Kind Why Parents Should Stop Overprotecting Kids and Let Them Play 2
Why Parents Should Stop Overprotecting Kids and Let Them Play
An Interview with Hara Estroff Marano and Lenore Skenazy
Hara Estroff Marano and Lenore Skenazy have long observed and chronicled the decline of free play in the U.S. Marano, for nearly twenty years an
editor at large for Psychology Today and formerly its editor in chief, writes feature articles and the magazine’s advice column, “Unconventional Wisdom.” She has also written about human
emotion and behavior for Smithsonian, Marie Claire, New York Magazine, Self, the New York Times and others.
Marano a member of the advisory board of the Bringing Theory to Practice Project, an Association of American Colleges and Universities initiative, which promotes the cognitive, emotional,
and civic development of students. She is the author of Why Doesn’t Anybody Like Me? A Guide to Raising Socially Competent Kids (1998) and A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting (2008).
Skenazy is a nationally syndicated columnist and former staffer of National Public Radio and Mad Magazine. She wrote Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (2010) and created the Free-Range Kids blog. In this dual interview, Marano discusses the faltering resilience of young people, the rise of cautious overparenting, and narcissistic parental expectation; and Skenazy describes how misplaced fear drives American parents to comic lengths in protecting their children against imagined danger.
Key words: coping skills; free-range play; nation of wimps; outdoor play; parenting styles; parental fears
American Journal of Play (AJP): Ms. Marano, a couple of years ago, you said over parenting is making America a nation of wimps. Is America no longer the home of the brave?
Hara Estroff Marano: Sadly, it isn’t. The home of the brave has given way to the home of the fearful, the entitled, the risk averse, and the narcissistic. Today’s young, at least in the middle class
and upper class, are psychologically fragile. Historically, the normal vicissitudes of life, the little lumps and bumps, the challenges, and the daily difficulties have been pebbles over which we have stumbled but on which we have developed our unique coping skills.
We have used that experience to develop a sense of mastery and confidence that we can cope with whatever life throws our way. Today, I fear for the home of the brave because we are robbing people of the sense that they can cope. Without that, we have no basis for nurturing the moral sentiment of courage. There are a number of benchmarks of its disappearance, but you see it especially
in how kids increasingly want certainty. They want to know what’s ahead, they want to know the answers in advance, and they want to know exactly what will be covered in their college courses and especially what will be on the tests. Even within the realm of relative certainty of the university experience, they have very little tolerance for uncertainty.
I find this need for certainty very disturbing when I think about the kind of character we sum up with “the home of the brave.”
AJP: How do you know this about college students?
Marano: First of all, there are year-to-year surveys that document the increasing number of college students who are developing serious problems.
These studies show that since the 1990s, there is a consistent pattern of increasingly severe psychological disorders among increasing numbers of college
students. The numbers have gone up and up and up. Second, from interviews with several hundred professionals on the frontlines of the campus
counseling centers, I have learned that the lack of coping skills is precisely what distinguishes today’s college students.
AJP: Do you believe changes in parenting styles have helped cause this?
Marano: Yes. And to illustrate, let me tell you a story that caught my attention. One Sunday morning I was out for a run, and I took a different route
home past the playground where my own kids used to play. At first I was thrilled to see so many fathers with their kids, but then I did a double take
because the fathers weren’t letting the kids play. For every child, there was a dad standing there coaching every move—moving the kids’ arms,
catching them as they came down the tiny slide, doing virtually everything for them. When my kids were young, we parents sat around the perimeter, let
the kids play, and didn’t get involved unless someone had a bloody nose or something like it.
AJP: Are there any benefits to this growing fear that parents have for their kids?
Marano: You know how fear galvanizes attention, how it narrows your frame of reference and your concerns? Well, guess who benefits from that?
Advertisers, among others, benefit from fear. They generate it, and they reap the rewards of it. Nothing sells like fear. And if you look at most products
advertised for kids—or for anybody—they appeal either to status or to the ability to gather and play spontaneously, and that in turn causes a serious lack of social skills. Gathering and
playing freely with others lets kids practice many aspects of democracy, when free play is denied, so are those opportunities.
Appealing to parental fears is rampant in the entire culture. At this moment in the United States, we are playing to human weaknesses and human vulnerabilities, not to strengths. We are not promoting strengths, not celebrating character development. We act as if children are born weak and can’t do a thing without direct parental intervention. There are now classes for teaching
your children how to walk! Imagine having to teach healthy children how to walk! Actually, all the falling down kids do in the course of learning to walk, all the attempting to stand up,
all the crawling, all the plopping down and pulling themselves up—all the natural strategies they develop—build the critical musculature and coordination that children need for walking.
AJP: Do you see this type of parental fear as something new in our country?
Marano: Yes, I do. In stark contrast to the highly optimistic 1960s, there is a very grim view of human nature -a very deep pessimism- at large today, and it’s widespread and visible in many
areas. There is serious distrust of childhood and its natural course. People distrust children’s natural curiosity and they don’t believe children are competent. There is also widespread distrust
of most institutions, governments, and even the neighbors.
AJP: Do efforts to control risk make our culture more secure?
Marano: They do not, and the interesting and somewhat complex reason is tied up with the growth in affluence. Affluence gives us the illusion that we have control. And because we expect
to control our circumstances, dangers and uncertainties seem ever more dangerous. By this psychological sleight, ordinary risks seem more dangerous than they once did. The attempt to
eliminate risk is not only a fool’s goal and enormously presumptuous, it completely misrepresents the nature of life. Risk is an inherent part of life. Success and happiness hinge not on the
elimination of risk but on the reasonable management of risk.
AJP: So how should people judge and measure risk?
Marano: Judging risk requires the application, first, of common sense and then some calculation of risk versus benefit. It is a fact of life that all movement entails some risk. Some risk is pretty immediate. If you’re running on the hard surface of a playground or a street, you might fall and break your arm. But the risk of no movement can be much greater, although it plays out over
a vastly longer period of time- say, the development of cardiovascular disease 45 years down the road. Is it risky for a child to cross a street? Well, yes, to some degree it is -and for an adult
too. But it is much less risky if you believe in the capacity of children to learn and you teach them some basic safety principles. However, some parents have opted instead to eliminate the risk
entirely by forbidding their children to cross any streets. At a certain point, that is disabling and distrustful of children’s ability to learn. It not only restricts children’s movements beyond the reasonable, it breeds fearfulness in the child.
