The Anxiety Epidemic: Why Kids Need Less School And More Freedom

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I remember the car ride home when my parents found out my brother skipped school for the first time. We turned the corner and crossed the train tracks as they calmly told him not to do it again.

They weren’t mad. There was no punishment. I couldn’t believe it.

I was a model student. I went to school, got good grades and didn’t cause any trouble. I thought my brother’s behaviour was wrong; he needed to be reprimanded or he’d do it again. Surely my parents needed to exert their control.

But looking back through the lens of a new parent trying to make sense of our modern world for our young son I understand and surprisingly, even applaud my brother’s behaviour. He was trying to take control of his life. It was HIS life after all. Didn’t he have the right to decide how he spent at least some of his time?

Didn’t he have the right to do what made him happy?

With the incidence of teenage mental and emotional health issues skyrocketing in most western nations, we need to ask ourselves why. Why are so many of our children unhappy? Some say the issue lies with the fact that medicine has improved and we’re now able to more accurately diagnose psychological conditions. Perhaps children have always been anxious and depressed but we just didn’t recognize it before.

Peter Gray PhD, a research professor at Boston College, says that’s not the case: the exponential rise in psychopathology holds even when the measures and criteria for diagnosis are constant. He feels, as do I, that the problem lies not solely with our children, but with the environment we’ve created for them.

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Childhood has changed dramatically over the last fifty years; the rules of the game were rewritten by adults, but we never asked our children if they wanted to play. If we ignore external factors and compensate by over medicating, over controlling and over scheduling our kids, the problem will continue to escalate.

So, where did we go wrong and how can we fix it?

THE TRANSFORMATION OF CHILDHOOD 

Nature designed children and adolescents to spend most of their time playing. Vital for for healthy psychological development free play, as described by Gray, is “play which is freely chosen and directed by the participants and undertaken for its own sake, not consciously pursued to achieve ends that are distinct from the activity itself.”

Free play is kicking a soccer ball around a field, shooting basketball hoops in the driveway or riding bikes around the neighbourhood after dark. What do these spontaneous activities have in common? No uniforms, no referees, no competition and no adult-enforced rules. They’re joyful and open-ended, uncovering an enchanting world of endless possibility.

Free play is a magical journey with no destination. 

In contrast to adult directed activities which may lay dangerous precedents for the empty pursuit of external validation, unstructured free time provides an arena for kids to self-govern, create rules, problem-solve and iron out social conflicts.

A vital ingredient in the framework of childhood, free play cannot be removed without consequences; in it’s absence self-esteem and true independence are built on a shaky foundation. Yet, developmental psychologist David Elkind reports kids have lost more than 12 hours of free time per week in the last two decades. So, ironically, while children need simplicity and freedom in order to thrive, society delivers the exact opposite.

In just a few generations free play has become akin to an endangered species, spelling disaster for children as they’ve lost the only part of their world THEY control. And society is feeling the effects: the average young person in 1960 was eighty percent more likely to claim they had control over their lives than were young people in 2002. While correlation is not definitive proof, many feel loss of personal control leads to feelings of helplessness, predisposing our kids to anxiety and depression at younger and younger ages.

WHY HAVE CHILDREN LOST THEIR FREEDOM? 

In short, school and adult supervised activities have become the dominant force in kids’ lives, eroding freedom and undermining an internal sense of control. Be it in the classroom or on the sports field, adults are in charge, not children. Though the premise of education may be honourable, the conventional method of delivery has it’s faults and many parents are questioning the ever-expanding role formal education plays in their kids’ lives.

As unpopular a statement as it may be, school bears many similarities to prison; stealing children’s basic right to freedom and diminishing their ability to direct their own lives. Globally there are calls for even more adult control; to lengthen rather than shorten the school day and year, for recess to be abandoned in favour of academics and for exams to start as young as seven years of age.

In his book Free to Learn, Gray describes a study which evaluates the relative happiness of hundreds of high school students. Unsurprisingly, teenagers were least happy, by a significant margin when they were at school or doing homework. While, they were happiest when they were away from school and interacting with friends.

How can kids be happy when they spend most of their time in an environment which is almost designed to produce anxiety?

As teenagers, our kids are living in a metaphorical pressure cooker and it’s having an effect; a 2014 American Psychological Association survey found that, during the school year, teenagers experience higher levels of stress than adults. They’re resorting to unprescribed “study drugs” in an effort to stay alert and achieve higher grades.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reports Canada, my home country, has one of the world’s worst truancy rates at twenty-six percent. Attempts to bandaid over the problem by threatening kids is short sighted and counterproductive, serving to disconnect adults further from the youth we need to be closer to.

Sadly, around the world, one quarter of fifteen-year-olds express negative views as to how well they fit in at school. These statistics are significant and can’t be ignored: our kids’ behaviour is telling us there’s a serious problem with the way we expect them to spend their days. It’s not ok and we need to listen.

