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Bella was going out of her mind. Her 9-year-old daughter, Angie, would agree to sign up for an activity with great enthusiasm. Swim team? Yes, please! Book club? You bet! Ballet? Sign me up! Then something would happen that made the activity, well, hard. Her team had to practice diving off racing blocks and she hated diving. She didn’t like the book chosen for book club. Her ballet teacher was too strict. When it came time to go to the lesson or club, a power struggle ensued that made it hard to get her out the door.

Bella and her husband had heard me run through the research revealing that the best thing you can do to cushion your kids from anxiety and to help them develop self-motivation is to let them take the driver’s seat. But now that belief was being tested. Was their 9-year-old driving herself into the quitter’s ditch? They were a hard-working couple who knew how important diligence and perseverance were to their own success. If they kept letting Angie quit, they were afraid they would be raising a soft kid who’d be underprepared for the real world.

I hear concerns like this all the time, and here is my advice:

  • Don’t think of your child’s character as “fixed.” All of our worry about our kids is about the future — we fear that they’ll get stuck in a negative place and won’t get better. Angie’s parents were envisioning their 9-year-old as a lazy 20-year-old, coming to them to bail her out. They needed to tell themselves: “Who she is now is not who she will always be.” We all know the negative impacts of peer pressure, but there are positives, too: I see many kids who are cautious or seem to have trouble committing become passionate in their pursuit of self-selected goals when they see their friends doing it, too. Kids can be completely different after puberty, when peer influences become even stronger, often with the result of a kid trying out for a team, joining a club, or signing up for volunteer work, apparently out of nowhere.
  • Explain the difference between “I don’t want to” and “I don’t feel like it.” Distinguishing long-term desires from immediate feelings will help kids understand the difference between an immediate task and ultimate goal. When Angie says, “I don’t want to read my book club book,” her parents might say that although she may not feel like reading it, she may want to read it if she hopes to continue being a part of the club. This is a lesson that doesn’t register right away, but it’s worth planting the seed and emphasizing over time.
  • Let them know you see the areas in which they do work hard or show motivation. Say “I know you’re someone who can stick with things when they’re important to you.”
  • Get to the root of her concern. When Angie says, “I don’t want to go,” it’s all too easy to respond with, “You’re going!” But pause and ask a question instead. Help her think it through. Why doesn’t she want to go? Point out that she seems to enjoy it after the fact — why? It could be that you will uncover a deeper issue. Maybe diving is painful because she belly-flops. Maybe she’s embarrassed and feels she isn’t as good as others. What might make that better? Extra practice with mom and dad, so that she feels more comfortable during swim practice? Engage her in coming up with a solution. If she’s resisting the activity because she’s not very good at it, tell her, “I know from my own life that we often have to be not so good at things for a while as part of the process of getting good at something. I want to be sure that you’re not just looking for something that comes easily, as a little struggle is necessary for all of us.”

Many people misunderstand my advice that they should give their kids more control over their own lives as meaning that they should give their kids carte blanche to do whatever they want. Not so. For one, Angie’s parents paid for her swim team and had a financial stake in her seeing it through. They were well within their rights to explain that for the duration they’d paid for, she needed to stick with it. And as for book club, it didn’t feel right to let Angie back out of a commitment she’d made to the others. So I advised Bella to say, “I’d feel like a terrible mom if I let you back out of things. It’s not good for your relationships, and it’s not good for you as a person to get used to doing that.” Bella might explain that if Angie really wants to back out of the book club, she will need to write a letter to the other members explaining why she is quitting. This gives her a choice about whether to persist or quit, but she will have to take ownership of her decision.

  • It’s chemical, not character. Angie’s parents shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that their daughter is a quitter. Either these activities didn’t energize her, or she was apprehensive. It could be that she had low baseline levels of dopamine (the “get-up-and-go” hormone) or high levels of cortisol (the “stress hormone”).
  • Keep exploring. Bella felt it was important for Angie to work hard at something. But how could she help Angie find something that would capture her interest enough so that she’d keep at it? It might take some time to find. But focusing intently on that activity would be one of the best things for Angie’s brain, because it would induce what’s come to be called “flow,” when levels of certain neurochemicals in your brain — including dopamine — spike. The more Angie experiences flow, the more she’ll be conditioning a motivated brain, so that when she is older and has to focus on things she doesn’t want to do (and there is plenty of that in adult life), she’ll be able to make herself do them. As parents, we expose our kids to what we like or what their friends are doing. But if you’re a family of jocks and have an artist, it may take a while to hit the sweet spot. And what’s wrong with being a dilettante before zeroing in? Sports experts are now deeply concerned about the risk of injuries in kids who specialize too early rather than playing everything. Or consider that acclaimed musician Wynton Marsalis picked up a trumpet at age 14, but then practiced four hours a day because he wanted to. In short, what’s the rush?

We should remember that we can’t make a kid develop grit; that’s not part of our job description as parents. We can expose them to things they may like, support them in sticking with things as they get harder, and express confidence that they can handle the stress or the boredom necessary to get to “the next level.”

Remember that the world is so complex that we have no idea where the things that will turn our kids on come from. If Bella encourages Angie to keep seeking what she loves, and to work hard at it when she finds it, she will help her grow into a confident and self-directed woman.

William Stixrud is the co-author, with Ned Johnson, of “The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives.” A professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine with a clinical neuropsychology practice in Silver Spring, Md., he is a specialist in learning difficulties and speaks regularly on the impact of stress on the brain. 

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