AJP: Ms. Skenazy, in your syndicated newspaper column, you often call for parents to raise “free-range kids,” as you call them. What do you mean by that term, and are you attempting to
break the grip of fear?
Lenore Skenazy: Yes, I am. I would like to see kids playing more. My kids play less than I did, and I wasn’t even big on the outdoors. Many times when my kids look outside, there is no
one out there to play with, so they stay inside. And that sort of creates this vicious cycle of every child being indoors and texting, playing on a computer, or watching TV. Going outside
and expecting to see another kid and saying, “Look, I got a ball, let’s go to the park,” is gone. So when I say let’s raise free-range kids, I mean I want to see more kids going the park with
a ball. That’s free range. It’s basically growing up similar to the way most parents today were raised in times that were actually more dangerous than today. Everyone believes the crime rate
was lower in the 1970s and 1980s than it is now, so we don’t send our kids outside. But, actually, the opposite is true. Crime was higher when we parents were kids than it is now.
AJP: Do your readers share your views, and do they share theirs with you?
Skenazy: Yes, a lot. One lady recently shared this story about sending her 8 year-old son to the park. He got hungry and thirsty, so he went to the local chicken place to get a glass of water,
and while he was there some guy said, “Oh, are you hungry too?” The boy said, “Sure,” and the man gave him some food and then called the police. They came and called the mother, and
when she came, they told her, “We could arrest you for this.” She said “No, you couldn’t. There’s no law against this.” They said, “It’s up to us. Let’s go see where you live.”
She had to take them home and convince them that she wasn’t raising her eight-year-old in a negligent manner. They let her off, but they said, “Don’t do it again.” She asked them, “How
old do you think he should be before he can go to play in the park, a park that’s there for children to play in?” The police said, “13 or 14.”
How do you change the culture when even those who have the keys to the jail think that a normal childhood - or what I would consider a normal childhood - is dangerous, and possibly illegal?
That’s my big worry of the day. Some reasonable people, a panel of experts, need to make a definitive, specific statement about what is age appropriate: Seven-years-old is an okay age for
your kid to stay at home alone for a couple of hours. Eight-years old is a safe age to go to the park alone provided in a neighbourhood that isn’t riddled by sniper fire. Ten years is an okay age
to start babysitting(?). Two hundred years earlier a kid that age would have been apprenticed for two years already!
AJP: You have been outspoken about Halloween. What has happened to that popular and, for the most part, kids’ holiday?
Skenazy: The “To d ay show” recently recommended that no child go trick-or-treating without a parental escort until age thirteen, and the producers’
reasoning was that there are scary people out there doing bad things. So, I looked up Elizabeth Letourneau, at the Medical University of South Carolina, who had tallied the number of children molested on Halloween by sex offenders from 1997 to 2005. She found no difference between the number of incidents in those years when there weren’t any laws that prohibited registered
sex offenders from leaving their homes on Halloween and the present when there are many laws like that. Not only did she find no difference, but Halloween turns out to be especially safe! Letourneau said that after looking at sixty-seven thousand crime reports over the course of those eight years, she and her fellow researchers considered calling Halloween the safest day of
the year. Why is it safe? Because people are outside! But the fear monitors would have everyone staying inside, too terrified to let their children out.
AJP: How do you feel about indoor Halloween parties?
Skenazy: When parents bring Halloween inside, it’s supervised. It’s parent created, parent run, probably parent cleaned-up. To children, it’s like another class in school, except you happen
to bob for apples somewhere in the middle of it. And the idea that you have to inspect all your children’s candy makes it seem as if your neighbors, who had seemed pretty nice, are really
probably child killers, and that idea takes hold in your brain, and then it spreads. Halloween is where we test-market our parental fears, and if they Why Parents Should Stop Overprotecting
Kids fly, then we can go with them for the rest of the year. If you think your neighbors are quite possibly psychopaths who like killing children on Halloween, well then, chances are they are psychopaths during the rest of the year, too, and so let’s just not trust them at all. Bring the children inside and supervise their every move because if you’re living near a psychopath, you
don’t want your kids playing in the front yard.
AJP: How can we allow children to range freely while still protecting them from realistic dangers? For instance, should children be left to deal with bullies
Marano: Fifteen years ago, when I wrote a cover story about bullying for “Psychology Today” and then a book about the subject, “Why Doesn’t Anybody
Like Me? A Guide to Raising Socially Confident Kids”, no one gave a damn about bullying. But as the fear culture has escalated, bullying has taken
on significance, and its definition has changed and enlarged. I can judge simply by the volume of emails I now get on the topic.
AJP: Do adults tend to misinterpret some types of play as bullying?
Marano: Oh yes. It’s important to recognize that what people interpret as bullying is totally ridiculous. If one child says to another “you can’t play with us,” that’s often seen by parents as
bullying. It’s not pleasant, true. Social rejection by peers is always painful. But it’s not bullying. Saying something negative to another child is frequently seen as bullying, when it is often
merely a basic element of social exchange. Sometimes, for example, the answer to the question “can I play with you today?” is “no.” It does not involve the intent to harm. It is often the result
of a group of children wishing to continue the play situation they are currently enjoying. Period. They don’t want to go outside the frame at that moment. And the next day the answer to
the question “can I play with you?” might be “we’re playing house and we already have a mommy and a daddy but you can be the doggie.”
Bullying is actually the consistent misuse of power against someone who is younger or weaker with the explicit intent to harm. Sometimes bad things happen, or sometimes someone says
something negative to another kid, but every “no” is not bullying. Telling a child that he or she can’t play may reflect a whole variety of totally benign situations. The kids at play may feel
they already have enough participants in whatever they are doing. They may be in the middle of some actions that are best not interrupted. They may be getting along so well they don’t,
for the time being, want or need any extraneous members. Of course, tomorrow is another day.
AJP: What about teasing? Is teasing bullying?
Marano: In general, teasing, which is a very sophisticated activity and a cognitive high-wire act, is not bullying. But some people think all teasing is terrorizing. Teasing is usually a playful and deliberately ambiguous activity meant to stimulate a response. Let’s not confuse it with cruelty, which is something else.
AJP: Should we lower our standard for what is regarded as bullying?
