How to Motivate Kids & Build Their Stress Tolerance, with William Stixrud and Ned Johnson

gender nonconformity kids
This week I’m bringing back to the show Dr. William Stixrud and Ned Johnson for critical conversation on how to motivate kids, build their frustration tolerance, and more. Many parents in the Tilt community know Bill and Ned as the authors of the fantastic, game changing book, The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives, and they’ve written a new book called What Do You Say: How to Talk with Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance, and a Happy Home, which again, I just can’t say enough good things about. As you can guess, their new book is packed with scripts, dialogues, mantras, and powerful, specific language for parents, stemming from the most common question Bill and Ned get from parents, namely: What do you actually say to kids? This book covers everything from giving constructive feedback, to handling anxiety (both ours and our kids’), to talking about sleep, screens, and the pursuit of happiness, all based on Bill and Ned’s core beliefs in autonomy, empathy, and connection. 

What I love so much about this book is both Bill and Ned’s compassionate approach to educating parents, and that they draw on decades of experience working with and parenting kids just like ours. We cover so much ground in this conversation, more than I can list here, but I will just say that this was definitely one of my all-time favorite interviews I’ve done for the show—I had so many a-ha moments both reading this book and talking with Bill and Ned, who generously shared so much wisdom and insight with us. I hope you get a lot out of this episode.


About Dr. William Stixrud

William R. Stixrud, Ph.D., is a clinical neuropsychologist and founder of The Stixrud Group. He is a member of the teaching faculty at Children’s National Medical Center and an assistant professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine. Additionally, Dr. Stixrud is the author, with Ned Johnson, of the nationally bestselling book, The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives (Viking Books).

He is a frequent lecturer and workshop presenter and the author of several articles and book chapters on topics related to adolescent brain development, stress and sleep deprivation, integration of the arts in education, and meditation. Dr. Stixrud holds a doctorate degree in Educational Psychology from the University of Minnesota. He did his pre-doctoral internship in Pediatric and Clinical Psychology at the Children’s Hospital of Boston, as a fellow of the Harvard Medical School, and he received his post-doctoral training in Clinical Neuropsychology at the Tufts New England Medical Center. Prior to entering private practice, Dr. Stixrud worked as a staff neuropsychologist at the Children’s National Medical Center and the Georgetown University Medical School.

About Ned Johnson

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. Ned has written for the New York Times, The Telegraph, U.S. News & World Report & The Washington Post. He is coauthor of Conquering the SAT: How Parents Can Help Teens Overcome the Pressure and Succeed and with Dr. William R. Stixrud of the national bestseller The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives.


Things you’ll learn from this episode

  • How and why What Do You Say: How to Talk with Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance, and a Happy Home came to be and who it written for
  • The incredible tool of empathy and how it differs from pity
  • Why nagging backfires for parents when trying to motivate kids and why we do it anyway
  • Why effective parents view themselves as consultants to their children
  • Approaching kids with ADHD with a consultant mindset
  • The importance of being a non-anxious presence in our kids’ lives
  • What Bill and Ned wish parents understood about how to motivate kids, specifically related to school performance
  • How and why to talk to your kid about the pursuit of happiness and communicating healthy expectations


Resources mentioned about how to motivate kids


Special message from our sponsor

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Episode Transcript

Debbie Reber  00:00

This episode is brought to you by ND Renegade. ND Renegade is a clothing company that celebrates neuro diversity. They make teas, tank tops, hoodies, and sweatshirts all with designs aimed at making neurodivergent people feel proud of their differences, and their clothes are tag free. Learn more at ND Renegade and use the code NDRTilt15 for a 15% discount.

Ned Johnson  00:27

It’s so easy to want to put on a cape and jump in and fix things for our kids to make the problem better. And it’s not that we never do that. But it’s so much better if kids can with our help fix the problems for themselves.

Debbie Reber  00:43

Welcome to Tilt Parenting, a podcast featuring interviews and conversations aimed at inspiring, informing and supporting parents raising differently wired kids. I’m your host Debbie Reber. Today I am excited to bring back to the show Dr. William Stixrud and Ned Johnson. Many parents in this tool community know Bill and Ned as the authors of the fantastic game changing book, The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives, in part because admittedly, I mentioned it a lot on this show. It fundamentally changed my parenting game in a very positive, tangible way. And now Bill and Ned have written a new book called What Do You Say: How to Talk with Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance, and a Happy Home, which again, I just can’t say enough good things about, as you can guess their new book is packed with scripts, dialogues, mantras and powerful specific language for parents stemming from the most common questions Bill and Ned get from parents. Namely, what do you actually say to kids? This book covers everything from giving constructive feedback to handling anxiety, both ours and our kids, to talking about sleep screens and the pursuit of happiness, all based on Bill and Ned’s core beliefs and autonomy, empathy, and connection. And what I love so much about this book is both Bill and Ned’s compassionate approach to educating parents, and that they draw on decades of experience working with and parenting kids just like ours. We cover so much ground in this conversation more than I could possibly list here. But I will just say that this was definitely one of my favorite interviews I’ve done for this show. I had many aha moments, both reading this book and talking with Bill and Ned. So I really hope you get a lot out of this episode. And before I get to that, a quick note to let you know that Seth Perler, my friend, colleague, executive functioning coach, who has been on the show many times, has just opened the doors for his next Executive Function Online Summit. The summit will be running August 20, through the 22nd. And you can learn more by going to… that stands for the executive function online summit. And as always, thank you so much for being a part of this Tilt Parenting revolution. If you want to stay in the loop about important news, new classes and special live events, sign up at And if you’re on Facebook, be sure to join my Tilt Together community on Facebook for sharing of resources and insights from other parents and caregivers like you. You can find that at Thank you so much. And now here is my conversation with Bill and Ned.

