Ever found yourself wondering, “What is my teen doing this summer?”
It’s easy to push our kid toward busyness, but there’s value in embracing the freedom — and the boredom — that comes with regular periods of unscheduled, unplugged time, says psychologist William Stixrud.
“Tell your teen [that] summer’s going to be their call. Lay out the pros and cons of all the options with them,” says Stixrud, co-author of “The Self-Driven Child.” “There’s a cost to being forced to do something. It’s like saying I know what’s better for you than you do. The right message is ‘you’re the expert on your life.’”
What’s that mean exactly? Helping a teen be happy, successful and self-motivated means developing a sense of relatedness, a sense of competence and a sense of autonomy, says Stixrud, drawing on 37 years of working with families.
“Treat [teens] respectfully, engage them to make their own decisions and let them practice making decisions about what’s important to them,” he says. “When you see a spark in your child, pour gasoline on it.”
Research shows that young people become self-motivated through the passionate pursuit of their past times — whatever that may be.
“It’s that passionate engagement that creates a flow state in the brain: a lot of energy and effort but low stress,” says Stixrud. We want kids to have a lot of experiences of this state of flow because it helps them sculpt a brain that easily goes into a state of high focused, high energy, high involvement but low struggle — a.k.a. the optimal brain state for doing most activities.
No spark? No problem. Inspiration can come from any number of sources — another kid, a teacher, a coach, a story online. The more important part is to encourage curiosity, even if you don't necessarily agree with their choice.
“Even when a kid’s decision seems bad, it’s often the case that if that [bad] thing hadn’t happened, this other good stuff wouldn’t happen later,” says Stixrud.
A key part of this: downtime — without a screen.
Think about when you’re waiting for a movie to start with no smartphone in hand. What do you do? “Your mind wanders [and] then you start to focus again,” Stixrud says. “That ability to toggle back and forth between being focused and unfocused is crucial for creating a person’s coherent sense of self and a strong sense of empathy.”
Unstructured time offers three gifts: fostering creativity, finding quick solutions to problems and developing empathy and a sense of identity.
One way to start: Agree with your teen about a time of day or even a day of the week when you both deliberately disengage from technology (a great time to start this new family tradition: during those first few heady weeks of summer).
Sure, sticking to the schedule is easier said than done but use your respectful, collaborative consultant skills to help foster the conversation.
And whether you openly call a family meeting or covertly ask your teen about their unplugging opinions at a random time is up to you but we’re guessing you should ignore your beeping phone while your teen shares their thoughts.