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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Let the kids play and the teenagers work

Teenagers wouldn't be so anxious, depressed and fragile if they'd spent more time playing outside with friends -- without adult supervision -- and less time in adult-directed activities, write Jon Haidt and Peter Gray.

Haidt's forthcoming book, The Anxious Generation, argues that parents are "overprotecting children in the real world, where they need a lot of free play and autonomy, while underprotecting them online, where they are not developmentally ready for much of what happens to them."

Children have become "less free to play, roam and explore" on their own and with friends over the last 50 years, writes Gray, a professor of psychology at Boston College. Teenagers are less likely "to have a part-time job where they can demonstrate their capacity for responsible self-control."

"Over these same decades, rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide among young people have increased enormously," he writes. Suicides and suicide attempts are way up.

For children, "the joy of play is the joy of freedom from adult control," writes Gray. If adults are in charge, it's not play. "There is also evidence that teens who have part-time jobs are happier than those who don’t, because of the sense of independence and confidence they gain from the job."

In the long run, children who have a lot of self-structured time grow into adults with a "sense of being able to solve their own problems and take charge of their own lives," writes Gray. They're less likely to suffer from anxiety or depression, and more likely to succeed as adults.

I'm a Baby Boomer, the era of "go out and play." Our mothers had too many children to hover over us. Once a slightly older neighbor boy said he could tie me to a tree so that if I struggled I would choke. I dared him to do it. He did, proving more competent than I'd envisioned. Then he went home to dinner, leaving me on my elderly neighbor's property, out of sight of the street. Fortunately, my mother called me in to dinner, I shouted and she found me. I explained it was a dare: I didn't think it was fair to blame Stanley for my stupidity. I decided never again to let someone tie me up with a noose around my neck.

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