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We Wanted the Best for Our Kids -- But Made a Mistake

Lenore Skenazy on

An article about to be published in the Journal of Pediatrics is titled, "Decline in Independent Activity as a Cause of Decline in Children's Mental Wellbeing: Summary of the Evidence."

The authors are three big names in child development: Anthropologist David Lancy, psychologist David Bjorklund and Peter Gray, a professor in the Dept. of Psychology and Neuroscience at Boston College -- and a co-founder with me of Let Grow.

Their piece summarizes a wide swath of evidence showing that, ironically, as we replaced more and more of children's free time and free play with adult-run activities, homework, entertainment and assistance, we thought we were giving them more opportunities for growth and joy.

Actually, we were draining their lives of optimism and resilience.

Reversing this trend -- stat! -- is key, say the authors, as "children who have more opportunities for independent activities are not only happier in the short run, because the activities engender happiness and a sense of competence, but also happier in the long run, because independent activities promote the growth of capacities for coping with life's inevitable stressors."

The piece is already drawing attention. Emily Oster, author of popular books on data-driven parenting including "Expecting Better," writes in her Substack that indeed, it is indisputable that kids are less free, and less trusted to be competent, responsible, resourceful young adults than they were in the '80s:


"You can see this even in something like 'The Baby-Sitters Club,'" Oster writes. "The seventh graders in these books -- published from 1986 to 2000 -- are babysitting for young infants, including at night, making dinner, cleaning the house, and so on. The feel of the world is somewhat different than what many of us experience with our children now."

Why are trust, responsibility and independence so crucial to kids' mental health?

Because that's how you get a sense of what you can handle, and of who you are in the world: A competent, growing person -- not a baby or a bonsai tree.

Think about a time YOU were trusted by your parents or another adult to do something without them -- come home by dinner, run an errand, walk your sister to school...


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