will. And I think that knowing that, knowing you really can’t make another human, even a little kid, you can’t make a little kid do something. Your kid, you need to get in the car to go see grandma, and they’re refusing. You can pick them up and put them in the car, but then they aren’t getting in the car, you’re putting them in the car. You really can’t make somebody do something. And when you make peace with that, that if theoretically I really couldn’t make him do something, you make peace with that, you realize, Well, that’s not my rule. It couldn’t be my responsibility to always make him do the right thing. And for me, the older I get and the more I see that something that looks like a disaster leads to something really good, I get more humble about knowing what’s in a kid’s best interest. And inclined to take that attitude that this is your life and you get to figure it out and I’m going to help you.
We talk about the idea as parents being a consultant of their kid rather than their boss or their manager, their homework police, who’s always running their lives. Because our goal is for kids to be able to run their own lives before they leave home. And that’s what I’ve suggested to parents of young children, is think about, you aren’t going to start turning over the keys to your five-year-old, but the idea is, let’s move in that direction. For myself, I’m going to move in the direction of a non-anxious presence who can support my kid in making wise decisions, practice making decisions for themselves, learning from their feedback, who can trust my kids. I can say, “I have confidence you can solve these problems.” That’s my role. And the kid’s role eventually is to figure out who they want to be and be able to run their own life.
And I say that because I was giving a lecture about The Self-Driven Child in Houston before the pandemic, and I happened to mention the most elite high school in Washington, D.C. and a woman came up to me afterwards. She said, “I’m a therapist at The Menninger Clinic here in Houston,” this really good mental health clinic in Houston. And she said, “We know this school in D.C. really well, because so many of the graduates get into the top colleges in the country, but as soon as they get a B, or as soon as they realize that everybody there is as smart as they are, or as soon as they ask a girl out and she dumps them, they can’t handle it. So they take a medical leave of absence and they come here for treatment.” And she said, “To the one, they just don’t have enough experience making their own decisions, solving their own problems, running their own life.”
And I gave a lecture recently and this guy came up to me and said, “I just finished my doctoral dissertation on promoting autonomy in two-year-olds by, ‘Do you want to do it this way or this way?’ Start out by giving them a limited number of choices.” So you’re coming back to that treating them respectfully that you mentioned earlier.
Janet Lansbury: So for the parents that listen here regularly and know my work, they know that a lot of what this podcast ends up being about is how to actually set limits with children and have those boundaries for them and all of those things, which are to me in a different category than what you’re talking about, but not completely. We still give children choices with things that we have to help them do, like getting into the car seat, for example. “Do you want to be the one to go in by yourself?” But we do have to take charge of them, because if we don’t that creates the kind of stress that doesn’t help them to function either.
Dr. William Stixrud: As we say in The Self-Driven Child, this idea of being a consultant, it doesn’t mean that the kid’s the boss of the family. We see this as squarely in the tradition of what’s called authoritative parenting, as opposed to authoritarian or laissez-faire. And in authoritative parenting, we’re the guides of the family. We’re the leaders of the family, and we work out limits with kids. And ideally, when our kid’s, say, three or four, we sit down and talk about limits so that they’re kind of agreed-upon and everybody knows and they feel fair. We want to minimize the extent to which we’re forcing limits when we’re mad, go to your room kind of thing. But if little kids have too much freedom, as you said, it just makes them anxious. They can’t have that. Kids with laissez-faire parenting, where there’s very few limits, very few family rules that are enforced, it makes them really anxious because young people, they need to feel that my parents are in charge.
And ultimately, from that position, we treat them respectfully and know that the way kids become good decision-makers is by practicing making decisions. And the way kids learn to treat other people respectfully is by being treated respectfully. And so we can give kids choices, we can give them freedom, but we don’t let them walk all over us. They aren’t the boss of the family. They can’t do anything they want. It’s a delicate balance, but it’s doable if we realize that kids need limits and it’s really good to treat your kid respectfully. Like he or she is a human being who has a mind of her own. And it’s also true that when we treat kids respectfully that they’re more likely to go along with us. When they feel loved and appreciated and enjoyed, they’re just more likely to just go along with us and not fight us.
Janet Lansbury: Because we’re on the same team. And they know that, they feel that. The way I see it and teach it, again from infancy, so there’s sort of two areas. Even though we want to give children choice when they can handle it, sometimes they can’t in the boundary-type situations or situations in their care where they really need us to take the lead. But then there’s this whole other area of play, learning, that’s theirs, that belongs to them. And the more we support that while staying in our lane and not trying to micromanage it and decide what it should be, the better.
Dr. William Stixrud: I love that. It makes complete sense to me.
