Guest Blogger: Daniel Starling

I have a guest blogger this month.  I don’t usually like to have anyone else’s “voice” on my site but when the person makes SO much sense at the absolute perfect time (my daughter is a freshman in high school) I have to give them the floor and share what they have to say.  While I have three degrees in Psychology and Education, it’s often hard to apply all that you’ve learned when it comes to your own kids.  I’m reading the book referenced below now and thinking very seriously about how I parent my school-aged children.  I hope you will find Daniel Starling’s submission below to be helpful. 


Imagine your reaction if your spouse asked you: “How was work today? Did you get a good report on your project? You understand how important it is for you to take your work seriously, right? I mean, I know it isn’t always easy or fun, but you really should see if you can get a promotion so you’ll have more options in the future. It just seems like maybe you aren’t doing your best all the time. Like, maybe you could work a little harder.”

While you’d be furious, we do the same thing to our children all of the time. The quote above is from the 2018 book The Self Driven Child by William Stixrud, clinical neuropsychologist, and Ned Johnson, “president and tutor-geek” of Prep Matters. The pair examined the conditions linked to some troubling behaviors in their clients’ children, who each had three things in common:

  1. They experienced stress in their school and social lives (as we all do),
  2. They experienced stress at home when they argued with their parents, and
  3. They felt like they had very little control over their lives.

Stixrud and Johnson began to compare notes about children who met these criteria against those who felt both a higher degree of control and a non-anxious presence at home. They found that students who felt in control and avoided arguing at home exhibited more resilient mental health, more robust physical health, greater academic and career success, and even greater longevity.

The authors argue that it should be the parents’ goal to help kids experience many successful stress cycles, going from “oh my goodness” to “oh thank goodness.” A successful stress cycle begins with a student experiencing either beneficial stress or at least tolerable stress. Beneficial stress might be something like nervousness before a test or game. Tolerable stress isn’t pleasurable to deal with, but it is brief. For example, being bullied for a short time might be considered tolerable stress. At the end of each day, children should feel that their environment is a safe home base, where they meet a warm, responsive, and calm presence. The mirror neurons and the amygdala in any person’s brain cannot help but “pick up” others’ stress or lack thereof. By being a calming presence, parents assist their children to “wash away” stress and conclude a successful stress cycle.

Learning to be stressed in a healthy way is a worthy goal, but kids also need motivation in order to become “Self-Driven.” Stixrud and Johnson say motivation is a three-legged stool. The first leg is competence: kids probably won’t be motivated to learn a subject or a sport at which they perform poorly. The second leg is relatedness: they must feel a connection with at least one other person in their area of interest (think about how many kids choose a favorite subject based on the teacher). The final leg is autonomy, the most difficult leg for children to acquire because parents commonly withhold it from them. Giving children a greater sense of control over the decisions that will impact their lives is the key to their development of autonomy and, therefore, motivation.

In order to give your child more control, the authors implore parents to stop fighting with their children about schoolwork. Parents who nag their children reinforce the illusion that someone other than each child is responsible for their own success. Stixrud and Johnson encourage parents to rebrand as consultants, complete with office hours. Say things like “Do you want another angle on that?” and be willing to keep your words to yourself if declined. When they do ask for your advice, they’ll be more likely to heed it. Parents should tell their children “I have confidence in your ability to make decisions in your own life and to learn from your mistakes. I want you to practice making important decisions because I do not want to send you off to college without having made these kinds of decisions for yourself.”

After the authors make this claim, they go into expansive detail about the terms of this arrangement including discussing what happens if the child is found to be abusing substances or participating in other deleterious habits. They take great care to field reasonable and persuasive objections from parents, address them thoroughly, and make appropriate exceptions to their rules in a level of detail outside the scope of this article. Parents maintain authority throughout the entire proposition.

After making these concessions, the authors caution it can be incredibly damaging to children for parents to overrule a decision of particular import. Parents may have the noblest of intentions, but all children hear is: “I trust you to make good decisions…unless it really matters.”

As a parting note, the authors add that the increase in toxic levels of stress in adolescent populations in the past decade isn’t necessarily the fault of the parents: “The temperature in the world has just risen a little too much,” Johnson asserts. However, they contend there is an enormous number of things parents can do to help kids develop brains that are happier, more tolerant to stress, more resilient, and more motivated. They say “Your kids will forget what you said and they might forget what you did, but they will remember how you made them feel, which is hopefully loved, trusted, supported, and capable.”


If you’d like to learn more about the authors or the contents of the book,

I recommend the eleven and a half hour audiobook or this one hour book tour stop

Daniel Starling

A full-time tutor in Westchester, Daniel Starling specializes in socially-distanced, in-person SAT Tutoring, ACT Tutoring, as well as math and science tutoring. Learn more at Starling Tutoring.

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