Marano: Bullying is a real problem. It has always been a real problem. It will continue to be a real problem. There are always going to be a number of
kids who have learned it can be a workable social strategy. To some degree, kids can be fortified against being the victim of bullying, and institutions
can be run in ways to minimize its existence. But we should stop exaggerating and bully mongering. I get emails consistently telling me that 40% of kids are now bullies. This is another one of
those exaggerations of real danger. It’s misinformation they get off the Internet. Hyping the dangers of bullying and seeing it in every negative interaction is a mistake that reflects the general
mistrust of childhood and the misunderstanding of the social experiences of children.
AJP: How does playing help children learn how to deal with bullies?
Marano: This is crucial. By playing regularly with other kids—playing freely—kids gain social skills that become a natural deterrent to bullying. They
learn how to handle disruptions. They learn how to negotiate disputes. They learn how to dispel problems. They learn how to detect and even avoid
those kids who tend to create difficulties. This is very adaptive behavior.
They learn how to ask to join others already engaged in activity, which again, takes a lot of observation and cognitive sophistication. And they learn how to be assertive (which is by no means the same thing as being aggressive), which is the single best defense against bullying. Depriving children of opportunities to play keeps them from developing their natural defenses against bullying, the lack of which is what—in the long run— encourages bullying by that small percentage of kids who think it’s a good strategy for getting what they want. The more kids lack social skills, the more likely they are preyed upon by bullies. After all, bullies don’t pick on just anyone. They carefully target the weaker kids, those who don’t know how to get along with and are not liked by other kids. Studies show that bullies prefer to pick on kids who are not assertive and who never stand up for themselves—even in situations not related to bullying.
AJP: So is free play an antidote to bullying?
Marano: Most kids have built-in, internal restraints against bullying, or, at least, they used to—when kids were allowed to play with each other and develop
social skills and when normal abilities to adjudicate disputes would come into play and be sharpened by playing. Lack of play is creating many of the
conditions that allow bullies to exist. When you curtail play in kids’ lives, they miss the opportunity to develop many skills. They don’t learn how to be assertive, how to stand up for themselves;
that alone targets them for bullying. In the normal course of childhood, most kids become mostly bully-proof.
But these days they are deprived of the situations that fortify them. They have fewer skills to ward off bullies. That encourages bullies and fosters bullying. Remember, bullies are made and not born. They lack the restraints against hurting others that most children acquire when young.
They fail to develop empathy both from their lack of play and from other experiences such as inconsistent parental approaches to discipline.
AJP: Can adults intervene to stop bullying?
Marano: The growing deficit of social skills among the young shifts the burden onto adults to monitor for bullies. Most often that burden falls on teachers. For a variety of reasons, that’s an extremely imperfect system. Study after study shows that teachers often don’t recognize bullying even when it happens right under their noses. Further, bullies are very canny about committing their transgressions when the adults’ backs are turned.
AJP: What are your thoughts about cyberbullying? How can parents help kids deal with this new form of bullying?
Marano: Cyberbullying may be a special case because often the bully is unknown. It could be a kid, a large group of kids, or an adult. Sometimes adults get so overidentified with their children that they take up their children’s causes in extraordinarily negative ways. The cyberbullied kid is outflanked in power and needs some help and guidance in how to deal with that. There are solutions that kids can’t see, and parents can help out by suggesting ways of dealing with it. Having a life that’s balanced—with time for social play—and not living one’s whole life online lessens the opportunity for cyberbullying to develop. That said, it isn’t clear to what extent cyberbullying exists. There’s some evidence it is chiefly an anxious manifestation of parental ignorance of the Internet and about their kids’ use of it. In any case, part of the parental job description is giving kids the tools they need for living independently. It’s a parent’s job to see that a child knows how to use the Internet responsibly. This is something parents have to discuss with their kids. Parents can’t just buy software that monitors every key-stroke of their child; that is about the most mistrustful thing a parent can do. Parents need to teach kids skills for using the Internet responsibly, just as they teach kids skills for driving a car responsibly.
AJP: Do electronic games deprive kids of free play?
Marano: No, we can’t blame deprivation of free play on electronic games. Children spend too much time inside largely because parents are worried about
dangers outside. When kids are inside, parents know where they are and often actively or passively encourage them to play video games or otherwise
engage with technology. Significantly, the instruments of technology kids use these days are compelling in ways that make them virtually addictive.
They have tremendous built-in appeal with immediate and constant feedback. They become extremely reinforcing. There is nothing inherently wrong with playing these games or engaging in such activities as texting.
But they require the exercise of willpower—an executive function—to put aside, and kids lack executive control—in part, because they have never been allowed to develop it, but also, in part, because they are still young.
There is nothing inherently wrong with electronic games, but there needs to be some balance in their use. They can’t be the only things to fill kids’ time. Parents need to put boundaries on the use of such playthings and instruments because kids can’t. Isn’t that, after all, one of the functions of parents? They need to balance the toys of technology with the more classic and active kinds of play experiences of childhood. Because there are still only 24 hours in a day, parents can say, “For every hour you spend indoors you need to spend an hour outside.”
AJP: So encouraging electronic game play can be another form of risk avoidance?
Marano: Yes. Think back to what we said about Halloween and distrust. When fear grows, distrust becomes generalized, and the urge to supervise your
children’s every move grows. Distrust makes parents want a cell phone with GPS to monitor their kids, and then that becomes a tether, and that leads to overmanagement. Distrust causes 21 parents to walk 18 kids to the bus stop right past every neighbor’s house. You don’t allow your neighbor to walk your kids to school along with their own kids because you can’t trust the neighbor. So you do it yourself. Let me give you an example of a clear misapprehension of risk. This is a true story of a mother in Birmingham, Michigan, who decided that it was less risky to drive her son 800 miles to a campground in Minnesota for a class trip than it was to let him fly with his peers. The car trip, mile for mile, person for person, and conveyance for conveyance, was far more risky than the plane ride. But what’s most important is that the mother deprived her son of the shared experience and the opportunity for a modest degree of independence that travelling parentless would have allowed. The misconception of risk allowed the mother to have personal, direct control instead of ceding control to a pilot or to the weather, so she felt like she lessened risk by her constant supervision and intervention. Of course, that is totally an illusion. It’s also a delusion.