Debbie Reber  03:45

Hey, Bill and Ned, welcome back to the podcast.

Ned Johnson  03:48

Hey, Debbie. Great to be here.

William Stixrud  03:49

Yeah, wonderful to be here.

Debbie Reber  03:51

I’m so excited. And I made a deal with myself as I was preparing that I’m not going to recap The Self-Driven Child because I mention that book all the time. My listeners are probably like, okay, we know you like that book. But I just want to say for listeners who haven’t listened to that episode, haven’t read the book, go back and listen to Episode 158, where we have a rich conversation about that incredible book. But today, I want to just dive right into your new book because it is just incredible. So the book is called What Do You Say: How to Talk with Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance, and a Happy Home. So I would love to know a little bit about why you wrote this book. Did this stemmed directly from The Self-Driven Child and kind of talk about your process and in moving forward with this.

William Stixrud  04:46

So in The Self-Driven Child, we have two main concerns. You know, one is that this epidemic of mental health problems in kids and teenagers, and the second is that Ned and I see a lot of kids who have what we can call disordered motivation where they’re either or they don’t want to work hard, or they’re just obsessively driven. And we discovered that the key to both really is a sense of control having a sense of control over your own life. And so essentially wrote the book. And we’ve given hundreds of talks about the book, and we’re just gonna go to Seattle, and we hear about second grade kids who are full on school refusal, we’re going to Dallas and the counselors say that the fifth grade boys are having panic attacks due to the pressure of middle school. And we realize this is a pretty important message that helping kids have a stronger sense of control over their own lives, let their brains work well, so that they can focus in the art unduly anxious all the time. And our agent actually said, you got to make this easier for people to do, write a book, write a book that gives more language that tells people how to talk to kids in a way that will develop this healthy sense of control. And this internal motivation, and a stress system this efficient that would work well. And it’s just not on overdrive all the time.

Debbie Reber  06:05

Do you have anything you want to add Ned?

Ned Johnson  06:07

Well, just that their natural tendencies that we all fall into as loving parents, and in so much of the book is about kind of how we talk to ourselves, but also how we talk to kids. Because in the moment, we sometimes default to ways of communication that aren’t quite what they want it to be. And so what do you say, in some ways, is designed to give people if not full on scripts, certainly models and language that they can use, because ultimately, you know, as loving parents, people just simply want to be effective with their kids. And so a lot of this is about language that is simply effective in advancing, you know, happy relationships and happy home with our kids. But as the title suggests, that positions kids and ways to to have healthy motivation, and stress tolerance, we resisted using the word resilience, because it’s been, you know, I think beaten to death by a million other books that are great, but really, when we talk about resilience really is stress tolerance, their ability to bounce back. And so many of the things that we as parents do to want to help our kids actually work against their being able to handle things themselves. We just felt like there was, there was more to say. And so that’s why we wrote the book.

Debbie Reber  07:22

It’s also, I just wanted that little side note, it’s so accessible. And I love that you co wrote it, and I’ve co written a book with someone, and it can be tricky to get the voice and know how to go back and forth. And you do that so seamlessly, but you also have you share your personal stories. And it’s just done in a really readable way. I felt like I was I mean, I know both of you. But I still felt like I was sitting down having a coffee with you and kind of talking through these concepts. So it’s just really well done. And before we go into some of the specifics of the book, when you’re writing a book, are you thinking of like an avatar, like who is the parent? Is there kind of like a stereotypical reader for this book that you were thinking of as you were writing this?

Ned Johnson  08:09

Well, for me, what one of the things that we stumbled on is that parents and what we’ll talk about this parents when, when their kids are having a hard time, we kind of fall into doing one of two things, we either try to try to fix things try to solve the situation that’s causing our kids distress, because we don’t like to see our kids, you know, struggle or, you know, we try to sue them relentlessly to the degree that they don’t learn to soothe themselves. And one of the things that occurred to us is it’s the very parents who love the kids the most who have sensitive kids, but also as parents sensitive to their own kids. And so we wanted to really acknowledge that so many of the things we air quotes no do wrong with kids are really just born out of the fact that we love them enormously, we want to do everything we can to help. And so this book, for me, was really written in mind for all these loving parents, who are having kids who are sometimes having a harder time than they wish. And we want to help parents help their kids but do it in a way that’s very sensitive and respectful, and honors the fact that that parents even though when they get air quotes, making mistakes, they’re doing it out of love. And so we wanted this to be very conversational, as you say, Debbie, but also really, really gentle about the fact that all the things we do for our kids are, you know, because we love them.

