I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to raise children in today’s society. Where children used to live in the backyard making up fantasies about bugs or skate under the lights at the outdoor rink has now been replaced with the consumption of technology and the idea of specialized sports. Remember the stories that began with “Once upon a time . . .?” The time for imagination and reflection seems distantly removed. Children are moving through life at a lightening fast pace. So, are children happy?
Recently, I came upon an article titled, “The Key To Raising A Happy Child.” Of course, this was intriguing to me for I’ve always wondered if happiness is our goal in parenting. Be that what it may, I read on. What I found is a compelling argument for three important factors in cultivating a sense of well-being in our children: autonomy, agency, and trust.
The authors of a new book titled, The Self-Driven Child . . . The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives, by William Stixrud (a neuropsychologist), and Ned Johnson, assert that building agency begins with parents, because it has to be cultivated and nurtured in childhood. What this means is giving our kids more control . . . more autonomy. Easier said than done for most of us. What drives us to be over-protective, to smooth the path for our children, and to make the conditions "just right"? It has less to do with our belief in our children’s capabilities and more to do with our own fears. To build agency, or the skills to take action for one’s learning, we must trust in our children’s capacity to be self-reliant. Children who have ownership for their learning develop a sense of confidence, which paves the way to happiness and well-being.
Stixrud refers to the job of a parent being one of consultant. “Many parents insist on micromanaging everything from homework to friendships,” he says. In his practice he found that having a sense of control over their lives energizes children. “The self-driven child is driven by motivation as opposed to other people’s expectations, rewards, or fear.” He shares examples of battles parents have with their children about such things as homework, and refers to the "shared delusion" that we have that the path to becoming successful is a narrow one and, if you fall off, you’re sunk. The reality is that if we are respectful to our children we recognize that our kids want to do well and need our support, not our management.
Scientist Reed Larson concluded that encouraging children to participate in things they are passionate about — stuff they love — “. . . will create a brain-state that combines high focus, high energy, high effort, and low stress.” What we want for our children is to be inspired — to be active, alert, and highly engaged learners. When I was in junior high, I loved playing the clarinet so much so that I spent every minute of my free time in the band room. Practicing wasn’t work; it was both passion and pleasure. Looking back on this, it reinforces what we know about learning . . . children develop agency and contentment when given the opportunity to dive into what’s meaningful to them.
What does this mean for us as parents? Perhaps it’s an invitation to consider the value of:
- Inspiring and encouraging our children to embrace their passions!
- Supporting and coaching vs. leading and managing.
- Letting go of control and believing in our children’s ability to be self-directed.
- Finding opportunities to engage children in reflective conversation and feedback.
- Waiting until the time is right . . . we can’t rush a child’s development.
- Instilling a deep sense of trust in our children’s capacity to become all they are meant to be!
Let’s step back and reflect on what it might take to raise children who are confident, self-directed, and passionate and, likely, happiness will follow.
— Peg Bailey, Lower School Director