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The concept appears in the 2009 children's book "Yes Day!"

Without a sense of autonomy, children and teenagers become less resilient to setbacks, experts say

CNN  — 

Ask my son whether he needs another toy, and he will tell you, without hesitation, “yes.” Ask my husband and me whether our son needs another toy, and we will emit a groan familiar to any parents who are sick not only of organizing toys but of organizing the various baskets, boxes and other vessels they’ve purchased to store the nevertheless-uncontainable toys.

As such, for his birthday this year, we ignored his gift list and gave him the only non-stuff substitute we thought would pass muster with a 5-year-old: power. Specifically, we gave him a “Yes Day,” a 24-hour period during which we couldn’t say no.

We didn’t invent the “Yes Day.” The concept appears in the 2009 children’s book “Yes Day!” by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld, and it recently became a popular topic in parenting media after actress Jennifer Garner Instagrammed about her family’s annual tradition in September. We will also be making it an annual tradition and recommend that other families do the same.

The appeal of the day lies not just in the liberation it gives our child but, somewhat unexpectedly, in the liberation for us parents. In this age of intensive parenting, when children’s calendars are so packed that they require color-coding and macaroni and cheese is cause for mild guilt or even panic, a break from “no” is also a break from the niggling fear that we are somehow failing our children. Free from our normal scripts, we realize things about one another and about ourselves.

What happened when we said ‘yes’

The morning of my son’s birthday, we watched as he tore through presents from three sets of grandparents and five aunts and uncles. (When I was a child, the only gift I received from a relative was a $15 check from my maternal grandmother that my parents never allowed me to cash.) When that was over and he had the physical evidence that this was his birthday, we gave him, verbally, our gift.

His eyebrow peaked in part confusion, part skepticism. We threw some examples at him. “Can I watch another cartoon? Can I have another cookie? Can we go see otters at the zoo?” He nodded, eyebrows descending. “But if I asked you if I could jump in fire, you would say no, right?” he asked, in a quick reckoning of the necessary limits of his power. He was relieved when we said yes and then proceeded to brainstorm some of things he might do – and not do – on “Yes Day.”

Three weeks later, a Saturday, it arrived. He began the day with brio, confidently directed us through a breakfast of crepes with lemon and sugar for breakfast, followed by a Netflix session, all premeditated. After two hours of cartoons, he said he was ready to move on but didn’t know to what. He had entered the portion of the day that required improvisation and briefly struggled to figure out what to do.

The rest of the afternoon was spent around the house. We pretended we were a princess and an otter. We pretended we were ninjas. We had a pipe-cleaner craft competition. We also spent a lot of time talking about what other activities we might do. My husband and I made a litany of suggestions, the majority of which involved leaving the house. Our son, an indoor kid, demurred. Come late afternoon, the appeal of unlimited power had dimmed, and he ambled around the playroom, mildly distressed.

With early evening, however, came redemption. We went to his favorite sushi restaurant, where he happily ate rolls and charmed the waitress into allowing him to take home a few pieces of origami on display near the sushi bar. After this, we went to a frozen yogurt franchise, where he finally cashed in. While modest in his dessert choices – two small mounds of yogurt topped by a small fistful of assorted toppings – he took advantage of the branded merchandise section. We went home with an anthropomorphized frozen yogurt cone stuffed animal and a package of sponge capsules that hit a cup of warm water shortly after we returned home.

He ended the day content, arms coiled around his new yogurt cone pal. My husband and I, however, felt somewhat disappointed. We knew that if his “Yes Day” was enough for him, it should have been enough for us as well. And yet part of us was still surprised he didn’t want more.

More control over themselves

Though most parents know they should leave some space, temporal and psychological, for their kids to be themselves, many of us appear to be struggling with it. In recent decades, anxiety has spiked among children and teens. Mental health experts attribute this spike to a rise in external pressures and feeling as though someone else is calling all the shots.

In their upcoming book “The Self-Driven Child,” Ned Johnson, the founder of PrepMatters, a tutoring and test preparation service in Washington, and Bill Stixrud, a clinical neuropsychologist, use scientific research and case studies to make a convincing argument for giving children more control over their lives.

“People need a sense of competency,” or learning a skill, “but also autonomy,” Johnson explained. “Parents today are spending all kinds of time, energy and money trying to increase competency but often do it at the expense of kids’ autonomy. So kids feel like things are done to them, instead of for them or with them.”

Without a sense of autonomy, children and teenagers feel helpless and are thus less resilient to challenges or setbacks. “They not only need to learn that they can make good choices but also that they can screw up and it would be OK,” Johnson said.

He added that while this sense of autonomy is most crucial in the teenage years, as children begin to make decisions with longer-lasting consequences, it’s not something parents should wait to teach until their child gets her driver’s license. Even toddlers should be encouraged to make their own decisions whenever their well-being isn’t at risk.

Stixrud explained that fostering a sense of autonomy helps children both reject the parts of their lives that aren’t working for them and feel motivated to seek out interests and experiences that they might enjoy. Observing an annual “Yes Day” for young children can be a useful step in pointing children in the right direction.

Yes Day “is a way to be respectful and to acknowledge, early on, that this is his life,” he explained. “Kids have a brain in their head, and they have a sense of how they want their lives to work. Parents should start there and support that, instead of thinking we are supposed to make (our children) a certain way.”

Johnson and Stixrud aren’t advocating for parents to abdicate to their posts as leaders of the family; this isn’t about allowing children to ignore their bedtimes, eat exclusively pizza or stop bathing. Rather, it’s about making sure our sons and daughters are spending some of their time in a way that is meaningful for them and have space in the day to pursue their interests. (Unless, Stixrud noted, their interests are video games or social media, which should be limited.) Pursuing their own pastimes allows their brains to enter a high-effort, high-energy, high-focus and low-stress state, which research shows is necessary for developing self-motivation.

“You have to be working on something that is important to you to become self-driven,” Stixrud said. “I (would) much rather have a kid who is working on something he is passionate about than dutifully but minimally doing his homework every night. This creates the wiring in the brain that helps you get good at something you love.”

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    Giving our son control for a day allowed us to see how he still very much needs our direction. But is also showed us how we, with the best intentions, push him in ways we probably shouldn’t. While we envisioned a Yes Day filled with out-of-the-house adventures, his idea of a good time didn’t much involve leaving at all. He was most content when we would join him in his imaginary world without, importantly, us telling him of how long we had or what else needed to be done that day.

    Ultimately, we were reminded that, when it comes to our kids, sometimes we can give more by doing less. So less we will do, incorporating a little bit of Yes Day into every day, granting him the freedom to be an otter, a ninja or whoever else he wants to be.

    Elissa Strauss writes about the politics and culture of parenthood.