William Stixrud  09:30

And I’ll just say to that, that I’m always thinking about in some ways about the kids that that Ned sees tons of kids who are the really, really high achieving schools. He’s kind of very stressed out kind of kids, overachiever types, and the kids that I see all of whom have ADHD or learning disabilities or autism, and challenge it and think about the stress related issues and the motivational issues with those kids. And also kids who don’t have a lot of advantages and where are the connections For those families as well, I mean, in some ways that we all have a human nervous system. And as babies, all we respond to is warmth and responsiveness. And so a lot of the stuff about communication really is about connecting, and just using the kind of psychology that applies to everybody.

Debbie Reber  10:20

Yeah, and I do want to say that, you know, this is what I would consider a mainstream parenting book. But so many of the examples are of families with differently wired children. It feels really accessible again, and inclusive of so many different types of experiences. And I think that’s just really nice to see, as someone who serves, you know, the community that I serve, it’s not always the case that we see ourselves reflected in the pages of a book. So I love that. And I actually want to go deeper than into the human nervous system, you have a whole chapter on being a non anxious presence in our children’s lives, which I can imagine as you were working on this, and, you know, COVID, and you know, anxiety for everyone has really gone through the roof. Can you talk a little bit more about that piece? why it’s so important that we work on our own anxiety?

William Stixrud  11:16

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I mean, partly because I mean, just to think about it, that when I first I knew about this idea of a non anxious presence, for years, okay, I learned it from a business consultant book. But that I find about it is applied to parents. I mean, if you’ve got a baby who’s who’s who’s upset, it’s a lot easier to sue the baby, if you stay calm. If you got a three you got third grader comes home, and was the only kid that her friend group who didn’t get invited to a birthday party, it’s easier to really be helpful if you don’t get upset, too. And so just in terms of being able to, to communicate to kids, that we love them, we accept them as they are, that we can handle their feelings, that working on our own anxiety, and lowering our own stress level is really just, it’s just adaptive. You know, Ned sees a lot of kids who say, I just got a C in a test, I can’t tell my parents, and the parents are more upset than the kid is. And we think that if we really want to be wise, responsive parents, that we can’t be flipping out and getting angry, overreacting to things. We want to model that it’s not that we can’t have, we can’t get angry at times. It’s just, it’s just that we want to move in that direction of being a non anxious presence, who don’t we, we talked about the studies of rats, rats have high licking and grooming mothers were very affectionate, and then low stress mothers. And even if you if you foster rats from low licking and grooming high stress mothers to these highly human grooming, they turn out to be basically California laid back rats, that that nurturing that warmth. I mean, when is there a time when we don’t read, we don’t benefit from warmth and responsiveness.

Ned Johnson  13:05

And I would add to that, when our kids are stressed out, you know, we as you know, affectionate caregivers, and parents, it’ll, we’ll be stressed out as well. And one of the things that I from my perspective, and everything we talked about, the two kind of traps that we fall into are either trying to solve the problem trying to fix the problem for kids or trying to say, you know, it’s okay, you know, everybody gets their heart broken, you’re three years from now you won’t care, you know, everybody, blah, blah, blah. But as Bill points out, this can convey to kids that we know that it’s not okay that you have these hard feelings that we can’t handle them, or you can’t handle them yourselves. But it also deprives kids of the opportunity to either soothe themselves or to solve the problem for themselves. Because it’s so easy to want to put on a cape and jump in and fix things for our kids to make the problem be better. Which and it’s not that we never do that. But it’s so much better if kids can with our help fix the problems for themselves. Because all the research on resilience simply says it’s that experience coping, coping with something yourself that develops your ability to be more confident going forward. And even from a motivational perspective. We were all willing to take on a greater challenge, a greater threat, you know, on the ball field in the classroom outside of the home, if we know if we get our butt kicked or have a terrible day that we can retreat to home and at home, be a safe base. But if again, if I come home and I’m super upset and my parents like oh my gosh, oh my golly, kids can feel like it’s kind of not okay to to have things not go well, which if the charge is too high at home, then they’re naturally going to not stretch themselves as much outside of the home. And we know that to really develop a healthy response. We do better to have kind of high stress and then for recovery, not kind of a constant level of moderate level of stress, we don’t want that. And from my perspective, I think if anything has shown us, the real world right now has enough stressors, we don’t need to get that at home, let’s make home be as stress free and as loving as possible. And from a happy home perspective, it’s so much easier to enjoy our kids if we’re not anxious ourselves.

William Stixrud  15:23

And I’ll just add that we didn’t, we didn’t really understand why being a consultant to your kid that we talked about and suffering child was so hard until we started lecturing about the book, I realized that it’s really, because if your kids doing something, you decide not to jump in and fix it, you have to sit in your hands and zip your lip. And there’s nothing more stressful in this universe than experiencing that low sense of control. And we think in the second book, we try to address that this, this idea that simply that trying to be helpful to your kid and not as nuts and not just put on a cape and solve their problems, we have to sit on our hands, and we have to zip our lap. And that’s stressful, because it feels like we’re doing nothing. So what we try to give parents in the book is language that they can use to talk to themselves, in part to manage that stress of not where it feels like you’re not doing nothing, we’re actually what you’re really doing is doing the best possible thing for your kid.

