Silver linings are hard to come by, but maybe this could be one.
With the cataclysmic coronavirus upon us, it is just the tiniest bit possible that, in terms of child development, something good could come of it: A way to press the reset button on child anxiety. Yes, even during — and precisely because we are in — these insanely anxious times.
Before the virus changed everything, childhood anxiety was one of the worst things facing today’s kids.
Over the past several decades, the rates were spiking to the point where today, according to the National Institutes of Health, nearly one in three adolescents has an anxiety disorder. Pre-COVID we were hearing stories about students too scared to even put their name on a quiz without precise teacher instructions.
“Do you want our full name or just our first name? Do we have to write the date?” Kids had gotten so used to micromanagement they’d come to crave it. They were terrified of screwing up.
Being driven to school, supervised on playdates and participating in a boatload of adult-run extracurriculars meant that many kids just didn’t have much chance to gain the confidence that comes from actually making something happen, or handling some roadblocks. Across the economic spectrum, parents were trying to make their kids’ lives perfect — and accidentally depriving them of the chance to punch through some problems on their own. And grow up in the process.
What would it take to reverse this trend?
School closings and the cancellation of almost every last clarinet lesson have left households in a tizzy. The moms on social media sound like they’re feeding vocabulary packets to the dog and splashing the Frosted Flakes with vodka.
So while obviously the parents are right there on top of the kids (not to mention worried out of their minds), they are not right there to organize 15.7 hours of structured activity each day. Nobody can do that. Instead, these days are crazily free-form — ironically more free, under lockdown, than many kids have ever been.
Thrown from the soccer-Kumon continuum, kids are starting to do all the things they didn’t have time to do or weren’t trusted to do before. We’re already hearing about marathon Lego sessions, cookie baking, sibling-sitting and the videos kids are making in their unleashed time.
During the regular school year, which feels like a lifetime ago, our non-profit encourages schools do the Let Grow Project, where kids take home the assignment, “Do something new, on your own, without your parents.”
We’ve watched kids blossom like crazy once they were nudged into simply making pancakes, or riding their bikes. One middle-schooler told his teacher that thanks to doing a bunch of new things on his own, he was no longer taking his anxiety meds.
Amazing. Now, with a whole country’s worth of kids at home and school only taking up a fraction of the long, long day, it’s a whole new (indoor, trophy-free, child-organized) ballgame.
As for parents worried that all this non-academic time is dooming their kids’ futures, research at the University of Colorado at Boulder found that the kids who have more free time to create and structure their own activities develop stronger executive functioning skills — that is, better planning, problem-solving and follow-through — than kids whose lives are more continuously structured by adults.
Executive functioning skills are exactly what kids need to succeed at school and in real life (that thing we used to partake in, before Zoom).
When disruption occurs, learning is inevitable. It’s the same reason we’re all suddenly experts on viruses, curve-flattening and Italian geography. We are alert because we’re in new territory — a whole new world we have to navigate.
The kids are navigating, too, solving new problems, adapting (not like angels, but like growing humans) and muscling through, because they have no choice.
Childhood needed a course correction. In a million trillion years, this is not how we would have wanted it to happen.
Nonetheless, here goes.
Lenore Skenazy is president of Let Grow, a nonprofit promoting childhood independence and resilience, and founder of the Free-Range Kids movement. Dr. Peter Gray is a research professor of psychology at Boston College and author of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. He is a co-founder of Let Grow.
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