Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Non-fiction: Review of The Self-Driven Child by William Stixrud & Ned Johnson

A recent issue in my family brought to a head a problem that had been bubbling unattended for years, and has set me on a quest to dig deeper into understanding a life and lives that I once thought I understood relatively well. Of course, it turns out there are layers I may have known existed in some vague way but severely underestimated the significance of. Long story short, thanks mom for helping me be who I wanted to be. That, in a nutshell, is the oh-so obvious yet not-so-obvious mantra of William Stixrud and Ned Johnson’s The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives (2018).

Looking around, you see it every day: parents, with the best of intentions, helping their children with some task or activity. ‘Help’ an intentionally vague term in my example, the manner in which these parents help varies greatly. Some sit back and watch, offering encouragement or support, while others do everything for the child, thinking them unable to accomplish the task themselves or afraid of them hurting themselves. An injured or hurt child is for the latter, somehow, a blight on the parent’s record. Highlighting the need to sever the child as extension of parent and allow the child to exist as an individual is at the heart of Stixrud and Johnson’s book. If you love someone you have to let them go applies to parenting, also.

Stixrud and Johnson hone in on the idea that children’s anxieties and fears limit their ability to be confident in themselves and self-motivated, and that in most cases these stresses and fears are in fact a mirror of their parents’. Thus the book does a wonderful job of splitting its authorial voice between parents and children (mostly teens, with some content for younger children). Stixrud and Johnson having backgrounds in neuroscience, psychology, and psychiatry, all of the argumentation is backed with scientific research into the brain and years of experience, often successful, working with parents and children to help sort out the issues troubling them.

Arguing that a person’s fundamental needs come down to a sense of autonomy/control over their lives and emotional support, the authors preach a brand of parenting that is anti-helicopter, just as much as it is anti-laissez faire. Hitting the sweet spot between, the pair state that it’s about setting healthy expectations for our children to work within to discover the world and themselves, learn through failure and success, and ultimately becoming happy, successful people by their own terms, not their parents’. It’s about loving them for who they are, not who their parents want them to be. It’s about giving them a meadow or a park, not a path or limitless horizon.

In the end, The Self-Driven Child is a book intended to help parents through the choppy sea of raising children, but is as much for the parents themselves, helping them regulate and reduce the stress and anxieties which feed our children’s sense of identity and control or lack thereof. For me personally, it confirmed why I am raising my children to be self-driven (and why I love my mother), but I know for others in my family it was an eye opener, or at least thought-provoker in terms of what was ‘good’ and ‘right’ for raising children. (Thanks, mom!! Love you!)


  1. So helpful. I've got to read the whole book. I'm trying to reduce my grandson's stress level. He is only 6, but already has generalized anxiety disorder. Perhaps this study can help us help him more naturally than drugs.