Ned Johnson  16:18

And then, you know, naturally, you know what Tina Payne Bryson talks about co-regulating, right? You know, you’re you’re being there with your kid, you know, and helping manage their motions, not by solving anything, but just kind of being with them. And of course, we also know that the way that people become emotionally close to one another is being together when they’re dealing with stuff. That’s hard. And as Bill said, it’s hard to sit there when our kids are having a hard time. Yeah, and non trumping. And why don’t want to want to solve it, but just wouldn’t say, Boy, that seems really hard. Yeah, I’d be really upset if that happened to me.

Debbie Reber  16:55

Yes. And one of the things from that anxiety chapter that really, I don’t know if I didn’t know this before, but you actually say that, when a mother of a baby is feeling stress, even her touching the baby will transfer the stress. And it’s just such a good reminder how contagious stress is.

William Stixrud  17:14

Just just being in the same room makes the baby’s stress hormones go up. If the mom is given a stressful task? If the mother touches the baby, that’s even worse. Wow. Yeah. So

Debbie Reber  17:26

Yeah, I mean, that’s just such a good reminder. And you I love the words wise and responsive like, that feels like I will be integrating that into my daily intention. I love that as a goal for how to show up. And I wanted to ask a specific question, because, you know, again, when I read these books, and talk to people, I’m always trying to channel what I think my listeners would want to know. You have a section in that chapter that talks about, it’s a brief section, but you talk about the concept of pity, pitying our kids, and, you know, as in feeling bad for something that happens with them. So as I was reading, I was just thinking about what I hear from so many parents, specifically, around their kids, maybe social life, my kid has no friends, they’ve never connected with anyone, they’re being excluded. And there’s such a deep sense of devastation on the parents’ part. I don’t know if the child feels as devastated necessarily, as the parent does. But it’s super complicated. So could you just touch upon that, what the difference is between maybe empathy and pitying and how to hold a space when our kids are very clearly struggling?

William Stixrud  18:36

In 1964, Rudolph Strikers wrote the book, Children the Challenge, and there’s a chapter in it called, Don’t Pity Them. And the idea is that what we want to convey to our kids is a courageous attitude towards life. You know, and, you know, self pity is, is never very, very attractive for anybody. And the idea, if we don’t don’t want kids to feel sorry for themselves, then ideally, we work at not feeling sorry for them. That’s the basic rationale, and much easier said than done. But when I read that, and I, you know, I see kids who are really in families who have really serious, very serious challenges, I see kids who will, who will never be independent. And the idea is that what we want to do is to remember that, no matter what the situation is, our job is to love them and support them. And that if we can do the kind of mental work, not to feel sorry for them. It helps them to not feel sorry for themselves. Then you want to add on buddy?

Ned Johnson  19:40

Yeah, it’s funny. I was just having coffee with a mutual friend and client that we have and she has been doing work of late with refugees and was asking me about how is it that some people become resilient and other people don’t and and it was, it’s a mom who has three kids who had suffered the The systemic rapes and brutalization of the part of Africa that they come from, and say, How can it how, how, how, and it’s why i don’t i don’t know that situation Exactly. But it’s fair that despite traumas, terrible as trauma can beam, they still want their lives to work out. And they, and they, you know, and so it’s, um, we don’t move past those things, but you can move on. Right? Rather than moving on, you move forward, right, those things are always going to be part of lives and same thing, you know, traumatic childhood experiences. And ideally, it’s, it’s never anything worse than being mistreated by you know, friends, who were friends, and who are no longer friends. But we may not move on, but we definitely need to move forward. And so we can say, Gosh, that’s really hard. But we don’t want to go down and wallow with them, because it makes it more likely that they get stuck there. Right. And it’s one of the things we need to research on. You know, I think about Julie Lythcott-Haims’ new book Your Turn: How To Be An Adult and and talks about, we want to as adults, we want adulthood to look good, right? You know, so as parents, right, we want to say that I can still be happy, even though you’re having a hard time. And I’m really sorry that life is hard for you right now. But we don’t help. It doesn’t help them by our suffering more. Because we all are going to go through times that are hard. Nobody gets through life without things being difficult. And we want to say this is part of life. And we keep working and climbing towards the light.

Debbie Reber  21:33

Yeah, there’s a quote that really again stood out to me, this is what you could say to a child who may be wallowing a bit. “This feels like a circle. You say one thing, and I counter with another, I love you. And if you’re suffering, I want to do everything I can to help you. But I don’t think this pattern helps either one of us.” I was like, yeah, that’s like a really lovely way to show empathy and not kind of jump into the pool, which I am guilty of doing. Often. Can you just talk about empathy, then just a little bit more, for parents who may feel like they are by empathizing are actually reinforcing a negative mindset or outlook?

Ned Johnson  22:16

Well, so many ways, empathy is just recognizing, you know, I’d be, I’d be really upset too. If I didn’t get invited to that party. Right? I can, I can understand why you’re so frustrated, because you work so hard to make the team and you didn’t make it. You know, it makes all the sense in the world, that you’re upset because you’re you know, you feel like your teacher didn’t you know, give you give you a fair warning, and you felt like you’re surprised by the test. And so it doesn’t mean that we agree with what they’re feeling. It’s simply saying that I can understand why that’s hard.