Skenazy: One of the reasons we’re so confused is that some parents don’t distinguish between a 1-in-10 risk and a 1-in-1.000.000 risk. You hear parents say things like, “Even if there is a one-in-five-billion chance that my kid will be hurt, that’s a risk I don’t want to take.” One of the reasons that we think this way is that we are constantly told that things are risky when they decidedly are not. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggested that hot dogs should carry choking warnings because every year a couple of children choke on them. That happens because that’s the main thing that children eat, not because the hot dog itself is so incredibly dangerous.
AJP: So how do parents put risks associated with play into perspective?
Marano: There is a point at which we have to apply some judgment and some common sense. We need to kind of rebalance and recalibrate our brains and
remove a lot of what’s been foisted on us by the media and special interests. We need to analyze for ourselves. Every parent comes upon issues for which
the way things are supposed to work isn’t working for their particular kids. When this happens, you’ve got to think your way through it. You have to say, wait, the rules aren’t working for us, or our household, or the way we like to do things. You have to analyze it and find another way to make things work.
It’s psychologically and mentally taxing, but it’s something everyone must do. And you have to keep on doing it because kids are always developing and changing, and what worked yesterday doesn’t necessarily work tomorrow. You have to strip away a lot of the outside value judgments, including fear, and apply your own judgment about what is needed for you, for your kid, for your family. Parenting requires parents to make constant assessments of their
children’s readiness for new challenges and the next stage of growth along many dimensions—physical, emotional, cognitive, and social. You can’t just say playgrounds with moving parts are too dangerous and that’s that.
In reality, a merry-go-round is not something for a two-year-old to jump on and off of, but it’s perfectly suitable for a six- or seven-year-old. Riding a scooter is too risky for a two-year-old, but a five-year-old loves it and can develop a certain agility doing it. And that agility prepares him or her
for even greater degrees of movement. With children, you can’t make one decision about what’s risky and expect it to apply at all times.
AJP: How can parents keep appropriate distance and still help kids come up with ideas for play?
Skenazy: My kids are really bad at coming up with something to do on their own. And part of the reason is that they rarely have opportunities to try. If they participate in an after-school activity like soccer, the coach organizes it: “Now it’s time to run; now it’s time to kick; now it’s time for your organic snack.” And so they associate play with something that’s compulsory, almost like school. It’s like a class where the activities are dictated, and the kids follow orders, and then they’re done. It thrills me, almost pathetically, when I hear that my son was outside during lunch and he and his friends played a game they created on their own. Once, he and his cousins created a game called Seven Square instead Four Square so that everyone could play, and it was a highlight of my life and his, because the kids had actually done something that I think kids in earlier generations did regularly, which is making their own fun.
Marano: Oversupervised kids become unable to think of anything to do on their own. Boredom becomes a state from which they expect someone or something—a computer game, tunes on their iPod, or some handheld device—to relieve them. Under normal conditions, boredom is a perfectly natural aversive state, meant to stimulate you to find something to do that is interesting, something that clicks with you and excites a growing curiosity.
Now, however, you need only to default to your handheld to pass time.
AJP: So what can parents do?
Marano: Sadly, we’ve arrived at the point where opportunity for play has to be carved out artificially. Parents have to facilitate it for it to happen at all,
and by that I don’t mean coaching every move like the dads in the park I mentioned earlier. Of course, parents have always been social architects for their children in many ways—like choosing to live in neighborhoods filled with children—but we’ve not been in a situation before where children actually had to be encouraged to play. There are parents who have caught on that something is missing, and they want to encourage play. What they should do is get a group of parents and children together, whether it’s the next door neighbors or people from the next town. Then they literally need to mark off a space in which it’s okay for kids to play—away from parental oversight. The parents can stay indoors and encourage the kids to go outside. The parents may have to put some novel equipment outdoors or otherwise help the kids get started, but then they need to leave the kids alone. There’s a great irony here: outdoor play may take some parental engineering—exactly what there is too much of in children’s lives these days, among the middle and upper classes—to make room and opportunity for play and to stimulate it among kids.
AJP: We have talked about how free play outdoors helps kids develop social skills. What else are children missing when they don’t play freely outdoors?
Marano: They become risk averse and excessively cautious. And this spills over into a deficit of what’s called divergent thinking, or the ability to solve problems. Innovation is based on playful, divergent thinking, and we depend upon it to create jobs. Recent studies have tracked an accelerating decline
in kids’ creativity—and by creativity I don’t mean drawing and painting but their ability to solve problems. We know there’s no one single cause, but the researchers believe that a lack of play has figured significantly into it.
The decline in play, of course, coincides with an increase in parents’ monitoring, directing and managing their children. Instead of playing, kids are performing tasks their parents and schools have designated as needed for achievement. One interesting finding is that creativity measures in childhood are three times more likely to predict lifetime accomplishment than is childhood IQ. By the way, creativity scores of youngsters were rising until the 1990s, when they began falling. That squares with the changes seen in parenting, play, and pushing children to achieve in ways that are designated by parents and that enhance parental status.
It seems to me that parents don’t necessarily want their kids to learn; learning is irrelevant to what they want. They want their kids to perform well on tasks and tests in school. It’s like a parlor trick. They want compliant kids to achieve in order to get into brand-name colleges, which, given our uncertain times, is considered the best measure of an adult’s parenting ability and is somehow thought to be the best assurance that a child will replicate the parents’ social status. This is what kills play; parents think it’s a waste of time on the path to achievement in the classroom or on the soccer field. So play gets sacrificed. Play isn’t directed toward goals, and today’s parents are highly goal directed when it comes to their children.
AJP: What happens when parents push children to achieve more at younger ages?
Marano: As Brian Sutton-Smith has said, the opposite of play is depression. I see this in reality. One of the consequences of writing “A Nation of Wimps”
is that I am invited to speak to parent, policy, and educational groups all around the country. I was invited to Wellesley, a very affluent area that is basically a bedroom community for Harvard Medical School. The children are extremely oriented towards success and doing well in school. Kids are pushed to be
perfect. Their path leaves no room for play. These kids are under enormous pressure, and they don’t know how to handle it. They become emotionally
troubled at a very young age, and the town has a big problem in the high number of kids who intentionally injure themselves and attempt suicide in high school. This is not the best way to raise children.