Janet Lansbury: That’s how I learned this, and it just felt really clear. I’m a person that needs things to be very, very clear in my mind to be able to even try to do them.
Dr. William Stixrud: And I really feel like my major mission, and certainly one of the reasons that I wanted to write The Self-Driven Child, is to help parents feel that it’s safe. It’s safe not to worry about your kid all the time, it’s safe to feel that you can trust your kids a lot of the time. It’s safe to feel that you aren’t supposed to know who they’re supposed to be and what they’re supposed to be like or what’s always right for them. You couldn’t know because when something happens to a kid, do you judge whether it was good or bad the next day or five years later or 10 years later? Certainly one of the most important experiences of my entire life was the first time I went to graduate school, in English literature. I went for 20 straight weeks and I didn’t turn in a single assignment because I was just so anxious and insecure. I work with a lot of underachievers and I say, “Twenty weeks, I turned in nothing. Top that.”
Janet Lansbury: I have nightmares about that.
Dr. William Stixrud: But my point is, so after the second quarter, I hadn’t turned anything in, so I flunked out. And I felt like my whole life had gone up in smoke. And it took me about a month to realize it was the best possible thing that could have happened to me. No way should I have been an English professor. I always felt like an imposter, I felt out of my league, and I wanted to do something with children. Most of my professors gave me incompletes. This one flunked me, so I couldn’t go back. And I prayed that I’d meet him and be able to thank him. But honest to God, Janet, two years later, I’m walking on the campus of the University of Washington where I’m taking some classes in education, and I see this guy and I go up to him and I say, “You probably don’t remember me.” He didn’t remember me, but I said, “You flunked me two years ago and it was the best possible thing that could have happened to me. Thank you.” It was a very satisfying experience.
But the point is that if we see what kids are going through as part of their path to figure their lives out, and our job is to support them and help them and, as you said, to provide structure and direction as necessary, it’s just a lot easier.
Janet Lansbury: Yeah. It works better for us, it’s easier, it’s less stressful when we stay in our lane and let them do their work and we do ours and trust everybody to do their job.
Dr. William Stixrud: It’s safe to do it. And I have great confidence in this as you do, because I walk this walk with my own kids, and I have two wonderful adult children who grew up with no academic pressure at all, and both have PhDs. And this approach of really fostering a sense of control, as they get older playing more that consultant role to help them figure out who they want to be. The three questions that I ask to think about my relationship with the kids is, Whose life is it?, Whose responsibility is it?, and Whose problem is it? And I want to remember that I don’t know who they want to be, it’s their life. I want to remember that I don’t want to take responsibility for something that’s really a kid’s responsibility, like doing their homework, for example. And also that I don’t want to solve problems that they’re capable of solving themselves.
Janet Lansbury: And you share so many incredible case studies. And you have a whole chapter on navigating learning disabilities, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorders and how your approach can work with children that have those challenges.
The other thing that you said is the enjoyment factor. So not only is it easy for us when we’re not trying to do jobs that aren’t going to work for us because they’re not our job, we’re not as able to enjoy the unfolding of the person because we’re so busy worrying about if they’re measuring up in this way or that way. And you offer these points around being a non-anxious presence: “Make enjoying your kids your top parenting priority. Don’t fear the future.” Maybe easier said than done, but we’ve got to put trust out there, right?
Dr. William Stixrud: Yes, yes. The enjoyment piece. When I used to do therapy, starting about 35 years ago, I did a lot of therapy with parents. And what came to me is that, let’s set our highest parenting priority as simply enjoying your child. Because when you enjoy your child, she experiences herself as a joy-producing organism as opposed to an anxiety-producing or an anger-producing or a frustration-producing organism. And it’s not that we have to enjoy every second, but the idea of just being spontaneously enjoyed, that’s how people have a sense of, “I’m likable.” And so what I’d do with parents is we’d work backwards: Let’s make that our goal. What’s keeping you from enjoying your kid most of the time? And it may be some behavioral thing, it may be something in the marriage, maybe some pressures at work, maybe insomnia and said, let’s work on these things, with the goal being to enjoy your kid, so your kid starts to see himself as a joy-producing organism.
Janet Lansbury: Yes. And it also can be because we’re trying to do right by our child, putting them on the team or whatever, and now we’re dragging them to practice because they don’t want to go. And it’s impossible to enjoy your child that way. But what I remember is when I could observe my children playing —which they allowed me to do about to the age of five, and then they didn’t want me to anymore— but their ideas. And I just remember one time my daughter, she was waiting for me, I was teaching actually, and she had to come that day. And I see her over there, she was using paper clips, something that was there, and she was making people out of paperclips and they were talking to each other, without even bending them or destroying them or anything. She made up this whole story with paperclips. And it’s just that kind of stuff that children do that’s so cool. And we can really see who they are and their imagination and interests and all of these things. It’s so much more interesting.