William Stixrud  22:47

Yeah, in the book, we talk about this new S.P.A.C.E. program, it’s an acronym. It’s a program out of Yale for supporting parents who have anxious kids. And one of the things that parents are encouraged to do is to develop these supportive statements which involves empathy, and the expression of competency to say to a kid, I know that you’re really anxious about this, and I know that you’re really upset about this. And I’m 100% confident you can handle it. And I think that that’s in part what the difference between empathy and pity is, you know, that I’m pretty humble about knowing what’s supposed to happen in somebody’s life. So, I think that so personally, in working with kids I work with, I assume that where they are where they’re supposed to be in this world, and I try to focus on how do we help them, how do we support them and not feel that something is terribly wrong? Or that this is great tragedy? Because I don’t want kids to see themselves that way.

Debbie Reber  23:47

Yeah, and as you’re saying that it reminds me again, of the importance of us doing our own work, right so that we’re don’t get tangled up and get in mashed in what’s going on, you know, it does require a bit of distance, which is easier when you’re not the parent right to get kind of sucked into, and really be able to to hold that space.

Ned Johnson  24:11

I have a student who just passed the test to become a lifeguard. And I was thinking about thinking about you know, what’s it really like to be a lifeguard and from you know, in movies, it’s always a dramatic thing that the person dives into the water and pulls a person out. But as I understand it, the training is always you do everything you can not to get in the water first, you try to throw them a life ring you try to throw them a rope, you try to throw them right. And if you have to go in the water with them. But if you put yourself in parallel, and you’re much less powerful if you’re in the water with them, than if you’re on the if you’re on the shore. So to make slip put.

Debbie Reber  24:48

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Debbie Reber  25:39

I just want to say, Bill, because you mentioned S.P.A.C.E. that I actually have…this is the book you’re referring to, Breaking Free of Child Anxiety and OCD by Eli Lebowitz. And I actually am interviewing him next week. So his episode I think will be released about two weeks after this one. So you listeners check that out, because you can learn more about that. It was wonderful. So The Self-Driven Child really focuses a lot on you’ve already mentioned this parent as a consultant, you do circle back to that in this book. And something that struck me again, I’m hearing from so many parents whose kids are mentally checked out right now as we’re recording this. We’re all like limping across the finish line of the school year, it’s almost June, this episode is coming out in August. I don’t know if that thing is gonna change that much in terms of motivation over the summer. But you remind us many times in a compassionate way that when parents nag their kids come to depend on it. And that, again, was one of my many underlining moments in this book. Can you talk more about that? You know, what is nagging about schoolwork? What is that actually really doing? And why do we do it?

William Stixrud  26:56

Well, I think in part, because it increases our sense of control. We’re doing something, even though if we think about it, does it motivate my kids? Not really, but at least eventually make it unpleasant enough, they’ll get it done. You know, and I think that, in my experience working with kids who don’t get their schoolwork done, or have trouble getting started, there’s usually two explanations. They have ADHD, they can’t make themself focus, or they’re anxious. And the major manifestation of anxiety is avoidance. And so in the self driven child, we emphasize we want kids to be clear about who’s responsible for what. And that’s why we say to parents, tell your kid I love you too much to fight with you about your homework, because I want to be clear about that. I want to support you in any way I can. But I don’t want to take responsibility for something that’s yours. And in many ways, that kind of nagging that allows anxious kids not to have to think about I better get started my work is this wait till the parents nag and eventually get it done. That allows them to avoid it and because we have ADHD just kind of just piss him off. The vigils that they may get started out with may not. But it’s certainly not a very effective tactic that you want to jump in.

Ned Johnson  28:10

Oh, I’m just thinking about a student who graduated from Sidwell Friends, which here in DC is probably the most academically or sort of intense place. And he was a straight A student, and then the police didn’t give out, you know, as like candy. And his parents had come to hear Bill, and he talked about this subject as a child and I asked him as his parents can book talk. I said, Have they read the book? He said, yeah. I said, has it made any difference for you? And he said, Well, they’ve stopped asking me, shouldn’t you be doing your homework? And I said, Well, tell me more. He said, Well, honestly, gosh, the more every time they’d say, shouldn’t you be doing your homework? It’s something made me not want to do my homework. Because it felt like he felt disrespected. You know, it gives us already getting straight A’s, right? And it lowered his sense of control. And exactly as Bill said, We do this because it makes us feel better, because it’s so hard to sit there and do nothing. My son is a first year student in college. And he is writing papers, if his bets are right, it’s hard for him to motivate to do these because he’s ADHD. And watching him not write papers through high school was just painful. I mean, it’s just so, so hard. And I just had to keep telling myself as Bill is, hey, whose problem is it? And so I would offer help, but at some point, I just have to say, you know what, I’m going to go for another walk. Because I just can’t you know, and now he’s in college. And he you know, he still has some papers that are overdue and I said I my hope is you get those done by next Saturday when we pick you up from college, but it’s not my problem and it’s it’s it takes every fiber in my being not to you know, schedule something with a writing center jump in or naghmeh or whatever. But you know, he has the brain that he has and he knows that we will help him in every possible way that’s been made abundantly clear. But if we jump in and make this happen. It won’t be helpful for our relationship or for him long term. Because we all know if we reflect on our lives, there were times that we struggled. And it’s those times of struggle that helped us figure out who we are what system work works better, our own sense of resilience, our confidence in our ability to handle hard things, where if we jumped in and solved it over and over and over, and he got the paper handed on time, will that be lovely, but we will be depriving him of that very struggle that he needs to figure out how to navigate his life for himself. But it isn’t easy.

