Allowing kids to be kids


Children and teens today are more depressed and anxious than those one and two generations ago. There is a growing body of research, including studies conducted by child development expert Dr. Peter Gray, that indicate that children are suffering from less time for play and more parental control, including being over controlled, over scheduled, and over rescued. 

Unlike one or two generations ago, the idea of kids playing just to play is foreign to many parents. Let’s take sports, for example. Many parents view sports today as a means to an end, rather than an opportunity to enjoy a physical activity with peers and a chance to learn skills of sportsmanship, leadership and confidence. Instead, child sports today are viewed as a way to make children experts in a single, specialized sport, at younger and younger ages. There is a large body of research that does not support early specialization in children.

The website Changing the Game Project includes many research articles that emphasize that more free-play even in sports results in more desire to play. Research suggests that early specialization ignores the importance of deliberate play/free-play and indicates that activities, which are intrinsically motivating, maximize fun and provide enjoyment while increasing motor skills, emotional intelligence and creativity. Basically, the studies are telling us that kids who play sports for fun end up being more motivated athletes when they reach high school and college age — the time when it’s more appropriate to specialize.

Parents today often make decisions about what’s good for their child based on what others are doing and not what’s in a child’s best interest. As a result, important decisions are made out of fear and feelings of helplessness. I know I have done this when parenting. There are thoughts, like “I want my child to be as good as his peers” or “I want my child to live up to his/her potential,” that can result in feelings of helplessness and frustration when a child does not meet predetermined expectations.

It’s important for parents to accept that kids are developing and changing, and therefore comparing them to other kids or expecting them to act a certain way at a particular age may be unrealistic.

It seems that as children have gotten away from unstructured, free-play, they have also become protected from the experience of failing. Parents want their child to be successful, but this is not the same thing as protecting a child from failure. Helping a child avoid failure is only a set-up for failure. Like most parents, I hate watching my children fail and yet, when they do, I remind myself that the silver lining is that they can and will learn from their failure.

Studies show that experiencing failure is essential to learning how to cope with disappointment and hardship. When a child fails they have the opportunity to experience disappointment. Out of adversity comes resiliency that allows children to accept and deal with setbacks. No amount of protection from failure as a child will keep a person from letdowns as an adult. Children who learn to cope in the face of challenge will have an easier time adjusting to life’s many trials once he or she reaches adulthood.

The bottom line is that parents need to step back and look at what their child needs in order to evolve into a successful adult. If a child under 16 is spending most of his free time participating in serious activities, and with significant parent oversight, then that child is missing out. All children need time for playing, socializing, decision-making and even failure in order to progress into a healthy and well-rounded adult with a strong character. When children are told who they are, what they like, where to be, how to complete tasks, etc., the risk is that they grow up to be adults with little sense of who they are, what they like and what they want out of life. It’s true that for most adults, the answer to these questions evolves over time. Once a person reaches the age of adulthood, however, he should have some idea of his value as a person and what is important to him. When parents over schedule and overprotect their child, they risk having their child miss out on essential growth experiences that are critical for healthy development. Overprotected children mature physically, while emotionally they may lag far, far behind, leaving them ill-equipped to deal with life.


Dr. Kate Roberts is a licensed child and school psychologist and family therapist on the North Shore. Questions can be directed to or

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