Saturday, November 18, 2023

Q&A with William Stixrud and Ned Johnson


William Stixrud


William Stixrud and Ned Johnson are the authors of the book What Do You Say?: How to Talk with Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance, and a Happy Home. Their other books include The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control over Their Lives. Stixrud is a clinical neuropsychologist and Johnson is a test prep expert. They are both based in the Washington, D.C., area.


Q: What inspired you to write What Do You Say?


S: If the truth be told, our agent said it’s time for a second book; people loved the dialogue in The Self-Driven Child and you should do a book that does more of that.


Between the two of us, we’ve probably been talking with kids professionally for 70 years. It was our agent’s idea, but when we started thinking about it, there was the classic book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, and it seemed dated.

Ned Johnson


J: We were connected by a mutual friend. Bill is one of the most sensitive people when kids are complicated. [College admissions counselor] Kathleen O’Connor invited us to give a talk to schools about how to become motivated. We liked each other, and thought we should write something.


Q: One of the topics you discuss in the book is motivation. What are some key strategies to motivate a child or teenager?


S: Our North Star is self-determination theory, how to develop internal motivation. Parents should focus on their relationship with their kids. Supporting kids to give them a sense of confidence, supporting their autonomy.


When parents ask us how to motivate their kid, the question is how to change their kid. We include a chapter about that—if you ask how to change your kid, you get conflict and resistance. The idea is to help kids find their own motivation.


Q: Is there a difference working with a younger child or a teen?


S: When we’re doing something we enjoy, we’re in a self-driven brain state. With little kids, you can encourage them to do things they love.


J: We so often see parents talking kids out of things they love to do.


S: We see so many kids that people try to motivate unsuccessfully, and then the kid finds something that motivates him or her.


Q: Stress is something else you talk about in the book. What impact has the pandemic had on kids’ stress levels, and what do you advise?


J: It’s a little hard to say because the studies are lagging by a couple of years. The latest from the CDC as of November 2021 was horrifying. I don’t know if it’s receded. There’s an uptick in hypervigilance when people are stressed.


A study from Harvard said that for 18-25-year-olds it’s twice as bad as for teenagers. People think that stress will be easier once you get into college, but it won’t. We’re trying to get people to take the long view—we can catch up later.


S: There are two things that motivate our work together—there's the mental health crisis among young people. And the schools were really rocked and they haven’t recovered yet.


We are working with a group of educators interested in promoting autonomy in students, which is so important for them and for teachers too. They are motivated by autonomy.


Q: What are you working on now?


S: The Self-Driven Child has done so well, it’s continued to sell at the same pace—we’re going to do a Self-Driven Child workbook. Almost nobody questions the logic of it, but emotionally we have to trust kids, and a low sense of control is extra stressful.


The workbook includes how to respond, interactive prompts, and how to handle kids. So many educators around the world are interested in this work.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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