Is our society failing at childhood? Kids are scheduled, supervised and guided through their childhood like never before. But here’s the thing, they are not stronger for it, especially mentally. On the contrary, anxiety disorders in kids are on the rise. The National Alliance of Mental Illness put out a report in 2012 stating that colleges across the U.S. are reporting ” large increases in the prevalence and severity of mental health conditions experienced by students attending their schools.” It’s time to revisit how we’re raising our kids.
This Was Childhood
I did crazy things when I was a kid. I saw rules as mere guidelines. The world was my laboratory and I tested the heck out of it. We lived in cities mainly, but the summers were spent in the country. The barn that we called our summer house did not have running water. A hand-cranked pump in the yard provided for our needs. The kitchen was equipped with an old fashioned wood stove. But we didn’t care, we loved spending time there, in the middle of nowhere, in France.
Our closest neighbors were farmers: three generations living in the same house, tending the animals and the farm. The farmers’ daughter, my siblings, and I played all day, leaving shortly after breakfast and coming back when tummies were rumbling. What we did was a mystery to our parents. We came home, only our skins telling our tales through thorn scratches, bruises, and nettle rashes. We picked wild blackberries, flowers and weeds. I learned to bike there, landing in the thorny blackberry bushes or the neighbors’ pigsty. I learned fast. The kids debated, fought, and made up without any parental interventions. We touched nature, we climbed trees, we swam in lakes thick with mud. When my father was not helping the farmers in the fields, he would work at turning the barn into a respectable house with running water and everything civilized. At the end of summer, we left our peaceful life to return to the city with tears in our eyes.
In the city, I roamed alone at an early age, running errands for my mom, visiting my friends, and playing at the neighborhood parks. Kids were not entertained by anyone, especially not adults. They hung out in groups, learning to cooperate and killing boredom together. Anxiety was not in our vocabulary. If you failed, you tried again. If you screwed up, there were consequences. You either owned it, or tried to cover it up the best you could. When you got in trouble, you really got in trouble.
This Is Childhood Now
I have always found it hard to find families who are willing to let their kids explore the neighborhood or nature with minimal supervision. My friend Michelle did. Our kids explored a small patch of Pacific Northwest forest together. Maybe she was open to it because her husband had such an interesting childhood growing up in Vietnam, or maybe she remembered her own childhood growing up in the Midwest. But most people we would meet would balk at the idea.
There are somethings about my own childhood that I choose not to repeat with my own children. But with hindsight, there’s a lot about my childhood I wish I had given more of to my kids as well. Mainly, less of me and more free time in nature. More opportunities to test, fail, get up, and try again. My kids have had a lot of free time, my youngest still does, and they definitely were not over-scheduled. I do wish, however, that they had had their own opportunities to land in a few pigsties, fall in the blackberry bushes, climb a few taller trees and explore their world without a parent nearby.
Time to Reconsider How We Are Raising Our Children
Many child development experts, Peter Gray, PhD for example, see our kids’ lack of risk taking and freedom to explore as detrimental to their wellbeing. Research shows that in order to grow into healthy adults, children need to test boundaries. They need to be allowed to fail on their own terms, and figure their way out of one or two pickles on their own. If that is the consensus amongst the experts, then why are we failing at childhood?
It’s time to reconsider how we are raising our children. I am not advocating that we stop parenting, but we cannot teach them everything. Our kids are not perfect, and neither are we. It’s time let them do developmentally what they were meant to do: explore, test, fail, problem solve, fight and make up with their friends. They should be allowed to make a lot of mistakes, succeed, and fail some more. It’s good for kids to push their own limits. Sometimes being a good parent means taking a step back and letting our kids be kids. Risk is an opportunity to fail, and it’s also an opportunity to learn. We should celebrate our children’s failures and maybe view them as more valuable than their successes.