Debbie Reber  30:34

Yes, and as you say that I’m thinking of a conversation I had with a parent who understandably wanted to preempt struggles, and I was trying to suggest that actually, the struggle is where they need to struggle. That’s part of how they grow and learn. But that’s such a hard thing for us to really lean into. And I appreciate you sharing that you’re I mean, you’re walking this walk too. And it’s, you’re, you’re a couple years ahead in terms of where your kids are, literally, you’re walking the walk. And that’s just really comforting to me to know, to see that you’re in that.

Ned Johnson  31:09

And here’s the fun thing. For people who don’t know, I run a company that helps people get into college. So it’s Test Prep, College Counseling, and Tutoring. So I have an entire army of tutors, and I could have designated all the best tutors in my group, you’re going to help my daughter in physics, you’re going to help my son in this, whatever, I could have tutored them up to their ears. But I knew that’s not the right thing to do. I let them know if you want to talk with Kate to help with the paper, if you want to talk with Aaron for some chemistry, let me know. And then they’re happy and they’re happy to help. And so I’m being supportive, but did not did not put in place for them help that they didn’t want. Because you know, we should all be trying to play the long game. I mean, I always bristle. When I have parents who were kids there, there are things that could be better predicted in terms of mental health. And that apparently will respond with Yeah, but but but he’s getting all A’s. And I think if you’re only single criterion for success is the kids are getting A’s, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Because Bill and I know all these kids who had straight A’s until they crumbled, and they ended up at the manager clinic. Right? We want to think much broader and much longer term than the next A.

Debbie Reber  32:22

I mean, if you had anything to add Bill?

William Stixrud  32:24

Well, it’s just that I walked this walk with my own kids, and one of them could have educated herself. And the other one, you know, has ADHD and some learning disability kind of issues. And he didn’t find help, he was open to help. And I would offer to help in some ways you accepted some as he wouldn’t. He had a good tutor for four years, and got a PhD in psychology and his works with a top executive at Goldman Sachs and, and just an incredible human being. And I think in part because stuff didn’t come easy to and he’s great with people and his wonderful, wonderful person. But I never worked harder than he did try to help him academically. And I always just said, this is your work. And if I can help you let me know.

Debbie Reber  33:13

That’s another quote I wrote down, I’m not willing to work harder than you do. Because I care too much about you to weaken you. And you I was like, Oh my gosh, this is incredible. But yeah, I think so many of us are working harder, we are doing all the things. And what you remind us in both of your books, but you can’t really hear it enough is that we cannot make our kids care about anything, we cannot make them feel motivated, we cannot make them care about their schoolwork. And that is a really hard thing. And so I love the reminder of remembering the long game, which is so much longer than anyone could imagine. I mean, it’s Yeah, it’s a long, long game. And I will just say that, I think I highlighted the entire parent as consultant chapter because you have so many examples of language to use. And as I’m reading, I’m like, okay, the app needs to come next. Like there needs to be some way to be able to recall these things. So just so helpful, but I do want to just touch upon ADHD quickly, because you both have experienced that in your own life. Certainly many, many listeners have kids who have ADHD. And it’s tricky, right? Because, you know, you talk about every time we ineffectually tell a child something, it weakens our ability to communicate with them. And a lot of these kids don’t hear us the first time or the second time and so I’m just wondering, how do you navigate that dance of a child who has attention issues and who may not be tuned in? What’s that balance like of us, not nagging them and not setting them up for failure. I’m sorry, that could be its own episode, but see what you can do with it.

William Stixrud  35:00

When my son was in high school, and I never knew about his assignments or tests unless he told me but I pick him up from baseball practice, and he’d say, I got a test tomorrow, gotta study for. And if I noticed, you know, he’s kind of avoiding it. I’d say you want me to bug you about it? You want me to kind of remind you, how do you want me to remind you, there’s so much of what we try to do is we try to get buy in, we said that we are just trying to, we don’t want to just meet constantly with kids resistance. The bottom line is that we offer help. And we can build Instructure as much as possible, but we don’t try to force and I think that and certainly if you if you got a four year old with with wild ADHD was out of control and didn’t, then you work on behavior modification needed to kind of get some control so you can live with it yet. But then you focus on as they get older, you focus on this autonomy piece. This is their life and supporting them in figure out their own life and how to make it work and offering. We want kids to have all the help that they need. We just don’t want them to spend all their energy resisting other people’s attempts to try to get them to do stuff. It’s just a crappy use of their energy.

