Lately I keep hearing about kids falling apart at the slightest provocation. At home, on the playing field and at all levels of education, young people are experiencing an unprecedented crisis in mental health. These are our future doctors, lawyers, artists and leaders, so we have reason to be concerned.
A grade-six teacher was telling me the other day that her entire class of twenty had suddenly broken down in tears. One or two started getting upset and then all the others joined in. She’s been teaching for over ten years and she’s never seen anything like it.
Kids are having mental breakdowns over homework assignments and mid-term exams. At camp, they’re too afraid to try a new sport for fear of hurting themselves and they have no idea how to make their own fun.
Angela Hanscomb, the founder of Timbernook - an outdoor free play camp, described to me how a six year old recently asked one of the counselors, “What are my parents paying you for, if you’re not going to entertain me?”
In high schools and colleges, young people are suffering from record levels of anxiety and depression. They’re showing up in droves at their school guidance centers but there aren’t enough counselors to keep up with the demand.
Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former dean of freshmen at Stanford University, described to me how she’s seen more and more students decompensating around the same stresses that previous generations had handled with ease. She noted that what these troubled kids had in common was overly-intrusive parenting.
Over-parenting is causing a general lack of resilience and a dearth of something that psychologist Angela Duckworth calls, “grit,” or the ability to single-mindedly pursue our passions and persevere when the going gets rough. I’m not that old but when I grew up, kids were viewed as tougher and their independence was a given.
I walked to school by myself from the age of five. I spent a few winters getting snow in my boots and having cold, wet mittens from making snowballs; that is, until I figured out how to avoid these problems.
If I was arguing with one of my friends, I had to sort it out on my own. It wasn’t always easy but it taught me how to navigate the intricacies of social interactions and I recognized within myself the capacity to find my own solutions.
The parents in my neighborhood took it for granted that kids should spend most of their time outside in unsupervised play. Boys and girls of all ages, religions and cultures ran around together having adventures.
We kids created our own culture; one of inclusion and empathy. When a Cambodian family moved in to the neighborhood, we folded their two young sons into our group, unconcerned about their lack of English. After a couple of months, the boys were fluent in the language and full participants in our activities.
Angela Hanscom told me of a time at her camp when the counselors let two groups of kids sort out a conflict on their own. Instead of being forced by the adults to play together — which would have left them feeling resentful — the kids figured out how to come together organically. Trusting these kids to resolve their own issues brought out the best in them.
In my childhood, playing our own games and making our own rules encouraged our creativity and problem-solving abilities; being in a group fostered cooperation and compromise.
Playing with kids who had different degrees of athleticism pushed each of us to challenge the limits of our abilities. We took the kinds of physical risks that are unheard of today and survived (mostly) intact. All of this made us stronger both mentally and physically.
Today, it worries me how so many kids are protected from any risk by being kept indoors or under constant adult supervision. Their parents intervene at the first sign of a problem. But if these kids are constantly treated like infants or incompetents how will they develop the essential skills and attributes that my friends and I learned, growing up?
When I tripped on a tree root, I learned to watch my step. When I fell down, I figured out how to land softly and bounce back quickly. Kids today are capable of doing exactly the same. They’re more resourceful than we think.
Overprotecting and micro-managing won’t give our kids the resilience and courage required to meet the challenges of today’s world. Today’s kids need the same freedom I had to run around, make their own mistakes and recognize their own abilities.
These days, we have an obsession with the notion of safety, but we need to know the difference between danger and discomfort. Discomfort might be unpleasant but it forces us to grow.
My childhood gang accumulated its fair share of battle scars but what we gained far outweighed what we lost. There was some blood, there were a few stitches; even a few broken bones, but not one of us would have given up the freedom to play independently for the promise of avoiding injury.
As a child, I had autonomy and opportunity. I could explore the limits of my abilities and push myself beyond my fears. From early on I’d learned that for every problem a solution exists, and that I’d be able to find it.
From my own experiences and from decades as a psychotherapist, I’ve learned that the way to help today’s kids thrive is to stop hovering over them and doing too much for them. Parents. educators and institutions need to take a few steps back and give kids the space to grow on their own.
I’m not talking about neglect; I’m talking about trusting our kids to learn on their own and empowering them to be their very best selves.
Current statistics show that it’s never been safer to play outside. We need to let go and allow our kids to discover their own capabilities so that they can face their challenges with creativity, confidence, passion and persistence and grow into adults unburdened by panic or devastation.
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