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Episode summary:

In this excerpt of a class about homework with Dr. William Stixrud and Ned Johnson, authors of The Self-Driven Child, Susan explores the anxiety parents often feel around their kids' unwillingness to take their school work seriously.

William R. Stixrud, Ph.D., is a clinical neuropsychologist and founder of The Stixrud Group, as well as a faculty member at Children’s National Medical Center and an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine. He is also the co-author, with Ned Johnson, of the national best-selling book, The Self-Driven Child, and of their new book, What Do You Say? Talking with Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance, and a Happy Home. Dr. Stixrud’s work has been featured in media outlets such as NPR, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times of London, The Wall Street Journal, U.S. News and World Report, Time Magazine, Scientific American, Business Week, Barron’s, and, New York Magazine. He is a long-time practitioner of Transcendental Meditation, and he plays in the rock band Close Enoughe.

Ned Johnson is an author, speaker, and the founder of PrepMatters, an educational company providing academic tutoring, educational planning and standardized test prep. A professional “tutor-geek” since 1993, Ned has spent more than 40,000 one-on-one hours helping students conquer an alphabet of standardized tests and honing his insights on communicating with students and parents. A battle-tested veteran in the fields of test preparation, anxiety management, and student performance, Ned coaches kids how to manage their stress while simultaneously motivating and empowering them to reach their full potential. Ned has written for the New York Times, The Telegraph, U.S. News & World Report & The Washington Post and co-authored three books, including the national best-seller The Self Driven Child, and he hosts the PrepTalks Podcast.

Things you'll learn from this episode:


How our worries play out when it comes to our children’s homework

The importance of letting our children learn from their challenges

Offering support without taking on our kids’ responsibilities

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Episode Transcript

Speaker 1: (00:08)
Hi there. Welcome back to the Parenting Without Power Struggles podcast. I'm so glad that you're here. This podcast is all about helping you have more fun and fewer power struggles as you raise your children and your teens. I'm your host Susan Stiffelman and the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles and Parenting With Presence. And it's my honor to share some of the things I've learned in my 40 plus years as a family therapist and educator, or mom, a teacher. So many different career paths, but they all converge here and we cover everything. Everything that has to do with raising joyful, resilient children with guests like Dr. Dan Siegel, Dr. Mona Delahooke, Martha Beck, Kristen Neff, Janet Lansbury, and so many other wonderful and wise speakers.

Before we get started, make sure that you're taking advantage of everything that we offer for parents by visiting You'll be able to get my free newsletter. It has lots of inspiration and support. You can also find out about my Monthly Parenting Without Power Struggles membership program, which is for parents who want my ongoing personal help and our Co-parenting with a Narcissist support group for those who need that kind of support. There are also, gosh, over 35 deep dive 90 minute masterclass on everything from the gifts of ADHD with Dr. Ned Hallowell, Tools from Neuroscience with Mona Delahooke, Helping Behaviorally Challenged Children with Dr. Ross Green and so many more.

Speaker 2: (01:38)
Now let's get started. I think one of the hardest things that parents face is knowing when to step in, when their child is having a hard time and when to step back and let them deal with their own challenges, offering our loving support, but not intervening to the degree that we might want to based on our own anxiety. And in this clip that you're gonna hear from a class I did with William Stixrud and Ned Johnson, who are just wonderful authors of two books I love,  The Self-Driven Child and What Do You Say? We dove into the topic of homework for 90 minutes. So this is just an excerpt, but I wanted to share it with you because there's some really important ideas. Of course, if you wanna take the class, you can visit my website, but you'll hear us talking about our own anxiety and the struggle that we might have when our kids aren't really diving in and doing the homework that they're meant to be doing. And the kind of frustration of that. And the question about when we should get involved and insist or set limits and structures and when we kind of let our kids kind of trip over themselves if necessary to learn some important life lessons. So I hope you enjoy the, the excerpt and just listen with an open mind. It doesn't mean that you'll agree with everything that you hear, but some important ideas and well-tested in the field. Enjoy.

Speaker 1: (03:09)
Talk about why homework is such a hotbed of conflict for parents and their kids.

Speaker 3: (03:15)
. Well, you know, I, I when I started my career in the mid eighties, I, I would see all these families because I see so many kids who have ADHD and, and learning disabilities. So many families where, where they'd say, I, I dread dinnertime cuz after dinner it's three hours of fighting about kids' homework. You know, that kind of stuff. And I learned for the first time in 1986, that homework doesn't seem to contribute to learning at all in elementary school and very little in middle school, not much in high school. But I thought, what is all this fighting for? And I, so I'm just saying it's been a pretty persistent kind of problem here. And kids have more problem, more homework now and more earlier. And we think it's based on, on, on just incorrect thinking. It's based on mainly fear and, and based on the idea that the more they do, the better they'll go off for it, the better off it'll be. And I just think there's no evidence to support that.