AJP: Haven’t parents always been anxious about their children’s futures?
Marano: Sure. It goes with the territory of parenting. But until recently, most parents kept their anxieties to themselves, they didn’t dump their worries
wholesale onto their children, and they didn’t try to design their children’s path through childhood. Unfortunately, that’s never been a very good recipe
for child rearing. Anxiety has always gone along with child rearing, but as a parent you always bit your tongue and hid your anxiety. The interesting thing is that parents are so—I hate to use the word, but it is true—increasingly “narcissistic” that they’re putting their own emotional needs ahead of their kids’ developmental needs. They’re not asking what their kids need to develop, and they’re not recognizing that their kids need time and ability to decide how to spend their own time. So, as a consequence, not only do the kids not develop coping skills and the ability to manage themselves—which is the single greatest skill in life—but also they become psychologically hollow and have no identity. Here’s a perfect example of the way parents are managing their children’s lives for their own narcissistic satisfaction. This is a true incident, told to me by the college administrator involved. It’s also a clear example of
how parents are managing the lives of kids far too long instead of letting out the leash entirely as they should. A young woman arrived at a fine, small,
Eastern liberal arts college for freshman orientation. Her parents drove her, and they remained not only for the parent orientation but beyond. A few days into the orientation, the students were guided through the intricacies of registering for classes when the young woman learned that a course she wanted was no longer open; it was full. She could, however, take it the next semester. At this point, the father intervened with the administration. “My daughter has to take this course this semester,” he said. And he pulled out papers showing he had mapped out his daughter’s college career for 4 years and he knew what courses she needed to take every single semester for the 4 years she was going to be there. “This is her first semester,” the administrator confided, incredulous that anyone would not welcome college as a time and place for exploration and exposure to new ideas. The father said if she could not get the course she wanted, or that he wanted for her, she would have to go home. The school, much to its credit, held its ground, and the father withdrew his daughter from enrollment—for his totally inappropriate, selfish, have-to-be-in-control purposes—and in doing so he totally altered the course of her young life. Is this an extreme example? It was told to me at a meeting in which most of the other participants were college administrators. No one seemed to think this was especially unusual.
AJP: Another area of children’s lives where parents sometimes intrude is youth sports. What are your thoughts about the relationship of youth sports and
free play? Is there any?
Marano: Sports for kids have become structured and professionalized to an absurd and dangerous degree so that there is now no longer any room for casual athletic activity. If you want to play a sport, you have to make a huge commitment, and the commitment is not just to playing on a community or school team but also to playing on a club or travel team. If a kid is not on that path, he or she often has no one left with whom to play casually. Being on these teams consumes a great deal of time and travel, so that, actually, families have to make the commitment. It’s not just the child’s activity. It becomes the family’s activity.
AJP: How do these activities affect family life, and what are the implications for free play?
Marano: Families have to reorganize their time around team schedules. There is no other way. This puts a child at the center of the family and makes the child’s activity the organizing principle of family life. This is a huge distortion in the importance of the child. If that isn’t bad enough, it leaves no room for some of the most important things in life—one of the most important being family dinner. The family is the civilizing and cultural force in life. And family dinner is where it all comes home. The data are very clear. Eating dinner with at least one parent on most nights predicts both adjustment and school performance for kids—for all kids, up and down the socioeconomic spectrum. The factor that most correlates with achievement is kids having dinner with parents 5 or more times weekly. But if you’re on a club or travel team, dinner is a slice of pizza in the back of the SUV on the way from one practice or event to another. And while we’re on the topic of what goes on at home, I should add that family dinner is important for another reason: it keeps the adults in touch with each other; it strengthens the marital relationship.
The great irony about the way sports are overorganized for kids these days is that you can no longer say that kids play sports. There is no play in them. It’s an activity wholly organized by adults; and the kids are either in it 100% with their families, or they are not in it. The demands of transporting kids from event to event require family participation. I was at the opera not long ago, and I decided not to leave my seat for the second intermission. Instead, I had a conversation with the couple sitting next to me. They asked me what I do and I told them I was an editor and author, and then they wanted to know what I write about and I told them. They were from Indiana and had three kids. The first one went through whole routine with the travel team. The parents found it so disruptive of family life and made their child the center of family life to such an unhealthy degree that they discouraged the second child from joining. and by the third, they just disallowed it. The erosion of sport on a casual basis—what a quaint idea: casual sports—means that millions of kids now have no
opportunity for vigorous physical activity. That whole sector of sport—the casual pickup game—is on its way to extinction. All too often for kids it’s professionalized sports or nothing.
AJP: The notion of the casual pickup game, however rare it is today, brings us back to unsupervised play. Ms. Skenazy, what do you say to critics who charge that it’s reckless to leave children at play unsupervised?
Skenazy: I do what I call “yuppie jujitsu,” which is that I take the critics’ fears about unsupervised play and try to turn them into fears about what happens if their children don’t play and don’t develop creativity, compassion, and communication. A child who doesn’t engage in unsupervised free play doesn’t develop the self-regulation that comes from hearing another kid say, “It’s not your turn, go to the end of the line,” which is a great way to learn to wait your turn, better than anything that a parent could ever say to the kid. And, besides, parents always give them a second turn, and a third turn, and a fourth turn. Kids don’t. So, I try to point out that play is a super vitamin for cognitive development. If you don’t let kids have some unsupervised play where they can make decisions and compromises, they will not become as well developed as otherwise. And that just scares yuppies to death. Another thing I point out is that back when we were playing outside, the crime rate was higher than it is now.
AJP: So once again, it’s a matter of balancing risks?
Marano: True, and it’s more reckless not to let kids play. Look, there is risk in all physical movement. It’s immediate. You fall off the merry-go-round, you
might break an arm—now, today—and find yourself in the emergency room. But if you don’t play, and you’re not physically active, there is even greater risk; it just takes longer to manifest itself. It becomes obesity and inactivity and all the risks that accrue, such as diabetes and heart disease, later in life.
AJP: Should parents intervene when play gets rough?
Marano: It depends on your definition of rough. Mine includes blood. Should parents intervene when kids are having difficulty with each other? Not necessarily. I think that they should let kids work it out. But if things start to get to a little push-and-shove, a parent can move in closer and perhaps
instead of intervening directly, try a kind of coaching. “Johnny, wouldn’t it be nice if you let Sarah use your tricycle for three seconds, take a run around, and then bring it back, and then you can have it for the rest of the day?” You can begin to structure ways to solve little problems that kids can then appropriate as their own. From such situations kids learn how to solve problems for themselves. What’s more, they learn that they can solve problems.