DIGGING DEEPER AND ASKING DIFFICULT QUESTIONS

Conventional schooling is the elephant in the room nobody likes to talk about; it’s a fiercely defended institution, which is controversial to question. Yet, a healthy society is one which encourages free thinking and welcomes the evolution of outdated models into something more constructive.

Positive change starts with brave parents asking the tough questions, in spite of the predictable criticism and resistance of naysayers.

If we replaced fruits and vegetables in our diets with fast food it would be obvious why we’d see a deterioration in our health. Yet, the premise of education is so noble, so heavily ingrained that it’s difficult to realize it’s not serving our children’s mental and emotional health well. Through seeking to protect them, we’ve deprived them of the freedom they need to nourish their growing minds and replaced it with an unhealthy level of adult control; increasing the odds they will suffer from anxiety, depression, and other disorders.

Growing up, I watched the system fail my family, and learned so many lessons through my experience.

Now, as I watch my own son, overflowing with natural curiosity, I don’t want to see it squashed by a treadmill of formal education which may be mismatched to healthy human development. I’m excited to see where this unknown path leads our family as I endeavour to understand how young minds develop and what is needed to feed happy souls. I crave making informed decisions for my son, and hope to help those in our Raised Good community who are on a similar journey of discovery.

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COMMENTS
  • September 19, 2016
    Audrey Diaz

    Maybe, some of what you write about, this has some link to adults staying kids longer.
    Years earlier, adults didn’t play video games, jog, play sports, etc. Those were left to children. But now, what was 20 year old behavior is, maybe, 40 year behavior. They’re putting in their free time. As my mom, an early childhood teacher (to parents) used to profess, there are stages of development. Maybe adults are filling in gaps/lapses in development.

    • September 30, 2016

      I think you make an excellent point, Audrey! When children aren’t allowed to BE children during childhood, they stay children into adulthood. (This is also something I’ll try to remember when I can’t get my young teen up in the morning – because he was up all night binge watching Stranger Things – that it will help keep him from STILL living at home when he’s 30!!!)
      Rebecca recently posted…Halloween Picture Books To Die For

    • October 27, 2016
      Cari

      Very thought provoking! I’m going to remember that one.

    • February 22, 2017
      Diana

      The common denominator for the article and the replies is that children need interactions with other children. In their own terms, I agree. I grew up with that feeling of freedom but I had friends close by. I only needed to walk a short distance and knock at one door and surely one of them was available for some adventures. What to do these days though? When the children’s friends live a few kilometres away? As a parent I start then organising play dates and sleepovers and so on. How much do I need to intervene? To coordinate these? A lovely article and I too love the work of Peter Gray. He is very popular in New Zealand. Thank you for this.

  • September 21, 2016
    Emily

    I think *truly free* free time is so important for kids! I grew up riding bikes, catching grasshoppers, playing on the playground, making mud pies, and playing make-believe games with my friends, and I think it really contributed to our happiness. I see so many kids today who never go outside and do those kinds of things anymore, and it makes me feel so sad for them–they don’t know what they’re missing! Great article, by the way! 🙂

    • September 21, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Thanks so much Emily and could’t agree more. Kids need to keep their bodies active – helps to keep the mind quiet at the same time, to give us all a much needed rest from constant thoughts and worries. We’ve been having so much fun playing with my Mum who’s been here for the last couple weeks – when given the choice my son will always choose play and I hope to keep it that way. Thanks so much! xx

      • September 24, 2016
        Emily

        I totally agree! That’s great! 🙂 Have fun! 🙂

  • September 30, 2016

    EXCELLENT ARTICLE!

    So much more I could say here, but I just wanted to say this was an excellent description of the problem as well as offering encouragement to us as parents to provide more opportunities for unstructured free time. God bless.

    • September 30, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      My pleasure Brett and thank you so much for reading. Could’t agree more. Lovely to meet you! 🙂

  • September 30, 2016

    I’m so happy I found this article on the Simple Homeschool weekend links! It speaks to an issue we are contending with in our home. We homeschool our son, but our daughter insists on attending school because, as she puts it, she doesn’t want to miss lunch and recess with her friends. She also genuinely seems to enjoy the school experience. It is after school that is the problem. She is only in second grade and must complete upwards of two hours of homework a night. I personally feel that homework is unnecessary and counterproductive (and I am a certified reading specialist). It robs children of their much needed free time when they can play and be creative. It also is the source of so much unhappiness in our home. I cannot understand why teachers (or school administrators) don’t seem to understand the importance of free play in children’s lives. There is plenty of research coming out that refutes the erroneous notion that homework is beneficial. I wish educators would do their homework rather than assigning it to children.