Ned Johnson  36:11

We also spent some time talking about a guy named Ron McGann who’s his kind of Guru on relationships and talks about how we make deposits kind of in a healthy relationship by showing care and respect. And I know a lot of parents will say, Well, I care enormously, that’s why I’m on him all the time to get him to do this stuff, because I can’t watch them fail him. And I love him too much to let that happen. But, and this is the respect part, particularly when kids become adolescents. So I have this boy I’m working with right now who’s a junior in high school, who I mean, one of the most ADHD kids I’ve ever met, my wife overhears us on zoom. She’s like, How old is he sounds like he’s 12. And like, yeah, that’s about where his prefrontal cortex says, and he has an army of tutors working with him, and he’ll get 100 on one quiz, and then flunk the next two. And from the earliest pause, I’m doing this test prep stuff with him, I really took this perspective of, I know that this stuff is hard for you. And here’s what I’d like to suggest, right? And very much I’m a consultant, I’m not going to work hard with you, you know, respect, respect, respect, because I think he feels really disrespected by a lot of other people in his life. And it was a real leap of faith for me, because I didn’t really know how this was going to work out. But I was working on the assumption that the most important thing of this outcome is not what I could teach him about grammar or math, is, How hard was he gonna work when he got to this actual test? was, you know, because he’s as bad as Jacqueline, how did you get which kid was going to show up? And that’s all that I was playing for. And I got an email from his mom yesterday, who’s like, basically, How the hell did this happen? This under How did he get the score? Oh, man, you know, we’re all going out for ice cream kind of stuff. And I’m like, first in my car. Right, but the second thing was, you know, these kids are hard. These kids are hard. And part of it is when I was really trying to talk with him. There’s a great thing a years ago about Bill Clinton, and some speech he gave for the DNC. And Nick Fallows for the Atlantic, analyzed his speech, he said, the thing about Bill Clinton, is that he talks to people like they have a brain in their head. And so rather than words, words, words, words, word, I would pause, make sure you know, this kid was looking up from a computer and said so. So this is kind of important. And you pause and make sure I had his attention. And then he go on it. And then when we talked too many words, and I can see him going off someplace else. No, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t do this to him, because he’s not trying to be inattentive, he’s got the brain that he has. And he’s like a 12 year old and a 17 year olds body. And it’s just going to take a while. And so I know that he’s not trying to be disrespectful for me, and I’m not gonna respond by treating him like his 12. I try to be as respectful as I possibly can. And it’s hard. It is hard with kids who are wildly inattentive, partly because we get so worried. And we think that by tell him 17 times.

Debbie Reber  39:06

Yeah, that’s super helpful. And somebody nuggets in there. And again, just that reminder that it’s going to take a while and that these kids, prefrontal cortex or as you refer to as the PFC, throughout the book, it develops later in a lot of differently wired kids and so I hear so many stories from a you know, either adults who share with me or parents who like my child’s You know, this happened and this didn’t work out in this, this school, crashed and burned in college and, and now my child is doing this and they found their thing, but it tends to happen in mid to late 20s for a lot of these kids, and doesn’t mean they’re not going to get there that they really need that respect.

William Stixrud  39:45

I got a Christmas card this year from a family and the front of the card said, You were right. And I opened it up. And I had the picture of these three, the three adults and theirs and their spouses. And I tested all three for follow them for years. So it started probably the early to mid 90s. And I hadn’t seen any of them for 10 years, and the oldest one had flunked out of college twice. They’re all a hot mess at one point. And just the idea is simply that it’s, it’s hard to if unless you seen it enough, it’s hard to really understand how different 14 year old prefrontal cortex is, from a 16 year old or 18 year old, 22 year old 22, between 23 and 26, you see dramatic changes.

Debbie Reber  40:30

It’s good to remember that is. So I wanted to before we wrap up, I mean, I could, again, this could be a multi part series, this conversation, but I also want people to go out and get this book, because it is, again, I’m just gushing a lot. But it’s an incredible book. And so helpful. You have a chapter in there called talking to kids about the pursuit of happiness. And I loved this chapter so much, because it’s not it. You know, we’re talking about motivation, and anxiety, and empathy and all these pieces. And then you just tackle happiness, which is something that so many of our kids are not experiencing. We know that mental health challenges for kids and depression. And existential angst, especially now is just really, off the charts. And I so appreciate what you shared. And also just, it struck me that we as parents often don’t explicitly talk about happiness with our kids. It’s just not something we do. So I’d love to know a little bit more about why you wanted to include that chapter. And kind of what your hope is for that chapter.

William Stixrud  41:36

One. One reason for me is that I feel that given how much misery there is among young people, that we just set the bar so low. And you know, Martin Seligman, who started the whole field of positive psychology said 20 years ago, he said, you know, psychology is always a study, what’s wrong with people that why don’t we Why don’t we look at people who are really happy and nicely adjusted, let’s, let’s figure out what they’re like and what they do. And it’s this, there’s this whole science of how to have how to be happier, how to be happy, and in what it is, and also the science of how useful it is to be happy. And it just seemed to be cruel not to be talking with kids about stuff like this. I mean, I gave a lecture in Houston about the self driven child a couple years ago, and I asked these student government, high school students government, I said, How many of you want to be happy as adults? And they already kind of sheepishly raised their hand going duh. And I said, What do you understand about what it takes to be happy as an adult? And this one kid said, Well, we understand that if you get into a good enough college, everything is set, which is just colossally wrong. And it was part of our motivation for let’s try not to really, let’s talk with kids, and let’s teach them what we understand about being happy. Let’s give them a friggin chance.