They develop confidence in their ability to negotiate life on their own. Unfortunately, however, too many parents use any difficulty as an opportunity to intervene instead of letting the child solve the difficulty. Where another parent intervenes, it’s often best to gently approach that parent and suggest that the adults back off and let the kids try to work it out with maybe a little coaching from the sidelines. That way, an attentive parent keeps from becoming an invasive parent.
AJP: Is it mainly parental anxiety, then, that needs managing?
Marano: Yes. And that’s a good lesson to learn early on. Turning over responsibility to children is necessary, but it is usually accompanied by some parental
anxiety—the first time the child rides a bike without the training wheels, the first time the child rides the subway alone, the first time the child drives the family car. Sooner or later, the child has to negotiate life on his own. It’s best for parents to turn over responsibility to the child and display confidence in the child’s ability to negotiate for herself. Kids tend to live up to those expectations. Not perfectly. But they want to and tend to. It may take more than one try, but no one learns to tie shoelaces the first time.
AJP: How can parents determine when they’re worrying too much?
Skenazy: Frankly, I’m always worried. But part of my job as a parent is to worry, and the other part is to shut up and let my kid go on the overnight.
The alternative is to have them ride with the training wheels forever.
Marano: Beginning with play, parents have to let the leash out gradually, allowing kids to become responsible for themselves in relatively small increments. I remember when my husband and I decided it was time to take away curfew from my older son. We figured it was best if he decided what time to come home, although he had to tell us what time before he went out. I won’t tell you what age it was; it was embarrassingly early and we didn’t tell anyone else what we were doing, but it worked for our kid. Okay, I will tell you: he was 13. At first there were nights when I wrote the funeral speech. But, we noticed very, very quickly that staying out lost its allure. He began to curfew himself; he developed that internal mechanism. You don’t develop that unless you’re given the opportunity. The job of the parent is to find a way to control the worry so that it’s not dumped on the kids and ends up crippling them psychologically. Kids then learn to regulate themselves, and soon they’re ready to take over the world. So, when are parents invasive?
When they start taking over things that their kids should be managing on their own. When you’re so worried about your kid’s homework being correct that you wind up giving them the answers, you’re actually taking over and doing the homework for them.
AJP: So how can parents allow kids to range freely yet still protect them from realistic dangers?
Skenazy: You teach them what to stay away from and how. One way to stay safe is to develop street smarts, and the only way to do that is by being on the
streets. You teach them to cross the street safely. You teach them they can talk to strangers but not go off with strangers. That way, you are allowing
them to get help from the vast majority of people—who all happen to be pretty good—in case they are pursued, which is very unlikely, by somebody who is bad. You teach them how to swim. You teach them to be responsible. That’s how.
AJP: What about parental efforts to protect kids by segregating them by age when they play? Is that useful?
Marano: No. Kids need to play both with peers and with kids of different ages. One of the great problems with whatever play spaces are left to kids today
is that for legal reasons many have been dumbed down and now appeal mostly to toddlers. Playgrounds that once had children of all ages running
around or engaged in activity groups now host only little ones. The loss is manifold. There are no bigger kids from whom the little ones can learn the
intricacies of childhood and how to play games, or whom they can observe and aspire to emulate. So much learning takes place by little ones observing
older children. Segregation hurts the older kids too. By not playing with younger kids, older ones are missing a great way to develop empathy and to sharpen social skills by teaching them.
AJP: In addition to fear, what else makes it difficult for adults to recognize and accept the value of free play?
Marano: The value of play is not always immediately obvious to parents. It’s counterintuitive to them because play, to adults, looks like a waste of time.
The value of play lies in the fact that it is not directed toward goals. It is totally of the moment, growing organically out of the needs of kids. However, the very fact that play is not directed toward goals and that the outcome isn’t known in advance—there’s uncertainty built into it—scares today’s adults.
But they need to understand that play is critical for the brain. That is the great hidden secret of play. Play stimulates genes for nerve growth in the executive portion of the brain, the frontal cortex. It fosters maturation of the very centers of the brain that allow kids to exert control over attention, to regulate emotions, to control their own behavior—all of which allow them to learn. This is a very subtle trick that nature plays—I call it nature’s spitball—it uses something that’s not directed toward goals to create the very mental machinery for being goal directed. One team of neuroscientists I know has found that within one hour after a single thirty-minute play session, the activity of about four hundred genes are significantly modified. What play is doing is laying down the foundation for the circuitry of self-regulation and attention.
AJP: What final thoughts do you have for our readers?
Marano: We all must remember that the goal of raising children is to produce the next generation of society, to produce independent human beings
capable of making decisions and finding their own paths to usefulness, meaning, and happiness. That doesn’t happen automatically when a child turns twenty-one. It happens, or should happen, gradually. Independence is a long march that begins at birth. Ideally, a strong and secure attachment forms between infant and care giver, and gradually that attachment gets internalized; the child carries around a representation of that nurturing, comforting care giver. And it is that representation that allows a child to begin to explore the world on his own. That is nature’s first coping system, and it’s 100% portable for a reason—to foster independence. From the moment our children are born, our parental duty is to prepare them to function well without us. Play is the next great facilitator of that system. In addition to all the great things play does for the brain, the peer play of childhood is important in giving kids social skills to be used in all kinds of situations and is important in shaping a whole generation.
AJP: Do we have reason to hope that free play can revive?
Marano: I’ll end with another story. I live on a street that’s about three blocks long, but it’s not a through street. Kids used to play on it, and I really loved
watching them. But now, they play there only rarely. Still, on some days I come out of my house and walk down the street, and there are a couple of kids in the middle of the street tossing around a football or baseball. They stop when I walk by, but I always turn to them and say, “Don’t stop for me! It is so delightful to see you guys out here playing.” And, at the end of my block, there’s a beautiful courthouse. It has a very low, gradual set of steps and a broad plaza in front and is just a wonderful training ground for young skateboarders. Sometimes I’ll see eight-year-old kids playing there without parents. Those scenes give me hope.
AJP: Anything else?
