A conversation with Ned Johnson about stress, student achievement, and how to give kids more autonomy
2018 Diamonds in the Rough Conference speakers Ned Johnson and Dr. William Stixrud have a new book, The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives.
Here’s a conversation with Ned Johnson about stress, student achievement, and how to give kids more autonomy.
Q. There is a lot of interest in your new book The Self-Driven Child, co-authored with clinical neuropsychologist Dr. William Stixrud. Dr. Madeline Levine said, “This is one of the most radical and important books on raising healthy, resilient, purpose-driven kids.” That’s high praise. So, why might the book be considered radical?
To Bill and me, it’s not radical at all. To us, it’s common sense. As Bill would say, “You should make peace with reality.” And a huge chunk of that is, you really cannot control your kid.
The “radical” language is because, it’s almost a complete 180 in what most of us as parents have been led to believe we should be doing. We are overwhelmed because we think that we are responsible for our kids’ success, happiness, safety - everything. It ultimately doesn’t lead to better outcomes. It looks good in the short term, but in the long-term it is a hot mess.
This idea that your kids are going to be more successful and less stressed, by you doing less strikes some people as insane. In part because, we think, “I will feel better when I feel more in control.” So, the parent may want to jump in there, fix things and take control of their kids. But by definition it is a bit of a zero-sum game. The more control I try to exert, the less there will be left for my kid.
There’s been a thousand books written about “letting your kids fail.” We’re taking a different tack. This is not “let your kids fail.” Instead we’re saying, you just cannot be the manager of your kid’s life. We encourage parents to see themselves as consultants to their kids, rather than task masters.
Q. Parents with children that struggle with attention and executive functioning deficits spend a good deal of time helping their children navigate school. The idea of giving your child more autonomy may be terrifying to these parents. How can we help both the parents and children in this scenario?
I’d say, take the long view. You only grow by a challenge. If we clear all the obstacles from a kid’s glide path, he’ll end up at a place that will look successful but he will have no idea how he got there.
(Here Ned goes into a very detailed and fascinating story about studies with stress and baby rats. Researchers found that baby rats who are stressed and then return to a nurturing mother, over and over, are conditioned to tolerate stressors. The rats, which were actually dubbed “California laid back rats” were more likely to take risks. Which, in the rat world, would be exploring an open space instead of hiding. If the rats were stressed and then returned to a stressed-out mom, they became the most screwed up, neurotic rats ever. And the rats that lived life without stressors? They did not develop the courage to take risks at all.)
So, this is what we want for our kids. We don’t want to shield them from stressors that they can handle. You want your child to experience mild or moderate stress and you can say, “It’s okay, I’m right here with you.” You would of course step in and protect them from an overwhelming stress, but we don’t want to shield them from mild or moderate stress.
Now, how do you get your child to do that thing that might be stressful? Well, if you child is tough, rigid, mentally inflexible, these are all signs of being anxious. He wants to have more control. We’re trying to develop all those executive functions, and mental flexibility is a big one there.
The pre-frontal cortex is sort of like #igotthis and the amygdala is #ohcrap. Under stress, that #ohcrap seems to metastasize over everything. So, what we want is for the pre-frontal cortex to be in charge.
The problem is, if he is sensitive and that amygdala fires off, you are not engaging the rational part of his brain. And you think you are, you’re giving him facts and reasons, but his amygdala says, “Don’t listen.”
So, what I suggest to parents is to just simply say, “May I offer you some advice?”
Because that gives your child a sense of agency. You can relax a bit, let him take charge a little. (And why would you want to give your child advice at that moment if he doesn’t want it anyway?) Let your child come back to you when he wants. If this calms his amygdala, then you are engaging the rational part of the brain again, and your child is able to hear facts and logic and not just respond emotionally.
Is the stress we’re seeing with our kids and achievement unique to the DC area?
Yes and no. This thing with stress is, it’s not any one thing, it’s everything. So, part of the way I feel about students and achievement stress is cumulative – a percentage of it is your temperament, part of it is how much stress your parents are under, part might be trying to compete with an older sibling, and so on. You start adding it all up.
I think what’s probably the case in places like DC, the ambient stress is higher, because it’s expensive, there’s too much traffic, there’s this sense of endless competition. My best friend and former business partner lives in Portland, and they are much less likely to think about test prep in the 9th grade. So, I think geography is part of it.
There’s also something in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) called shared delusional disorder. Imagine growing up with an entire family where there is a sense that, if you don’t go to an Ivy League school, you’ll never be successful. Their kids trot into kindergarten wearing Yale and Dartmouth t-shirts. You’ll start to absorb that from your family or your culture, and you’ll start to believe it. In fact, despite evidence to the contrary, a lot of people believe this. As much as it is a stereotype, it’s a confirmation bias, and what happens is you ignore contradicting information.
But I do think part of it is that DC feels more competitive, people are more sleep deprived, and people are more stressed, than if, say, we were living in Albuquerque or something.
You and Dr. Stixrud have been doing talks together for a few years. What is it that you enjoy about working together?
Our knowledge and experiences complement each other well. Bill and I started working together on this book in 2014, but we’ve been thinking, talking and lecturing together for about ten years. It’s interesting going through this as a road show. The introductions can be like, “Dr. William Stixrud, a highly respected neuropsychologist, etc. etc.” - and then it’s “Ned Johnson is a tutor geek.”
But the advantage I do have is that I’ve probably spent more time one-on-one with more 16 and 17-year-olds in the country than anyone. There are lots of teachers and there are lots of therapists, but most people don’t see ten adolescents a day during the most stressful period of their development. I have such an opportunity to sit there and watch children’s eyes light up in a test prep session. My whole thing is, how can I best deliver the research and what I’ve learned to help other kids and parents.
What should we look forward to in your presentation at the upcoming Diamonds in the Rough Conference?
I know Bill has been to the Diamonds Conference before, but this will be my first time, and I’m really excited. I think the first thing is, we’ll be approaching the audience with the understanding that parenting kids is hard. And parenting kids who fall outside the narrowly defined scope of what “normal” is, is even harder. These are kids whose reactions are likely to be more intense, whose needs are broader. Parenting can really go from a full-time job to an over-time job.
I work with lots of kids who have anxiety. Bill says almost by definition the kid who has learning difficulties has anxiety, because all day long they are feeling like they are not measuring up. What I say to kids is, “Your reactions are totally normal, because you have a human brain, right? But what’s happening, is that your reactions are just more intense.”
There’s a line we have in the book, that “this is chemical, it’s not character.” We are all born with a temperament. Some people are really sunny, right out of the womb, and others are more like Eeyore from Winne the Pooh. If we know that these things are chemical, rather than character, the question is how do we take that into consideration, and what can we do to bend that a bit. We can focus on the things that can increase a kids’ sense of control, and ways we know improve well-being like meditation, sleep and exercise.
What is the biggest takeaway for attendees?
I want people to understand that growth is not linear. We can see this so clearly with bodies, and its ten times more so with brains. While how tall you grow is limited by your genes, we have so much more control over how we help our brains develop in healthy ways.
Ned Johnson is President and Tutor-Geek for PrepMatters, an organization that provides academic tutoring, one-on-one test preparation and college counseling services.