Our Take Back Childhood mission at Melissa & Doug has opened my eyes in so many ways —
- It truly forced me to look at the way I parent — and the results were, let’s just say, not conducive to developing independent, resilient children.
- I’ve been experiencing, both firsthand and anecdotally, the profound mental health impact that overscheduling, structure, and pressure to perform are having on BOTH children and adults.
- Despite the many benefits of technology, excessive screen time for young children robs them of the ability to use their imagination and find wonder plus it has the potential to bring about devastating addictions.
- Our educational system is woefully inadequate and must be transformed in order to produce innovative, communicative, and collaborative students who think critically and are equipped to solve the world’s complex problems.
I have been so moved by this crisis that I’ve literally devoured scores of books and articles on the topic, in addition to having provocative conversations with experts in the field such as play expert Dr. Peter Gray, child development expert Dr. Tammy Mann, and educator/author, Alison Porcelli. I’ve also met with our entire Melissa & Doug team here to share what I’ve been learning and propose strategies for spreading the word and mobilizing our community to devise effective solutions.
We are on the cusp of a tipping point in our society.
The research has been steadily mounting and the consensus by experts is that childhood is under siege due to four major factors:
- helicopter parenting
- addiction to screens
- a test- and stress-based educational system.
I’m hoping that in the same way our society was able to shift its thinking on subjects such as smoking, sun tanning, car safety (seatbelts and car seats), and the food we consume, we can also transform the way we think about how children spend their time. This issue is especially complex because it’s not one single “evil” (as in the case of the smoking example) that is potentially harming our kids, but a combination of factors that I will outline here:
As I disclosed above, I am a helicopter parent. I so desperately didn’t want my children to feel the sting of rejection I felt as a child that my instinct was to always rush in, solve their problems, and do whatever it took to make them happy. As I’ve learned more about parenting styles, I realize that my meddling was actually denying them the ability to become independent on their own. I’ve therefore made a conscious effort to back off and allow them to solve their own problems. It’s very difficult for me, but my research has made me realize that our kids need to learn how to cope in order to become self-sufficient adults. They need to be able to take risks, fail, get up, and try again. This is how they develop grit and the determination to keep fighting when life knocks them down.
As for overscheduling, I am guilty of keeping my kids’ schedules fully structured. In hindsight, I realize that I am often trying to live MY dreams through my children (such as when I pushed one of my sons into music or wished for a professional athlete in my brood). But I now know that by pushing children to follow the dreams of their parents, they are not discovering their own dreams and following their own path.
Child-led play, where the child is making decisions about what to do and how to do it, is key to building his or her individual sense of self, which in turns fosters resilience, self-confidence, creativity, problem-solving, and social, emotional, and cognitive skills. For many reasons — including our society’s misperceptions about how safe or unsafe the world is for our children, our long working hours, and our emphasis on “resume-building” through activities, sports, and lessons for even our youngest children —we have scheduled our children’s lives with little free time. And truth be told, it’s difficult to convince parents that the benefits of child-led free play outweigh the benefits of an adult-led after-school program that purports to build “skills.” The former may take years to fully reveal its benefits, whereas the latter serves as one more tick in the box in the so-called “checklisted childhood.”
A number of studies have come out in recent months that connect the rise in screen time to increased anxiety and feelings of isolation. Rates of teen depression and suicide have dramatically risen since 2011. And some experts are warning of the very real dangers to our brains from smart phone addiction. This is no joke. Our children are on the brink of a mental health crisis, says one expert who has studied the impact of smart phones on our culture. In her book, Reset Your Child’s Brain, Dr. Victoria Dunckley outlines the detrimental effects of what she calls Electronic Screen Syndrome, where our kids are “wired but tired,” have meltdowns without cause, and refuse to look others in the eye.
Last year the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with new guidelines for children and screen time, suggesting avoiding it for those under 18 months old and limiting it to one hour a day for those ages 2-5. I will make an even bolder statement: I don’t think there is any major benefit to screen time for children under 6. It’s such a critical time for brain development that calls for kids to be outside exploring and discovering, with as much open-ended, hands-on, interactive free play as possible.
It’s not news that our schools have become slaves to the standardized test. Schools are under enormous pressure to deliver high test scores and as a result education has become another structured and performance-based activity. So then how do children get lit up with learning and feel the pure joy of acquiring knowledge? Of following one’s curiosity down different paths that may not align with the fill-in-the-bubble culture so pervasive in education these days?
At one of my children’s open houses recently, a teacher shared the outcomes of an informal survey she did with her students on their concerns and preoccupations. “Stress” was the predominant theme echoed by students over and over — and these were children ages 10-14. I was both saddened and horrified by these findings.
Numerous recent studies illustrate a direct connection between the rise in rates of anxiety in young people and our performance-based culture. Our children should not be feeling this kind of pressure to perform — clearly, it’s time to redefine success. Is it getting the “A,” getting into the elite college, earning the big bucks? Or is it developing a sense of oneself and one’s purpose that can bring fulfillment and a personal sense of happiness? I think most of us would proclaim it to be the latter. And if that’s the case, then we really need to reevaluate our approach to education. As Ken Robinson writes in his book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, we need to help our children find the intersection of their talents and their passion. But before we do that, we need to give our children space and time to discover what that passion truly is.
So that covers some of the problems we are facing. It’s not a pretty picture. What can we do?
The Science of Raising Happy Kids
The science of happiness is fairly well documented, and it actually involves only two areas of focus in fostering fulfillment in children (and all individuals): 1. Developing meaningful connections with others who love and respect them for who they truly are (children need close pals, not popularity, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article). 2. Preparing them to engage in meaningful work (helping them find their calling and what lights them up). How do we do this? Through play!
I’m convinced that play must be present throughout our entire lives. In fact, one of the reasons I believe depression has sky-rocketed among middle-aged adults is because they have lost sight of play, or in other words, what brought them joy in childhood. As Brian Sutton-Smith says, “The opposite of play is not work . . . it’s depression.” It’s through play that we discover our passions and purpose. It’s through open-ended play that we can learn to think creatively and solve problems. I feel so passionately about this idea of play as the path to fulfillment that we are taking a hard look at our company’s culture to see how we can better infuse the ideas of play, discovery, and exploration into both our work and personal lives.
Ask yourself these questions when it comes to your own family.
- Could your children use more child-led play in their lives?
- How many hours per week are your children engaged in self-directed free play away from screens?
- What are some ways you might try to incorporate child-led play?