Speaker 1: (04:06)
Ned. I wanna talk about, you know, some of the ideas that I've thought of are, you know, it's just kids don't wanna do homework cuz it's not fun, it doesn't feel meaningful, there's too much of it. They need to be outside. Their social life kind of dominates. They, they don't see the need. But I wanna kind of move over to you because of the, the anxious parent. And by the way, excuse me, bill, if you have any other windows open, you might wanna close it cuz there's a little bit of a hitch in your transmission. And we don't want any to lose any of your wonderful words. And also you're not quite centered on the screen, which is just my obsessive weird thing. So if you could, Ned, if you could just talk about the anxiety of parents and how that kind of contributes to what's already a, a potential mess with our kids.

Speaker 4: (04:53)
Yeah. 1, 1, 1 to back up slightly from that you know, the, the, the skill in, in addition to academic skills, we're trying to also help kids develop the ability to organize themselves and, and, and manage themselves and problem solve, right? And, and the, the ability to set and achieve goals involve what we describe as executive functions, right? So organizing, planning, decision making. Should, should I, should I, should I play now and do my homework or should do my homework and play later? I've got a, I've got a plan for this and these are incredibly important skills for success in school and in life. And, and I would maintain, I think we would maintain much more so than the actual content because kids are gonna forget 90% of what they learn. So, so we really wanna be focusing on kids having the ability to, to learn how to learn and, and we don't really care what it is that they're learning a as much, right?

Speaker 4: (05:43)
So knowing that, knowing that we to learn, well we want these executive functions to work well and knowing that we wanna develop these executive functions, that's kinda what we wanna dial in at. Yeah. Executive functions, the work of the prefrontal cortex, that stuff gets screwed up when you're stressed, right? When the amygdala, which is a very primitive part of your brain when it fires, right? It kicks the prefrontal court to straight offline. And now my ability to think and reason, it's, it's a mess. And the challenges, some kids that, especially in today's world, are highly sensitive. And one of the people that they're highly sensitive to is their parents because our kids have spent a lifetime watching us. And so if we're like, no, it's okay sweetheart, don't worry, they'll all be fine. Right? Do they believe what we said or they, or do they believe their stress response is telling 'em, oh my gosh, something is really not good here.

Speaker 4: (06:34)
Yeah. And so if we're going to help our kids and particularly help our kids learn to help themselves, we can't be anxious because now we're not part of the solution. We're part of the problem. And, and in my experience, sort with my kids or, or with the students I work with, if I, I can feel myself when I get impatient, I can feel myself when I get short. And what's important to know is that if you feel that your kid unquestionably feels that, yeah. And so then again, those executive functions go sideways. So what I would say is, if you feel yourself being really intense with your kids, it's your job to lower your intensity. Otherwise you're not gonna help your kid in the way that you think you're going. Awesome.

Speaker 1: (07:14)
And you know, I've done a lot of work with Byron Katie, I'm not sure if you're familiar with our, but you know, the work that we've done together for parents has had to do with the story that we're telling ourselves and believing about what it means when our child does or behaves a certain way. So isn't it true that the story, and we, you know, the three of us had a great conversation even this morning about what parents believe about their child's future that kind of fuels the anxiety that they bring to the present. Do either one of you to wanna add to that?

Speaker 3: (07:45)
Well, I, I think it, it struck me some years ago that all of our suffering as a parent, all of our anxiety as a parent, it's about the future. Cause if a kid's not doing his homework and he's just refusing to do it, it's a big problem. If I could assure his parents that he's gonna be okay, I had a, I had a crystal ball, they wouldn't worry about it. It's all based on the idea that somehow this is gonna, he's, he's, he's gonna be irresponsible the rest of his life or this will have some kind of irrevocable consequence for him that he's not gonna be able to, to overcome. And, and at least for most kids in most parts of the world, but simply not true. That's simply there's so many opportunities for kids. And we, I've seen thousands of, of underachiever kids who've turned themselves around and, and not, and, and it never happens because pe people clamp down on them harder.

Speaker 3: (08:33)
It often happens when people say, I can't, can't state this anymore. You're on your own. And they figure it out. And in our book, but we say about, we ask parents to just tell their kid, I love you too much to fight with you about your homework. And I just, why, why would I fight? Fighting constantly? Is the homework more important than your relationship with your kid? Our opinion, it's just not, but we want, so and what we want, we want parents to do if, if the kid needs help to either help themselves or find some help for the kid. Yeah. But the idea, it just, it's so useful just to remember whose work is this, who's responsibility because you couldn't make a kid do his homework. Right? And so, so I I I think this perspective is, is liberating and it's powerful and it's because it's aligned with the reality that you really couldn't make a all kid would've to do is flop to the floor and you couldn't make him do his homework. Yeah. So,

Speaker 1: (09:25)
And when you're telling the story that you need it or it's your job or that their future will, will look like this, it's amazing to me how far-fetched, very rational parents can get so quickly when they project into the future something based on, you know, a moment that they're having today with their child.

