The Self-Driven Child

In private conversations for several years, I have been promoting “Ackerman’s Theory of Control.” My informal theory can be summarized as “people (children included) need to control something in their lives… if they don’t feel in control, they will take control of something.”

My theory emerged out of years of working with children, and finding that those students who rebelled the most spent their days classrooms in which the teachers exerted the strictest rules and dominated the teaching; their rebellion was demonstrated in the greatest levels of what we would call misbehavior. Those same students were quite productive in my classroom in which there was less control.

Self-Driven Child coverWilliam Stixrud and Ned Johnson have taken my informal theory and developed it into The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control over Their Lives. Their book seems to be written for those to whom are labeled “helicopter parents” is applied, as well as those to whom “college-only educators” is applied. Individuals in these groups are driven by four assumptions that drive their interaction with their children or students. These begin the book and I paraphrase them here:

  • There is only one path to success that and one succeeds on this path through out-competing all others.
  • Success in school is vital for success in life.
  • Pushing youngsters to more participation and greater achievement leads to success in school and beyond.
  • Children need constant supervision.

Adults whose actions towards children are driven by these assumptions are a source of chronic stress in the children’s lives, and there is ample evidence that chronic stress is very unhealthy, especially for developing brains. Stixrud and Johnson argue that giving children control of parts of their lives both reduces stress and gives them practice making decisions and using the many parts of the brain needed to make sound decisions.

My favorite chapter title in the book is “I Love You Too much to Fight with You About Homework.” In this chapter, the authors present a cogent and reasonable case that whatever benefits (as measured against the four assumptions) children gain by completing homework when it is assigned is negated by both the adverse effects of the coincident stress as well as the damage done to parent-child relationships. (As a teacher, I am supposed to advocate for parents to play an active role in supporting teachers by ensuing homework is completed, but I have seen meaningless tasks sent home for decades—some of them by me. If we can’t assign tasks that are engaging for homework, then why do we bother?)

Rather than serving as the overseer of homework, the authors recommend parents adopt a “consultant” role to help youngsters progress from “unconsciously incompetent” (characterized by the child who responds, “I don’t need help”) through “consciously incompetents” (when the child realizes he or she needs help) though competence. Central to this approach to parenting is that children are the “owners” of their work and that unless they accept responsibility and engage with the solutions, the solutions will be imposed, thus no competence will be gained by the child.

While starting off with the theme of “control for youngsters,” the authors quickly deviate from the topic promised in the title with chapters on sleep, technology, and other topics that are relevant to parenting and teaching today, but that seem disconnected to the theme of control.

Throughout the book, the authors draw on their experience with young people, and the anecdotes and brief cases illustrate the points they seek to make and clarify abstract ideas. Further, the authors adopt a pragmatic approach, including in each chapter “frequently asked questions” as well as steps that one can take immediately to help give control of their lives back to children.

The message in the book is clear: “We and our children have much to gain if they take control of their lives.” The message is also clear that we can do this and both we and our children will survive. These messages deserve to be widely-read and understood.