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clockRecently, I was having dinner with a friend and her children, and the topic of bedtimes came up.  I explained that my daughter and I would argue about bedtime when she was their age. She insisted that everyone in her school stayed up until after 10 p.m., and I unreasonably insisted she be in bed by 8:30. As many parents have experienced, she wore me down, so I said that I would no longer be in charge of her bedtime. She could stay up as late as she wanted as long as she could get herself up and ready for school and have the energy and positive attitude needed to not only make it through her school day but would also return home and be a pleasant member of our family. She stayed up until 11 p.m. the first night… and that was the end of the experiment. She discovered what I knew from years of watching her; she needed more sleep than many of her peers. She wasn’t rested unless she slept at least 9 or 10 hours each night. We no longer fought about bedtimes; she was in charge. I let her decide and honored her choice. We agreed on the limitations of the choices and I stepped out. As you can imagine, the boys with whom I shared this story were delighted to hear this (the parents not as much) and asked their parents to institute “Lisa bedtime” at their house.  

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If you ask just about any parent what they want most for their children, they will say that they want them to be happy.  The Self-Driven Child addresses just that. Despite the fact that our goal is to raise happy children, when they reach a certain age or experience a lack of initiative with school work, parents often resort to lecturing, imposing restrictions “until” things change, or by going head to head with their child over things such as homework, grades and even bedtimes. Children need to learn how to make these choices from a young age. They need to know that only they can determine if they are sick enough to stay home from school once they reach late elementary or middle school. After all, their parents won’t be there when they are sick and have a project due at work when they are in their 20s or 30s. They alone have to decide how to allocate the hours in their days. Do they want to spend the extra time needed to take a harder class or spend that time pursuing a passion?

Authors William Stixrud and Ned Johnson propose that parents need to think of themselves as a consultant rather than a boss or manager when it come to raising their children; in other words, children need to be given choices and trusted to make good choices. If you have children, what you may have learned quite quickly is that the control you thought you might have over such a little inexperienced human is an illusion. Babies teach parents that from the very beginning. Children want agency. They want to make decisions. They want to be presented with options and, of course, sometimes they will choose the less optimal path. They learn from this as well. If what we want is children who become happy well-adjusted adults, what we need to do is get out of their way and allow them to have a sense of agency over their own lives. Starting when they are young paves a strong path for them to follow as they grow.