    • September 30, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Thank you Heather – I just checked out Simple Homeschool and saw it there, What a great site! I’m thrilled they shared my post 🙂

      I love your last line – it is so true! My son is only three so we are in the midst of figuring out what we’ll do but I hope to be able to homeschool. The science is clear but our culture takes a long time to catch up. Institutions and habits become so ingrained it’s hard to change. But, we can change things for our individual kids and families. And I agree on homework – what a waste of time! Kids need to be kids! You may also like my post on simplifying childhood. Thanks again for reading and lovely to meet you!

    • October 26, 2016
      Tess

      Yes yes yes! I wholeheartedly agree with your thoughts on homework. I am currently pregnant with our 1st and hubby and I have already had this ‘too much homework’ discussion. It’s been shown that learning absorbs after you stop studying and the brain relaxes. Not to mention all the benefits of physical activity on brain health, concentration etc.
      My child will come home from school and play first, homework second, I am convinced this will be better for him/her!

  • October 17, 2016
    Brenda Rhode

    Children discover and learn through play.Parents, carers and teachers should play with children. The bonding is incredible and contributes to stable, happy adults.

    • October 17, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      You’re so right Brenda and thank you for reading 🙂

  • October 19, 2016
    kathy

    This is such an important message to read and to put into practice. Thanks for sharing. I have an older daughter and only now is she enjoying the freedom of outdoor life, gym, walks ect… I believe we have the blue sky and the green grass for a reason and that is to relax our whole body to enjoy life to its fullest.

    • October 20, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      My pleasure Kathy and I love how you describe it with the blue sky and the green grass – you’re so right! Happy your daughter is enjoying this beautiful world of ours. Thanks again for reading 🙂

  • October 23, 2016
    joyce malik

    I agree kids need more free time, more creative thinking. But when I skipped school when I was a teenager it was just to see if I could get away with it!

    • October 25, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      For sure Joyce, I did it a couple of times too. But for many it’s a genuine problem which causes untold anxiety. Hope you got away with it! 🙂

  • November 05, 2016

    I’m a blogger and write about my personal experiences from homeschooling my children for fourteen years. I delighted reading your article because it supports what I’ve said in many of my own posts (with more to come). It’s really sad to me, and the future of our society rests on the kids who are being shaped by these educational methods. I’d love to see them change, for everyone’s sake. But, in the meantime, there is homeschooling. I’d encourage parents to take responsibility and teach their children theirselves.

  • November 10, 2016

    Im a parent that believed in good manners, discipline and structure to some degree. I also loved my kids to have play time and not too many activities. By the time they reached their teens my eldest was in trouble. He an I always had power struggles. Fast forward to today we do not have a relationship, he has drug issues and my husband and I are raising his son. Of course its more complicated than that. But I feel so much guilt and loss, I am struggling to learn from my mistakes and do it differently with his son.Sincerely lost T

  • February 19, 2017

    Such a beautifully written article. Thank you so much for taking the words in my head and putting them online. 🙂 After teaching in traditional education and having my kids in those types of schools for many years, I realized that it didn’t actually match up with what I studied about child development or prepare them for their life after graduation. My friends and I got crazy and started a school in 2010, with many of the principles you wrote about in mind. I look forward to sharing this on our school’s page and with parents. Thank you!

  • February 21, 2017
    Jamie

    Spot on.. and to be honest adults go through similar. My girls spent the past 2 years exploring their world interests and environment all hours of the day. They were totally engaged. 2 years of natural learning started to sculpt their lives. This year they have decided to go to school and I can already see the lack of personal time to not only find adventure but meditate on life. Children need this just like we do, but with such a busy routine they are just too tired. Full stop.
    I feel like a manager now, they miss their time with us, exploring life and making decisions. In a system with so much information to process there is no time to sit and take it all in ❤️ Yesterday they were too tired to get out of bed so we slept in laughed a lot and then went swimming at the lake instead. X

  • February 25, 2017
    Danni

    I think another reason why our kids don’t have as much free time to explore the world is hours upon hours of nightly homework. Now instead of getting snow days they also have school work to do at home. When are we going to wake up and let our children be children??

  • March 07, 2017
    Gina Henderson

    Hi Tracy,
    This post really resonated with me. In the U.K. we’re suffocating our children with a performance driven educational system which tears the spirit out of our young ones. My son is two and, like you, we have made choices often considered ‘against the grain’. Your website has offered me much comfort in those moments when I’ve felt alone in standing by my instincts/beliefs, so thank you so much for that.
    I do think education is a blessing, administered in a healthy age appropriate way, but seems the system has lost itself in regulation & the parental discontent is raising its head everywhere…I’d like to think, agree or disagree, change is coming. Sadly right now, I am dreading my son hitting school age and hope to have the continued courage to make the right choices on his behalf.

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