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Anxiety and the Importance of Self-Driven Children

Friday, September 28, 2018

One of the more challenging elements of being a parent and educator is trying to parent in accordance with the good advice that you’ve lavished on other parents over the years.

Most notably: giving your children space to develop at their pace, to make their own choices, to develop their own likes and dislikes, and permission to evolve and grow at their own pace is MUCH easier said than done. My wife is probably nodding vigorously.  Yes, I admit to being a work in progress in this regard!

Our hopes and dreams and ideas about what should happen when can create emotional clutter for our kids. I remind myself that this is my child’s third grade year, not mine. But finding the balance of interest and engagement vs. over-interest can be challenging! All around us is the ‘data’ that seem to implore us that our kids must get off to a strong start -- fluent reading, early dance or sports teams, piano lessons, extra math, reading or STEM -- or our child will be left in the dust.

But studies are showing that too many kids, even privileged, ‘successful’ young adolescents are being diagnosed with anxiety and depression. And over the last decade, anxiety has overtaken depression as the most common reason college students seek counseling services. In its annual survey of students, the American College Health Association found a significant increase — to 62 percent in 2016 from 50 percent in 2011 — of undergraduates reporting “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year. Surveys that look at symptoms related to anxiety also are telling. In 1985, the Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A. began asking incoming college freshmen if they “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do” during the previous year. In 1985, 18 percent said they did. By 2010, that number had increased to 29 percent. Last year, it surged to 41 percent.

The approach we take with our kids early on sets the pace. We know that children surrounded by caring, patient adults will blossom and flourish, albeit at their own pace, but with better long-term results. Worth keeping in mind if we agree that, above all, we want to have happy, self-actualized, balanced children who will grow into successful, but also happy and well-adjusted, adults.

Thus, we should try not to allow our own insecurities and anxieties (including the very normal worry that we’re not doing a great job parenting and preparing our kids) to become our kids’ anxieties.

Author, child psychologist, and former Burgundy Sevareid Forum speaker, Bill Stixrud in his new book The Self-Driven Child paints a picture in contemporary America of too many children weighted down with ‘achievement pressure.’ He sees something of an epidemic of children stricken with anxiety and a lack of self-efficacy.

Stixrud and his co-author Ned Johnson, a longtime SAT tutor, see children who are quite accomplished, even ‘stars’ attending wonderful schools and colleges but lacking a basic sense of mastery of their own lives, which have been over-structured and managed for them. Stixrud early in the book (I am just reading it now) relates the anecdote of a young elementary student whose parent keeps tearing up and breaking down when she tries to talk to him about securing tutoring she’s convinced he needs. The child, who in this instance, shows no signs of anxiety, parents her parent: “Mom, you’re going to have to pull it together if we’re going to have these talks!”

Heaven help me to let her grow at (mostly) her own pace toward the person she is to become…I repeat to myself these days.

So, ok. I’ll leave the handwriting for the teachers. And I’ll let her ride her bike and be a kid, and make more choices and (maybe) take a bye this year on lacrosse if she does not want to play. Can I just have less burping and talking about bodily functions? There’s still time for her to develop more focus, and if she doesn’t, well, she’ll be a happy, well adjusted regular kid.

I am learning slowly to ease into a more facilitative observer/gentle encourager role. Personally, I think I am better at this at work than at home. (Colleagues shall not be interviewed for this story.)  But I am learning. And Burgundy is a great partner to help me. I invite you to join me in reading this book, which is provocative and useful. And I am offering a coffee and book discussion on Friday, October 26 at 8:30 a.m.. [Update: This has now been moved to Friday, November 9 at 8:30 a.m.] Hope to see you then!