The Journal of Pediatrics recently published an article arguing persuasively that a major cause of the current epidemic in childhood anxiety and depression is that we supervise our children too much. With the best of intentions, the authors argue, we are depriving our children of important opportunities to become self-confident and independent.
The review first traces the decline in childhood independence over the past 50-60 years. Magazines, newspapers, and books from the first half of the 20th century show a world in which children as young as 5 walked to school alone or with friends, and 11 or 12-year-olds had babysitting jobs or paper routes. The authors conclude that ”in some respects—such as freedom to choose what they wear or eat—children have gained autonomy over the decades. What has declined specifically is children’s freedom to engage in activities that involve some degree of risk and personal responsibility away from adults.”
The researchers then analyzed studies and statistics showing that the decline in children’s mental health, although much more acute the last few years, actually has been happening at about the same time as the decline in childhood independence. All of the concerning scores in anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide, started trending upward in the late 1960s.
At the same time, mental health studies started showing the short- and long-term benefits of independent play for children. Teens and children who have greater opportunities for independent (meaning not supervised by adults) activities tend to have higher rates of emotional and mental well-being. The connecting factor seems to be the psychological concept of “locus of control.” People with internal LOC tend to believe that they have control over their lives and can solve problems as they arise, while external LOC tends to be a belief that our lives are ruled by forces beyond our control. Children with low internal LOC scores tend to have higher rates of anxiety and depression. The authors of this review cite research showing “a dramatic decline in internal LOC“ among minors from 1960-2000. The authors argue, “It also seems likely that play and other independent activities, where young people must make their own decisions and solve their own problems, would promote the development of a strong internal LOC. If children have little experience taking control of their own lives, they are unlikely to develop a strong sense that they can exert such control.”
This review doesn’t argue that lack of independent time is the only cause of increased levels of anxiety and depression. The authors note the rise in high achievement schools and academic pressure, as well as the role of social media. However, none of the more recent causes, such as the pandemic and social media, can explain the decades-long trend. As the authors note, “Unlike other crises, such as the COVID epidemic, [the decline in children’s independent activity and well-being] has crept up on us gradually, over decades, so many have barely noticed it.”
The authors of the article make a persuasive case that we need to find more opportunities for our children to spend time independently interacting with other children and figuring out the world. We are limited by court orders, case plans, regulations, statutes, and expectations of biological parents. Within all of those limits, however, we need to find room to encourage our kids’ independence. Our culture’s current focus on protecting them from physical harm seems to be imposing a high cost of mental harm.
To quote from the article, “Parents today are regularly subject to messages about the dangers that might befall unsupervised children and the value of high achievement in school. But they hear little of the countervailing messages that if children are to grow up well-adjusted, they need ever-increasing opportunities for independent activity, including self-directed play and meaningful contributions to family and community life, which are signs that they are trusted, responsible, and capable. They need to feel they can deal effectively with the real world, not just the world of school.”
It would be nice if we could teach our kids these real-world skills through lectures in a perfectly safe and serene environment. Unfortunately, human beings, especially young humans, simply don’t learn that way. They have to test their boundaries, including physical boundaries, and learn from failure. We need to help them find ways to do that without our standing in the wings directing them.