Speaker 3: (09:43)

Speaker 4: (09:44)
And I think the, and I think what hap and I think you're exactly right about that, that that we, we take this point here and, and we, we imagine this this line that takes it to, you know, certain doom, right? And the challenge is the kid has a completely different movie in his head when I give a presentation to local school about stress and academics and you know, when you think about, you know, and I had a little picture of kid driving when he first learns to drive, right? Or he drives a, you know, a little room car, he's magic. This is great and this is super exciting, whatever, want the parents' pictures like the end of Thelma in Louise, right? and it's right. And you're trying to paint this picture of doom and gloom. You're never gonna go to Colin, whatever, whatever. And the kid's like, I'm just going to play baseball with my kid. This is stupid homework. It's a worksheet. Who even cares, right? And so it, you, you're totally right. We, we want question as, as Byron Katie would say, we really wanna question that narrative that we have in our head. Because so often, particularly as Bill points out, its fear-based, the chance that it's accurate. It, it is kind close to zero.

Speaker 1: (10:41)
But I wanna touch back on a huge thing that you mentioned just now, Ned, about stress. And both of you in have talked, spoken at length and written at length about agency and about the relationship between stress and depression and anxiety. That's, I'm seeing at younger and younger ages in my private practice working with kids. It's just so alarming. And, and you can't help but see that that screen time and homework, those things increasing in our children's lives are are contributing. But let's talk a little bit before we jump into the practicalities about maybe just to convince parents that if you want to raise a child who's not anxious or depressed, we can't guarantee it. But let's talk about that.

Speaker 4: (11:25)
Well, I mean, for Bill, and for me, the most important outcome of childhood, and especially of adolescents, is not where you go to college or even frankly, whether you go to college. It's having, it's having, it's, it's wiring the brain that you're gonna have as an adult, right? That's it. I mean, because this, this is, you get one chance to create the brain. They don't, they don't brain that you can have, because we have all of this malleability, you know, this obviously prenatal to, you know, early ages. But then again, during adolescence and we're really trying to figure out what kind of brain do you wanna carry out into real life? Do you wanna carry one that's intrinsically motivated as opposed to I'm, I'm motivated simply cuz someone's riding my hide the whole time. Do I want one that that's used to being tired and stressed and unhappy all the time?

Speaker 4: (12:07)
Because that will become the default setting of my brain. And so we, we see kids who get into the most, you know, elite colleges in the country with a brain that is tired and stressed, depressed. And it's really hard to get out of that. I mean, the, the people who are experts on depression say that depression, it, it, it, it, it scars the brain. It puts these grooves in your brain that, that it makes it so much more likely that you fall back into depression again and again and again throughout your life. And depression may be the most debilitating psychological disorder that there is. And so, as opposed to helping kids develop not only intrinsic motivation, but but resilience and coping skills in the face of adversity, because we also know the anxiety. What people will do is avoid the things that make them anxious.

Speaker 4: (12:52)
And what happens is the, their, their sphere of, of comfort gets smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller. And we don't want that. We want kids to develop coping skills that, that then they, then they, when they develop them, they generalize and they say, well, I can, I can maybe take on this or maybe I can take this. And the world in, in the sphere in which they feel confident in working gets grant bigger and bigger and bigger. And that's, that's because our kids are with us until 18, and then they're going off to college with fiscals of our money and we want them to be ready to run their own lives. Cause that's, that's what our, that's what their job is, is, is to figure out how to run my own life. And as parents, it's our job to foster that. How, how, how are you gonna run your own life because all parents of the country, it's your life.

Speaker 2: (13:38)
All right then. So I hope you enjoyed that. I just love listening to both of these gentlemen. And they, they share so much great wisdom with such a kind of relaxed and larger view, which is so important when we're parenting. It's so easy to get stuck in the weeds and to get caught up in the minutia of what's going on today or in this afternoon or this little micro moment. But ultimately we really benefit when we step back and we see parenting from a larger perspective. And that's what this conversation is about. Again, if you're interested in the entire class, it's very affordable. And we cover so many aspects of helping kids, supporting kids as they take on homework without us losing ourselves completely in the process. So that's it for today. Many things to think about. As always, I hope that you have taken something valuable away, whether it's related to homework or you apply it in some relevant situation that gives you some new perspectives on how to think about things as you raise your beautiful children.

Speaker 2: (14:45)
Take a breath. Thank you so much for being here, and I hope you thank yourself, acknowledging yourself for showing up for learning, and for growing and listening. What could be more important then discovering new ways of showing up for our kids as that present, connected, loving captain of the ship that I talk about and my work. Again, you can stay connected with what I do by visiting There's a free newsletter and lots of things that are offered there at very reasonable prices, if not free to support you in your parenting journey. All right, then let's wrap up. Remember, no matter how busy life gets, look for those moments of sweetness and joy. Stay well, stay safe and I'll see you next time.