Skenazy: That’s the bottom line. Let kids play!
"Begeisterung soll das Kind leiten"
Wir setzen zu sehr auf kognitive Fertigkeiten, findet Kinderarzt Herbert Renz-Polster: Kinder sollen sich in der Natur ihre fundamentalen Kompetenzen aneignen.
Herbert Renz-Polster ist Kinderarzt und forscht am Mannheimer Institut für Public Health der Universität Heidelberg. Gemeinsam mit dem Neurobiologen Gerald Hüther hat er ein Buch im Beltz-Verlag veröffentlicht: Wie Kinder heute wachsen. Natur als Entwicklungsraum.
ZEIT ONLINE: Herr Renz-Polster, in Ihrem gerade erschienenen Buch sagen Sie, Kinder brauchen die Natur als Entwicklungsraum. Warum? Mussten die Kinder damals nicht nur raus in die Kälte, weil die Mütter sie los werden wollten?
Herbert Renz-Polster: Ja, oft ist Nostalgie im Spiel, wenn die Menschen von ihrer Kindheit im Freien schwärmen. Ich nehme einen weniger romantischen Blickwinkel ein. Es geht mir nicht um den freien Himmel an sich. Es gibt genügend Plätze, wo vielleicht Natur drauf steht, aber nicht drin ist. Schauen Sie bloß mal manche dieser Spielplätze an.
ZEIT ONLINE: Wo erleben Kinder das, was sie brauchen?
Renz-Polster: Die Natur, die ich meine, bietet Raum für vier Elemente, die ich für entscheidend halte, damit sich Kinder gut entwickeln: Freiheit, Widerständigkeit, Verbundenheit und Unmittelbarkeit. Das heißt, Kinder können dort selbst gestalten und experimentieren, und zwar ohne bildungsrelevante Vorgaben und Spielzeuge von Eltern oder Erziehern. Sie erleben Abenteuer. Dabei lernen sie, mit dem Scheitern klarzukommen und Hindernisse zu überwinden. Außerdem verhandeln sie beständig mit den anderen Kindern, was sie tun wollen und wie sie das erreichen können.
ZEIT ONLINE: Warum können sie das nicht zum Beispiel mit einem Wissenschaftsexperiment oder einem guten Computerspiel?
Renz-Polster: Der Kindheit kommt ein Geschäftszweck zu, der in keiner anderen Lebensphase nachgeholt werden kann. Kinder müssen ihre fundamentalen Lebenskompetenzen aufbauen: sich selbst in den Griff bekommen, mit anderen Menschen klarkommen, bei Widerständen nicht gleich aufgeben. Ein solches Fundament kann kein Erwachsener mit noch so hochwertigen didaktischen Spielen und Bilderbüchern legen. Die Kinder müssen sich das selbst erobern, ohne Vorgaben und in einer nicht strukturierten Umgebung. Nur so landen sie immer wieder in dieser wunderbaren Kribbelzone, in die es sie ja geradezu magisch zieht. Wenn sie einen Baum hochklettern, dann klettern sie immer so weit, wie sie es gerade schaffen. Das nächste Mal gehen sie dann weiter zum nächst höheren Ast. Und so machen sie es auch in sozialer Hinsicht. Die Herausforderung müssen sie selbst bestimmen. Wir aber setzen auf kognitive Fertigkeiten, ohne die Kinder vorher ihre fundamentale Entwicklungsaufgaben erledigen zu lassen. Das ist, als würden wir an einem Haus erst Erkerchen und die Fassade bauen, ohne ein Fundament gelegt zu haben.
ZEIT ONLINE: Was fehlt den Kindern später, wenn sie nicht in dieser Weise frei spielen?
Renz-Polster: Vielleicht sind manche Kinder ja wirklich erfolgreicher, wenn sie ausschließlich nach einem kognitiven Förderkonzept erzogen werden. Aber was genau ist eigentlich Erfolg? Meine Sorge ist, dass manchen Kindern später wesentliche Kompetenzen in emotionalen und sozialen Bereichen fehlen, dass sie in schwierigen Situationen ängstlich und überfordert sind. Oder dass sie sich einseitige Ziele setzen. Das hat Auswirkungen auf die Gesellschaft. Denn wir können schon jetzt eine Elite beobachten, die zwar gut funktioniert, aber sehr individualistisch ist. Sie versagt, wenn es um gemeinschaftliche Verantwortung geht.
"Es geht immer weniger um die Beziehungen, und immer mehr um wirtschaftlich verwertbare Kompetenzen".
Das kann ich so unterschreiben.
Wenn ich meine Schulzeit, mit der aktuellen Schule meiner Kinder vergleiche, habe ich als sehr leistungsorientierte Mensch doch große Bedenken und sehe die Entwicklung sehr kritisch. Man gewinnt schon den Eindruck Schule soll heute in möglichst kurzer Zeit den ökonomisch perfekten, jungen Menschen "produzieren.
Da ist kein Platz mehr für von eine gewissse Lockerheit, Freiräume, natürliche Neugier usw. Wenn ich sehe, welcher Formalismus und welche Ansprüche in diversen Schulfächern gestellt werden, habe ich Zweifel, ob ich die Schule heute noch mal so schaffen würde. Muss denn heute jeder Schüler perfekt bis zur letzten grammatikalischen Nuance 2-3 Fremdsprachen können?
Und Spielen und Natur. Selbst da lassen wir den Kindern keine Freiräume und Gestaltungsmöglichkeiten mehr. Heute wird alles geplant, optimiert kontrolliert und gelenkt. So geht man, weil es pädagogisch und motorisch natürlich so wertvoll ist, gerne 2 mal jährlich in den (Wald)klettergarten. Besser wäre es m.E. die Kids einfach alleine auf der nächsten Obstbaumwiese auf Bäume klettern zu lassen, so denn sie es wollen. Aber ohne Anleitung und Zeitplan und Daueraufsicht. Solche Beispiele ließen sich forstetzen...
4. Ich stimme Herrn Dr. Renz-Polster in vielen Punkten zu, nämlich dass Kindern nicht schon ab Geburt ein "pädagogisch wertvolles" Zwangsförderungsprogramm zur späteren Verwertung im Arbeitsprozess aufoktroyiert werden soll, und damit ihre individuelle Entwicklung behindert wird..
