Stop Hovering and Let Kids Play—Their Mental Health Depends On It

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Growing up in the nineties, there was one constant in both our lives: neighborhood sports. Just about every day following school, you could find us amidst a dozen friends playing basketball, baseball, football, or rollerblade hockey. Steve would make the walk through his Houston neighborhood to the street with a cul-de-sac, picking up other kids along the way. Brad would ride his bike in suburban Detroit to the Korean church that had a big field out back, basketball hoop in front, and a clergy that welcomed 25 kids of all shapes, sizes, and colors to use the property for sports—so long as it wasn’t Sunday.

There were no adults. No cell phones. No way for parents to get a hold of us. It was just a bunch of kids playing for hours, rain or shine. Wrists were broken. Concussions were had. Fights broke out. But everyone survived, and everyone looked forward to it.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve asked around and confirmed this experience wasn’t unique to us. There is nothing particularly idyllic about Houston or suburban Detroit. Our childhood experience was completely normal.

But things have changed.

Today, ballfields are mostly empty. Pick-up games have been replaced by organized sports, with adults overseeing every step. Instead of meeting up in Rachel’s basement to play Magic: The Gathering or flip through the yearbook, kids converse from their rooms through their phones, increasingly “alone together,” in the words of sociologist Sherry Turkle.

Perhaps even worse is when teens get caught up in heated internet strife with total strangers. “Psychologists sometimes talk about getting out of your head and into your body. You know what’s really good at doing the opposite, taking you out of your body? Spending hours craned over at a screen where people you’ll never meet are saying stuff that makes you feel a certain way,” writes Derek Thompson.

Starting in the 2000s, the traditional staples at elementary school playgrounds—slides, monkey bars, and climbing walls—were replaced with less dangerous varieties. There are fewer kids in the cul-de-sacs, front yards, and community green spaces. And if kids are gathering, there’s probably an adult hovering nearby. Solo bike trips a mile down the road are rare. There’s often a parent following behind in a car as their 11-year-old makes the short commute to school in the morning.

How did this shift come to be?

We believe the answer lies in a combination of fear, a culture of safetyism, and well-meaning parents who genuinely and deeply want to protect their kids.

It’s becoming apparent that the results of this shift are devastating. For a new paper published in The Journal of Pediatrics, researchers compellingly argue that “a primary cause of the rise in mental disorders [in youth] is a decline over decades in opportunities for children and teens to play, roam, and engage in other activities independent of direct oversight and control by adults.”

In the parlance of our latest book, Master of Change, if we want to develop rugged and flexible kids who can navigate uncertainty, then we need to give kids the opportunity to be rugged and flexible and to navigate uncertainty. Kids need time and space for unsupervised play, full stop.

Overcoming What-If Syndrome

But what if the kids get hurt, scraped up, or worse yet, break a bone? What if a stranger abducts them? What if they get into an argument or a fight during a pickup basketball game?

Parents want to keep their kids safe. It’s an understandable motive. If you live in an area where crime is high, it may be worthwhile. (A big reason why public safety is so important: the deleterious effects on kids of truly unsafe neighborhoods are infinite and tragic.)

But in the vast majority of neighborhoods, much of that fear is overblown. Adults see threats everywhere because they get twenty daily alerts on the neighborhood or Facebook app that they would have been oblivious to a few years earlier. Adults don’t just hear about the kids at their local playground breaking a bone, but from parents across the country who they follow on social media.

The threats feel more salient because adults are constantly inundated with them. The most scary, graphic, and dramatic rise to the top of the algorithm. The predictive brain does its job, turning up the dial on threats because they feel frequent and real. And yet almost all of the data shows it’s safer now than when kids were running around freely in the 1990s.

We’re in the midst of a youth and teen mental health crisis. Rates of depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety, self-harm, and loneliness are at all-time highs.

In our recent books, we’ve outlined how to develop resilience in both adults and youth. In order to be rugged and flexible you have to learn how to respond instead of react, how to understand your inner world as it meets the outer world, and how to confront challenges instead of avoid them. Unorganized and adult-free play is where kids develop these skills.

Play develops intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation emerges from a sense of autonomy, competency, and belonging.