Ned Johnson  42:53

Yeah, it was funny, this the same parent I was just talking with and Bill knows his family, well, the girl is now doing a research head, we’re headed towards medical school and doing this research, don’t, you know, free uncompensated research, and the people there are just not nice, they’re really treating her terribly. And the daughter doesn’t kind of know how to navigate her way out of this. And I just, I just kind of laughed, you just because these folks, they’re technically brilliant, but they’re not so great interpersonally. And we started just talking about empathy and connection and how important that is. And the mom is saying, I’m trying to help her understand that. And I said, one thing that occurs to me is that it’s probably hard for a kid who’s 14 or 16, or even 24, to know what the long term benefits are, of relationships, you know, that we get out of this world, what we put into it, including relationships and the long time, long term benefits that come to you. If you’re, if you treat people well, and they look for opportunities to treat you well going forward. Because in high school, it feels like oh, my gosh, if I stopped, you know, if I stopped to help someone up or to be conned from them, they’re going to get ahead of me and get into a better college. But when you this, this research that bill talked about, of Martin Seligman that this perma and the kind of five attributes of you know, positive emotion, some of that’s Are you boring, glass half full, or glass half empty, but but engagement and relationships and meaning, and then achievement, and achievement is an important part of it, you know, good college, and accolades, and money and material goods, so and so forth. And there’s nothing wrong with those. It’s simply that you can’t meet non material needs, with material things. And so Bill and I have had several billionaires that we worked with, who had everything in the world, except for peace and happiness. Because it’s achievement, achievement, achievement, and think what that must feel like to kill yourself to achieve everything you think, and you’re still not happy. And so that’s why I was so happy when Bill brought this point up, and we really started exploring it of why don’t we start start as early as possible, not to pursue achievement, but to simply point out to kids, that happiness is much broader than them and always getting this parents saying, Well, you know, and all she wants to do is hang out with your friends. And I’m thinking, how do you learn to develop healthy relationships and friendships? without spending time in relationships? I mean, the 22% of millennials say they have no friends. And we know that loneliness is a bigger risk factor for death and smoking friggin cigarettes. Right? Why don’t we take time and let kids know, it’s incredibly valuable for you to spend time you know, we were just talking about this the other day, Debbie with Tina and say all the self care well, then self care, yeah, connect with other people. Because that’s why we support other people, and they support us. And if all of us want not only kids to suffer less in high school, but to Bill’s point, to be happy, let them know that the relationships in their lives are his greatest source of happiness is anything that they can ever achieve.

Debbie Reber  45:59

Yeah, that chapter, there was just so many aha moments for me, and, and again, not what I expected to read when I turned the page, but so useful, because you really talk about how it’s possible to cultivate happiness. You talk about that. And I think a lot of a lot of kids, especially if they’re feeling depressed right now, may not see that they have control over that. And actually, there are a lot of things that we can do. So I really appreciated that. And we’re gonna wrap up. But I just want to say, there are two other chapters we didn’t talk about. But I just want to mention that they’re in there, you have a great chapter about healthy expectations, which is really about potential. And I think, again, super relevant, especially for parents of gifted into weak kids, because we feel like there’s all this potential, they’re not, you know, they’re not reaching what we see for them. So that’s wonderful. You have a chapter on sleep and tech, which is fantastic. And then you have a chapter at the end, where you really talk about consequences. And I just want to say what I appreciated are so many examples. So anyone reading this book is going to see themselves, they’re going to identify with some of the stories, and you talk about how it played out. Here’s a different way if this conversation had unfolded in a more positive or respectful way. So anyway, just incredible. Congratulations on the book. And as we wrap up, is there one thing you hope that parents feel or experience, after they’ve read this book, what is kind of your greatest hope for it?

William Stixrud  47:33

Well, I’ll just mention that being close to a parent is about as close to a silver bullet for protecting kids emotionally. And so we just hope that the tools that we talked about in the book can help parents get a little closer to their kids and vice versa.

Ned Johnson  47:50

And I’m probably echo the point made earlier that As parents, we love our kids, and we want to, we always want to help. And it isn’t intuitive that when our kids are having a hard time that those two natural tendencies we have wanted to jump in and fix it or, you know, kind of relentlessly sue them, you know that that has value. But as we move forward, we want to use the power of empathy, we want to use the power of validation, we want to use the language of a non anxious consultant to put kids in a position where they can solve things for themselves. And they can develop tools to cope and soothe themselves. And we’re really, we’re helping them in that situation. But we are not doing those things for them. And in part because there’s nothing more frustrating than trying to do that and being ineffective. But our job as parents, as you said before Debbie’s is to play the long game that I’m not trying to get my kid through this day, this hour, this test. And sometimes we do, but I really want to be thinking about the long term of where to where they want this kid to be at age 20 or 30. And What relationship do I want to have with them?

Debbie Reber  48:59

So good. I love that and What relationship do I want to have with them? That is really, yeah, that’s at the heart of all of this. So thank you so much to both of you. I know we went long. I really appreciate you taking all of this time. And  listeners, please go to the show notes pages, I will have links to everything we went over including how to connect. net and Bill aren’t super active on social media, but I will share where you can connect with them and where to get the book. Listen to the last episode we did together. The book again is called What Do You Say: How to Talk with Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance, and a Happy Home. So thank you, Ned and Bill. It was just a pleasure to spend this time with you.

William Stixrud  49:38

And vice versa.

Ned Johnson  49:39

Always a delight to be with you.

Debbie Reber  49:43

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