The Need for Freedom from Adult Supervision

Partly because of overprotective parenting, children are deprived of free play today as they never have been before outside of the times and places of forced child labor. The consequences are disastrous. Here are some facts to consider:

1. Since about 1950, children’s opportunities for free play with other children, away from adults, have declined continuously and dramatically in the United States.

2. Over this same period, using constant measures (which do not depend on changed diagnostic criteria), the prevalence of anxiety disorders and depression in children and adolescents has increased between five- and eight-fold, and the rate of childhood suicides has more than quadrupled. In addition, over the past few decades, there has been a continuous increase in young people’s sense of helplessness and decline in their feelings of empathy and concern for others — again, using measures that have been constant over the decades.

3. When monkeys are deprived of play — by housing them with non-playful adults and isolating them from playful peers — they grow up to be emotionally and socially inept. They are unable to control their fear on the one hand, and their aggression on the other, and they fail to make meaningful connections with peers.

Free play, undirected by adults, is the natural means by which children learn how to control their own lives, solve their own problems, regulate their emotions, make friends, and get along with peers. As a culture, we have turned childhood from the playful stage of life it is meant to be into a period of resume building. In our misguided desire to protect children from the moderate dangers of free, unsupervised play, and in our misguided belief that more hours of forced schooling leads to more learning, we are quite literally driving many children crazy. They are suffering from stress disorders. They are not enjoying life as they should.

My analysis of the historical and anthropological literature suggests that there has never been any human culture, anywhere, at any time, that underestimates children’s abilities more than we North Americans do today. Our underestimation becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, because by depriving children of freedom, we deprive them of the opportunities they need to learn how to learn the social and emotional skills they need for a healthy, happy life. It is true that children playing on their own sometimes get into squabbles, experience minor injuries, and experience fear and anger as well as joy. But they solve those problems on their own when we allow them to, especially if they see that there are no adults around to run to. In this way they learn that they are competent and emotionally strong.

Do your children a favor, and get out of their way for few hours every day. Let them play outdoors with other kids, and don’t watch. If there is no regular group of children outdoors to play with in your neighborhood, or no safe place to play, then get to know your neighbors who have kids and work with them to solve this very serious problem. If you do that, you will be exhibiting real parental responsibility.

Peter Gray is a research professor of psychology at Boston College. He is the author of Psychology (Worth Publishers), an introductory college textbook now in its sixth edition. His current research and writing focuses primarily on children’s natural ways of learning and the life-long value of play. He is the author of Freedom to Learn, a blog for Psychology Today magazine and the author of a forthcoming book by that same title (to be published by Basic Books, 2012). His own play includes not only his research and writing, but also long distance bicycling, kayaking, back-woods skiing, and vegetable gardening.