Recently I’ve been engaged in some very interesting conversations with parents and educators about an article by Lenore Skenazy and Jonathan Haidt entitled “The Fragile Generation”. In the article posted on www.reason.com, the authors propose that we now have a generation of young adults who have been overprotected by parents and policy makers to such a degree that they are unable to succeed in life. These young people have led such highly regulated, structured, adult-directed lives that they have been denied the opportunity to develop the social, emotional and cognitive skills necessary to live independently in a complex world.
So, why has this happened and, more importantly, what can you do to make sure that your child grows up strong instead of fragile?
It has been a gradual process that started several decades ago when schools, city governments and policy makers started making changes in the name of “safety”. Our playgrounds have been sanitized to such a degree that much of the equipment and type of play that you and I remember fondly is now considered dangerous. There was a park near the school where I taught Pre-K some years ago. Every now and then my co-teacher and I would take the kids to the park for a change of scenery. The park had a lovely little stream that was spanned by a charming rustic footbridge. There were trees that invited climbing, mud that invited exploring and insects that invited capturing (and releasing after careful observation). There was also a sterile, safe area with manmade playground equipment. Another early childhood program in the neighborhood also visited the park from time to time. And every time we were there together, while the kids in my class were exploring nature and having a great time, the other classes were restricted to the manmade equipment. When their children would venture into the natural environment, they were called back by their teachers with the admonishment that what they were doing was not safe.
So today we have kids who never get to play outdoors, other than in adult-planned, supervised, organized games. And we have kids who never have the chance to touch an insect or play in the mud or risk sliding down a slippery bank into a stream. And we have kids who never have the chance to work out conflicts with their peers, figure out how to get themselves out of a bind or learn how to handle real life challenges.
If you want your children to grow up strong and smart and able to solve problems, what can you do? Start when they’re babies. I know lots of babies who are spending the entire first year of their lives being kept safe by living in containers. They move from the car seat to the infant seat to the high chair to the infant swing to the bouncer and finally to the crib. They are swaddled and restrained and confined and never have the opportunity to experience their bodies in space. Consequently, they learn to be uncomfortable outside of a safe, confining space. They learn to feel anxious and fearful when placed in an open environment that they can freely explore. They are missing out on a very critical period of development that will never be available to them again in their lives.
What your baby needs, from the very beginning, is plenty of time during which he can move about and explore the world, without prompting and without restraint. Put your baby on a mat or blanket on the floor and let him take it from there. You don’t have to constantly amuse him with toys and entertainment. The whole world is new and interesting to your baby. Discovering his hands and feet, sucking on his own fingers and toes, turning his head to follow a sound or look at something that he notices out of the corner of his eye, struggling and finally succeeding in rolling over to his tummy, scooting about and otherwise learning to use his body is enough. Let him “be” in the world around him and begin learning how to manage himself within the world.
Do the same thing outdoors. Take a portable play yard outside, set it up in a safe, shady place and let your baby experience the feelings and sights and sounds of nature. Let her feel the wind in her hair, hear the birds in the trees and watch the clouds moving across the sky. Let her have some “hover free” time. Sit nearby and read a book, work on a craft or water your plants. As long as baby is happy, leave her to her own devices. She will let you know when she’s had enough and wants your company again.
As baby becomes mobile, free play time continues to be critical to his development. Did a toy roll under the sofa? Give your baby a chance to figure out what to do about it. Is there a shape box, puzzle or nesting toy that isn’t coming together easily? Avoid the temptation to step in a fix it. Let your baby struggle a little and learn to solve the problem. You don’t need to rescue him from every frustration. Children learn problem solving skills by solving problems – real world problems.
When your child becomes a preschooler, make sure that there are plenty of social opportunities where she can play with kids her own age as well as with kids who are older and younger. When conflicts arise, (and they will) avoid the temptation to rush in and direct the children to “share” or “be nice” or “give the toy back because he had it first”. Stand back and give them a chance to negotiate their differences. You’re an adult. You should already be good at working through social issues with your peers. They’re new at this, so they need opportunities to practice.
Let them play together in the backyard while you discreetly watch from the house or engage in a project of your own on the patio. Let them make mud pies, dig in the dirt and clean up after themselves when they’re done. Leave them to their own devices and let them explore the physical and social world without your constant direction. If they come to you about a conflict or to report “bad” behavior, guide the children involved to talk together and come up with a solution to their problem. When they’ve agreed on a solution, congratulate them on being good problem solvers and go back to your own activity.
When your child goes off to school, avoid the trap of overscheduling her life. Sure, homework needs to be done. Educational field trips are important. Soccer and basketball and cheerleading and scouts are great learning experiences. You want to provide those kinds of activities for your child’s education and enrichment. But don’t overdo it. Your child does not need to have every minute of every day scheduled, structured and directed by adults. One of the best gifts you can give your school age child is the opportunity to be bored, because opportunities to think, feel and create something new are often born of boredom. Your children won’t benefit from being constantly entertained, supervised and directed. Let them have some alone time to read, paint, draw, do crafts or simply daydream. One of the best gifts you can give your kids is time to “just be.”
Let go of your fears and trust in the Lord to guide you and help you balance your parenting in such a way that your child grows up to be strong and competent, able to face the challenges that lie ahead in life. I would love to talk with you more about this! Give me a call or send me a message so we can chat!