Autonomy is about the freedom to explore, and to feel like you are in charge of your pursuits. In the workplace, there’s no quicker way to kill motivation than to micromanage someone to death. Yet we’ve turned most of our kid’s play opportunities into micromanaged activities.

Belonging emerges from real connections and relationships. It requires a place where you get to be yourself and feel part of a group. Competency is where you get to seek out mastery and improve at a task for its own sake instead of for some accolade or trophy. Once again, unstructured play provides the perfect backdrop to develop each.

Play cultivates a broad emotional repertoire.

Conflict is inevitable. Play is where kids learn to interact with others under heightened emotions. Things can get heated out on the playground. Arguments break out over whether someone cheated or fouled too hard. But at younger ages, when left alone to figure it out, kids seldom end up in actual fights. Rather, they learn the importance of rules and how to see an issue through someone else’s lens. They learn how to turn down the emotional dial and not lose their cool.

An adult jumping in at the first sign of trouble hampers this development. Essentially, adult intervention is teaching kids that they can outsource conflict management and that they should call for help at the first hint of trouble instead of learning to sit and wrestle with the uncomfortable emotions that accompany conflict. When adults too closely supervise, we never allow kids to figure out how to repair following rupture.

Play teaches kids how to fail and bounce back.

Fear of failure can be insidious, creating conditions where someone won’t even step in the arena to see what they can do. Play counters this. Kids can play kickball at recess, even if they are terrible, because there’s no mom, dad, or coach there to critique them afterward. Kids can get their butts kicked at soccer during recess, be a bit upset they lost, and then learn to move on quickly to the next activity.

Kids are experts at bouncing back and moving on from failure quickly—but only if we let them. When kids are constrained in hyper-structured and controlled environments, we are essentially taking away their natural opportunities for exploration.

During elementary school, your child may come home one day obsessed with firefighters, only to drop that like a bad habit and want to learn everything about dolphins the next, and then two weeks later be wanting to play basketball nonstop. This is a huge positive. It’s crucial not only for learning to move on from failure but also for developing a robust and diversified sense of identity.

Building Resilience

If we want resilient kids, we’ve got to give them the opportunities to flex their resilience muscles and develop their resilience skills. Too often, we’re doing the opposite, always looking over their shoulders, never giving them the freedom to dabble, explore, mess up, find their path, connect with like-minded others, and see that the world isn’t a dangerous place.

While many adults lament kids retreating into video games, we think it offers one of the clearest examples of the problem. Video games are this generation’s sandlot. It’s a place free of adults, where kids can mess up, talk trash, lose, and bounce back—all without an adult hovering over them. Adults have forced kids into the video game box. It’s the one area where adults can’t get in the way.

It’s time to reverse course. Our kids desperately need it. We need to give kids the space to explore, mess up, and maybe even break a bone or two. Adults need to realize that the price of a broken wrist at age six is much less than the cost of a young adult who hasn’t learned the skills to manage their emotions or explore the world around them. Yet adults only see the broken wrist, not the much greater, albeit hidden, cost of safetyism.

Decades of research shows that when we turn up the dial on threats, whether perceived or real, our brains listen. We’re more likely to avoid conflict instead of approach it, react instead of respond, and isolate instead of connect.

Without being aware of it, adults are training kids to have hypersensitive threat alarms and a lack of tools or resources to handle inevitable challenges. The consequences are dire. Here are some tools for adults that can help reverse the trend.

  • Ask yourself if your fears are high probability and local or based on rare but salient stories and global. If the latter, allow your fears to be there but don’t let them dictate your actions.
  • Acknowledge, accept, and expect your kids to get hurt, both physically and emotionally, during adult-free play. As you’ve read above, this is the point!
  • Help your kids understand their values (ruggedness) and how they can use them to make decisions and navigate uncertainty (flexibility).
  • Identify actual threats (e.g., the main road) and set firm boundaries that protect actual safety. Then, within those boundaries, get out of your kid’s way.
  • Resist the urge to go crazy with the youth sports industrial complex. We’ve been privileged to work with truly elite athletes and we can assure you that whether or not they played in the top league between age 5-13 had absolutely nothing to do with their adult success.
  • Remember that you are not only parenting your kids now, but you are also preparing them for the years to come and how to confront inevitable disorder and uncertainty in their lives.

-Steve and Brad

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