But anyway, I’m going to finish your list here: “Don’t fear the future. Commit to your own stress management. Make peace with your worst fears. Adopt an attitude of nonjudgmental acceptance.” What is that, nonjudgmental acceptance?
Dr. William Stixrud: Well, I think most parents buy the idea that it helps kids to feel that they’re loved unconditionally. And I think what that means is kind of warts and all. That it means that we accept them and we love them and we approve of them, even if they’re having a hard time, even if they’re trying to figure stuff out. And so this nonjudgmental acceptance just means that, if they’re acting badly, we’ll intervene in some ways. But we take the attitude that we aren’t judgmental, we don’t give them the idea, You’re a bad kid, or This is unacceptable to me, kind of thing. That we deal with them respectfully and say, “This isn’t working.” Or, “I don’t let people talk to me that way, I’ll see you in five minutes.” And find ways of dealing that’s respectful to the kid and gives the kid the message, I can handle your strong feelings. I can handle your bad behavior.
Janet Lansbury: Because we know there’s a reason they’re acting like that.
Dr. William Stixrud: Exactly.
Janet Lansbury: It’s usually about what’s going on inside them. It’s hardly ever really about us. So we don’t need to take offense.
Dr. William Stixrud: Right. Part of the goal of becoming a non-anxious presence is that when we’re calm, we’re much better listeners, we’re much better able to convey empathy, to express empathy for kids. We’re less controlling.
Janet Lansbury: And we’re much more able to solve the problem or figure out the issue because we’re not under stress, yeah.
Dr. William Stixrud: That’s exactly right. Just recognizing that once you’re stressed or your kid is stressed, you can’t think clearly. Don’t bother trying to teach a lesson, or don’t try to tell your kid something that you really need to get their attention. If you’re stressed and they’re stressed, they really can’t hear it, because we evolved to respond instinctively. So the prefrontal cortex that can think logically and rationally, basically it gets shut down, because the last thing you want to do if you’re being attacked by a wooly mammoth is to stop and think about it. So, recognizing that when we start to feel stressed is not the right time to lecture our kid or to try to teach him something, we say, “I want to talk about this. I want to help you with this. But I’m a little stressed right now. I’m going to take a walk or I’m going to go into my room for a few minutes. But I’m going to come back and let’s work this out.” This non-anxious presence is a powerful idea. And it’s a goal.
Janet Lansbury: And it’s a goal moment-to-moment, I feel like. It’s not like, Oh, I got it. I’m the non-anxious presence forever. It’s something that we are constantly just trying to keep in our mind the importance of. And we see when we do it that it really, really helps. It helps calm that person down. It helps them pass through it. It helps them figure things out and not get stuck in our stuff.
I could talk to you all day long, gosh. I’m fascinated by all these topics that you’re an expert on and I would love to have you come back another time and we’ll go over one of these other topics. For now, I want to thank you so much for speaking with me today, sharing all your knowledge. As you say, “We think of chronic stress in children and teenagers as the societal equivalent of climate change—a problem that has been building over generations and will take considerable effort and a change of habits to overcome.” And that’s what you say in your book and wow, that’s scary. But we can all be taking steps in that direction.
Dr. William Stixrud: The idea is if we want a calmer world, a more peaceful world, then we work on that in ourselves. There’s so many things that we can do to make lives better for ourselves and our kids, and we can model for our kids really taking good care of ourselves when we work on our own stress management. Whether that’s with exercise or meditation or yoga. We model for our kids that I take care of myself so I can be at the top of my game. And I think, what more can we do?
Janet Lansbury: Not much, but try to enjoy our kids. Even as they get older too. I am having just as much fun, if not more, with my adult children as I did with my little ones. And I love working with little ones. That’s why I do it.
Dr. William Stixrud: It’s true. And I love being a parent at every age. I loved raising teenagers and having young adults is just fabulous. It’s a great role.
Janet Lansbury: Same. Alright. Thank you so much.
Dr. William Stixrud: My pleasure, Janet.
Janet Lansbury: Alright, you take care.
Dr. William Stixrud: Okay, you too. Bye.
Janet Lansbury: Okay, bye-bye.
Dr. Stixrud is the founder of The Stixrud Group, 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 and co-author with Ned Johnson of The Self-Driven Child and What Do You Say? How to Talk with Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance, and a Happy Home.
Please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. And my books, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame, and Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting, you can get them in paperback at Amazon and In ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and apple.com.
Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.