The sailboat is loaded with supplies: food to last for weeks, cooking utensils, tents, a treasured copy of “Robinson Crusoe.” The crew barely fits between the rations. They raise the sail, the gentle north-westerly wind fills it, and the craft heads noiselessly out of the bay.
They act like intrepid sailors, though all four are children. The youngest is seven and cannot yet swim. They are headed for the far side of the lake, to make camp on an uninhabited island, where they will spend the summer.
The above scene from Arthur Ransome, and others like it, such as Mark Twain’s books or Winslow Homer’s art, depict childhood in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Do you notice anything missing? I don’t mean shoes or life jackets. I’m referring to adults. There are no grown-ups in sight, literally.
Rest assured, no tragic plague killed all elders. This was normal childhood. Its defining feature, in America as well as England: a near-total lack of adult supervision.
Less Free Play for Kids Today
The song and dance parties that once defined early childhood education have been replaced by drills and worksheets. It is an easy change to make when you can drug the child to fit the new expectations, instead of having to worry about fitting the expectations to the child.
We didn’t just change kids’ school days, we radically transformed every other waking hour as well. If your child is at all like the children in my practice, she will have a busy, fun summer: science camp, soccer, art, swimming, tae kwon do, violin. Put another way: hours spent with coaches, counselors, teachers.
Even here in rugged, independent Texas, there isn’t a camping program around that doesn’t take pains to reassure parents that all activities are safely conducted “under the supervision of our trained staff.” Is childhood still childhood, when under trained supervision?
Of course, even in the old days, there were adults around. Tom had his Aunt Polly in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” while Ransome’s brave Swallows and Amazons knew to trade for supplies from the local chief, a.k.a. their mom, when the rations ran low. Yet most of the time there were no adults watching, and certainly no smartphones to call them with.
These parents, these families — do you think they loved their children any less than we do? I doubt it. But they let their kids be free. For a whole afternoon, maybe a whole day, sometimes a whole night, children could explore a landscape that was adult-free. Do our children even get an hour?
Unleashing their imagination in the natural splendor of God’s creation, children of old were the authorities. They made the rules and decided what happened when someone broke them, they negotiated relationships with friend and foe, they had their own grown-up adventures.
Like the Pevensie children walking through that magical wardrobe, they were given the space and the time to grow into brave kings and noble queens, before having to tumble out of Narnia at the end of the day.
Do we have nobility in our midst today? Do we have pirates and native savages and Romantic heroines? Or just a bunch of kids kept perpetually leashed to the adults around them, in a surveillance state that would make Orwell blush? Our kids know not to talk to strangers, not to cross without holding hands, and not to ride without a seatbelt, but wouldn’t know what to do with an unstructured afternoon if their lives depended on it.
A Generation That Doesn’t Play
Today’s is the first generation ever — I repeat, ever — that doesn’t play on their own. No, video games (programmed by adults) and T-ball (supervised by adults) don’t count.
All children, since there were children, from hunter-gatherer times to Jimmy Carter’s America, learned and grew by playing unsupervised amongst themselves. Today, just like that, no more. Childhood as we know it, as it has always been known, is over.
This is no small thing. There is a world of difference between you and some neighborhood friends riding bikes to an impromptu pick-up game in the nearby sandlot some decades ago and, in the supervised present, being driven to a Little League game, wearing uniforms sponsored by local businesses, while coached by adults, umpired by adults, in front of a crowd of cheering parents. The latter, thanks to helpful pointers from all the grown-ups around, may indeed be a better way to learn proper hitting technique. The former is how you learn to grow up.
As evolutionary developmental psychologist Peter Gray explains in the invaluable “Free to Learn, “over the past half century or more we have seen a continuous erosion of children’s freedom to play and, corresponding with that, a continuous decline in young people’s mental and physical health.” Professor Gray’s work shows that we have, after millennia, turned our back on the deeply ingrained developmental needs of children and instead created an adult-controlled childhood “that is literally driving many young people crazy.”
Our Kids’ Mental Health Crisis
The scariest part of Gray’s work? He was writing before the rise of smartphones. We were facing a childhood mental health crisis before anyone had even heard of TikTok. Why not add on a lockdown, too, just to kick them when they’re down?
Guys, it’s bad out there. Like many of my fellow pediatricians, I never received anything close to exhaustive psychiatric training. Some of my more seasoned colleagues until recently would not even prescribe psychiatric medication; once it got to that point, you sent the child to a specialist. Well, the psychiatrists are full. The pediatric mental health system is overwhelmed.
My once-reluctant colleagues have no choice but to learn antidepressant dosing on the fly now, because we’re having to prescribe these drugs daily. How many millions of children need to be on brain-altering chemicals before we question whether it is they who are mad, or the world we are raising them in?
Is it safe to let our kids play unsupervised in this mad world? It’s safer than the alternative! Joy Pullmann is right: when it comes to children’s poor mental health, get rid of the screens, kick the kids outside, and let their souls be cultivated by God’s creation, not corporate programming. John Daniel Davidson is right: our children desperately need intact families. However, the purpose of the nuclear family is to have a mom and dad to come home to, not a home that follows you around all day.
Safety and Sanity
Remember, childhood mental illness began to climb even before smartphones and single parenthood, as well-meaning parents and schools regimented developmentally necessary free play straight out of children’s lives. The mad world isn’t going to get any saner as long as we keep future generations from having a normal childhood.
As the Mole and the Water Rat in the “Wind and the Willows” could tell you, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. The Swallows and Amazons, Huck and Tom, the subjects Winslow Homer painted, and countless other children of the past, real and imagined, would tell you the same.
Not a child today would. Our children don’t get a chance to mess about in boats. The water safety experts disapprove. Parents trust experts, and why wouldn’t they? They are experts, after all. Only parents don’t realize that these renowned specialists are experts in what goes wrong in the water, not in what goes wrong when you’re not allowed near the water. In our expert-approved, carefully supervised, safety-first caricature of traditional childhood, we drown our kids’ souls, then strap life jackets onto what’s left.
Links to ADHD
This connects to skyrocketing numbers of kids diagnosed with ADHD. Expert tunnel vision is how we get doctors diagnosing classroom behavior as abnormal without pretending to care about life outside the classroom.
Imagine spending years studying how children behave in math class, measuring their degree of attentiveness, and never once bothering to ask what they spend their time on when not in algebra. Free play and its fundamental importance to childhood development are simply not in the area of expertise of ADHD diagnosticians — they’re schoolroom fidget measurers, not childhood developmental historians.
Did you know that the symptoms of ADHD overlap so greatly with immaturity that one of the biggest risk factors for an ADHD diagnosis is an August birthday?
We are robbing our children of the space and freedom to mature by placing them in a state of constant, infantilizing surveillance, and then we’re diagnosing them with mental illness when they subsequently manifest symptoms of… immaturity. Seems rather harsh, no? If the great universal prescription pad of the heavens were held in the hands of impartial divine justice, instead of by adult parents, teachers, and pediatricians, who do you think would be getting medicated: the kids or us?
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