"Die Kinder müssen sich das selbst erobern, ohne Vorgaben und in einer nicht strukturierten Umgebung."
Nur existieren diese nicht strukturierten Freiräume der Selbsterkundung und Erfahrung für unsere Kinder und Enkelkinder kaum mehr.. Alles ist durchstrukturiert, auch die als Spielplätze ausgewiesenen Flächen sind überall gleich. Abenteuer ist nicht möglich.
Während meine Geschwister und ich ein riesengroßes Loch in unserem Garten gruben, es mit dem Wasserschlauch befüllten und die schlammige Brühe zum Swimmingpool erklärten, wäre es für meine 4jährige Enkelin undenkbar, in dem gepflegten Garten von 3 Eigentümern ein Loch zu graben. Aber sie haben immerhin mitten in der Stadt einen Garten, um da spielen und sich bewegen und austoben zu können. Andere Kinder haben nicht einmal das.
Einen Kritikpunkt habe ich, wenn ich mir meine vierjährige Enkelin anschaue. Seit einer Aufführung mt dem Orchester in meiner Stadt, bei dem 2 bis 4jährige Kinder die Vierjahreszeiten von Viwaldi körperlich darstellten, unter anderem meine Enkelin, ist sie Fan von Viwaldi, liebt auch Mozart.
Wenn sie sich Mozart oder Viwaldi anhört, ist sie unansprechbar. Auch diese Individualität sollte den Kindern gelassen werden..
Ich darf sie nicht stören. Sie tanzt dann dazu.
Von "Helikoptereltern": Verwöhnt, umklammert und überbehütet
Die Mutter besucht an der Volkshochschule einen Lateinkurs, um ihrem Sohn bei den Hausaufgaben helfen zu können. Der Vater schreibt seiner Tochter den Schulaufsatz. Das ist aus Expertensicht in vielen Familien bereits Normalität - mal mehr, mal weniger ausgeprägt. Immer häufiger ist von Eltern die Rede, die ihre Sprösslinge umkreisen wie Hubschrauber und alles für sie regeln wollen. Eine bedenkliche Entwicklung, finden einige.
Ilka Hoffmann, bei der Lehrergewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft für den Bereich Schule zuständig, kennt das Phänomen der "Helikoptereltern". Sie beobachte etwa, dass viele Mütter und Väter von Schülern immer seltener direkt mit dem Lehrer sprechen, wenn sie mit dem Unterricht oder mit einer Note unzufrieden sind.
"Manche schreiben gleich ans Ministerium, auch wegen einer Drei im Diktat", sagt Hoffmann. Einige Eltern gingen davon aus, sie wüssten, wie alles laufen muss - weil sie selbst einmal eine Schule besucht hätten. Das selbstbewusste und fordernde Auftreten mancher Mütter und Väter verunsichere vor allem junge Lehrer.
In seinem Buch "Helikopter-Eltern" schreibt Josef Kraus, der Präsident des Deutschen Lehrerverbandes ist: "Besonders machtvoll werden Helikopter-Eltern, wenn sie sich zusammentun. Dann werden Elternabende zu Lobbyistenabenden, zu parlamentarischen Unterausschüssen, ja zu Inquisitionsveranstaltungen." Kraus spricht wohl aus Erfahrung: Er leitet ein bayerisches Gymnasium.
Der Bundeselternrat hält dagegen: Vielen Eltern bleibe gar nichts anderes übrig, als sich um Schulthemen stark zu kümmern. Zum einen, weil die Schulen es erwarteten, zum anderen, weil die Kinder die Hilfe dringend bräuchten, sagt die Vize-Vorsitzende, Ursula Walther. Mit Blick auf Bundesländer wie Bayern, die im deutschlandweiten Schulvergleich gut dastehen, betont sie: "Wenn sie da ihrem Kind nicht helfen, dann hat es keine Chance, außer es ist der absolute Überflieger". Sie erzählt von Müttern, die ihren Halbtagsjob aufgaben, als ihr Kind aufs Gymnasium wechselte - um es unterstützen zu können.
Die Erwartungen der Schulen an die Eltern seien gestiegen. "Wir beobachten, dass der Druck zugenommen hat, dass die Schule immer mehr auf das Familienleben übergreift", kritisiert Walther. "Es gibt natürlich die Eltern, die es übertreiben."
Ihr Anteil wächst, wie Kraus in seinem Buch schreibt: "Heute ist ein pädagogischer Totalitarismus angesagt." Die "Helikoptereltern" meinten es zwar besonders gut. "Aber das besonders Gute ist oft der Feind des Guten." Kraus ruft zu mehr Bodenständigkeit, Spontaneität und Intuition in der Erziehung auf.
Einmischung, Umklammerung, Überbehütung: All dies kann aus Kraus' Sicht fatale Folgen haben, nicht nur für die "gepamperten" Kinder, sondern für die gesamte Gesellschaft. Er geht sogar so weit, dass er den freiheitlich-demokratischen Rechtsstaat gefährdet sieht: "Lebten in ihm eines Tages nur noch gedrillte, verwöhnte, verschonte und überbehütete Menschen, würde dieses demokratische Gemeinwesen nicht mehr funktionieren, weil dann die tragfähige Basis fehlte."
Auch Jugendpsychiater Michael Winterhoff spricht von einer veränderten Elternschaft. In einem Interview des "Spiegels" zu seinem aktuellen Buch "SOS Kinderseele" sagte er kürzlich: "Früher war das Thema Burnout einigen wenigen Topmanagern überlassen. Heute sind viele Menschen davon betroffen."
Eine wichtige Bedingung für eine gute Entwicklung der kindlichen Psyche sei es aber, dass die Bezugsperson in sich ruhe, betont Winterhoff. "Diese Ruhe überträgt sich auf das Kind. Der Dauerzustand der meisten Erwachsenen aber ist heute der Katastrophenmodus."
"Helikopter-Eltern. Schluss mit Förderwahn und Verwöhnung", Rowohlt, 221 Seiten, ISBN: 9783498034092, 18,95 Euro. –
Michael Winterhoff: "SOS Kinderseele: Was die emotionale und soziale Entwicklung unserer Kinder gefährdet - und was wir dagegen tun können",
C. Bertelsmann Verlag, 224 Seiten, ISBN: 9783570101728, 17,99 Euro.