Childhood Independence Is a Mental-Health Issue

Illustration: Hannah Buckman

This article originally appeared in Brooding, a newsletter delivering deep thoughts on modern family life. Sign up here.

If there’s one thing that unifies American parents as one giant demographic, it is a shared state of beleaguerment. Occasionally I’ll meet a parent with whom I superficially don’t have much in common, but I can reliably break the ice by talking about being overwhelmed by something kid-related. Sports schedules? Homework? Phone stuff? A sweet spot’s in there somewhere.

Acting beleaguered is another way of performing conscientiousness. It says, “Wow, being a parent sure is demanding — because I work hard at it!” To waltz into a parents’ social situation in America and act like parenting isn’t hard is to immediately make yourself the asshole. That’s not how this game works. Parenting is hard. Okay?

Parenting is definitely hard, but acting like parenting is hard is an important part of what it means to belong to the social world of American parents. It can’t possibly be an exaggeration to say that American parents are the most demonstratively conscientious parents in the world. I specify demonstrative because there are many forms of conscientiousness, many of which are private, more at the level of acts of service, like a nightly offering of cut fruit, or a steady focus on a child’s academic achievement. What I’m talking about is conscientiousness as a public act, that expands outside the home and ultimately becomes legible at the level of public policy. This is the kind of conscientiousness that has made parents hesitant about letting their kids walk or bike around their neighborhoods alone — not necessarily because of traffic, but for fear of the intervention of other hypervigilant parents.

Hypervigilance has become a calling card of American parents, and as I have found while trying to break the ice with strangers, it’s a nonpartisan safe zone. It transcends race and class. The funny thing is, in private, many of us don’t identify with hypervigilance. We might find it excessive. We roll our eyes at it — it’s the stuff of other parents, not us. But in public, we play by the rules of hypervigilance because we don’t want to risk being perceived as careless. There is nothing more shameful than a careless mother — we all know this down to our toenails.

Even parents who don’t care if they’re perceived as careless — like my husband, who couldn’t care less what other parents think of him, a state of mind of which I am extremely envious — tend to play by the rules set forth by our most alarmist peers. It’s just easier that way; it avoids irritating social friction.

The safe space of hypervigilance turns out to be very consequential for our kids. What if, by allowing our fear of being shamed to determine how we parent in public, we are inadvertently contributing to a serious, decadeslong, slow-moving public-health crisis? A new article in the Journal of Pediatrics makes a very compelling argument for how parents’ hypervigilance is contributing to the oft-discussed mental-health crisis in children and teenagers.

While recent coverage of a mental-health crisis in teens uses the COVID-19 pandemic as a causal jumping-off point, this article charts the start of a long declining trend in American children’s mental health to the 1960s, when childhood independence began decreasing. Indeed, by 2019, suicide had become the second-most common cause of death for children aged 10 to 15, behind unintentional injury. (Prior to the 1960s, death from illness including pneumonia and flu had been in the No. 2 spot.) COVID made conditions worse, but they were already very bad. The abundant evidence in this article raises a provocative question. What if the mental-health crisis in children is partly a consequence of a crisis of confidence among parents?

According to the article — which is engagingly written by Doctors Peter Gray, David F. Lancey, and David F. Bjorklund and is really worth reading all the way through — there are several key ways parental intervention in children’s autonomy is likely harming children’s emotional well-being. Lancey is an anthropologist of childhood; Bjorklund and Gray study child development with particular attention paid to cognitive development and the role of play.

The authors claim that the first half of the 20th century is considered the “golden age of unstructured play.” Children’s play wasn’t just unstructured — it was unsupervised and tended to happen outside. The data convincingly shows that where kids have more independent mobility from ages as young as 5, their health improves. Our kids need to be able to move through their communities independently.

One of the article’s most fascinating sections is about what children do and don’t consider “play.” There is recreation and family time, but play is specific: It’s ideally initiated by kids rather than adults and doesn’t include adult supervision or participation. So parent-guided trips to the park are suboptimal from the point of view of play. A frankly devastating study from Switzerland indicates that kids who are able to play outside unsupervised have more friends and are more active than kids whose outdoor play time involves trips to the park with an adult. If your kids get bored at the park and ask to go home after half an hour (this was often the vibe back in our park-going days), consider how your very presence there may be inhibiting your kids’ ability to initiate independent games.

What compels parents to inhibit their children’s independence, and how can we address those factors? That’s a question that demands serious research, but I would guess traffic has to be at the top of the list for reasons why parents are afraid to let their kids walk around alone, and the data supports our fears. Should childhood-mental-health advocates team up with city planners to push for urban infrastructure reform? If parents insist on the need for children to play outside unsupervised, and demand safe conditions for this unsupervised play, a grassroots movement could emerge. Wide sidewalks need to be everywhere. It begins with our insistence.

Traffic is an easy explanation (and a challenging problem to address), but what about our own attitudes? Insecurity is part of what makes it hard to let our kids take risks in an environment where the most outspoken parents are the most vigilant. Some degree of insecurity forms a foundation for most of our parenting. My least favorite cliché — it’s no contest — is “Kids don’t come with an instruction manual!”

This remark is moronic for two reasons. Raising children would not be improved if it were more like building a shelf. If you want a child who reminds you of a shelf, buy a shelf. But also, who would rather believe a step-by-step set of instructions than rely on their own observations? Was it because your parents were shelf-builders that you now wish to build your own shelf? Whatever compels people to talk about instruction manuals, it’s disheartening.

The question “Am I doing this right?” seems to emerge unbidden from deep inside our souls, but it’s a response to our social environments too. It’s no wonder most parents are hesitant to be the first one to send their kids to the park alone. How dare someone show such brazen confidence in a world where uncertainty is the only stable ground?

You know what else makes us like this? You knew this was coming: social media. Algorithms surface the loudest, most engaging voices, and those voices are usually the ones raising the alarm. We know this is true for politics, and it’s also true for parenting. The flame wars on Facebook mom groups over safety are the stuff of internet legend at this point. As a result, there’s often very little talk of nuanced approaches to giving children independence because everyone knows that this kind of topic will reap the whirlwind in the replies. It’s basically impossible to have a good-faith conversation about children and safety in an algorithmic space. When these conversations do occur, they happen in private, out of sight. This is a problem for new parents especially, who don’t get to see examples of sensible, self-confident parenting online.

Regardless of what’s causing us to be like this, it’s our problem and our responsibility to fix it. Our own reluctance to allow our children independence should be considered as serious a problem as declining mental health in young people because they are linked. Gray, Lancey, and Bjorklund include an important reminder: Children are predisposed to learn. They can learn safety rules and create rules of their own. Kids who walk around their neighborhoods alone discover things that adults would never notice. They don’t have to go far to feel independent — the end of the block, out of sight of a parent, can feel like a world away. A couple months into our long COVID lockdown, I started letting my younger son take short walks alone. He was 6. One day he came home and said he’d come across a dead pigeon; it was the happiest I’d seen him in months. He still talks about it.

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Childhood Independence Is a Mental-Health Issue