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There is a higher incidence of child stress, anxiety and disorders than ever before. This is how to change the course and improve your child’s life.
My two oldest children bound off of the school bus. Their backpacks bounce with their gate. They’re grinning from ear-to-ear, elated to be home and see me. Because the baby is on my hip, they wrap their arms around my legs.
Each time this after-school scenario plays out, it feels like something you would see on a sitcom about family values. For that moment, they cannot contain their joy. Everyone is smiling. Everything seems just as it should be.
In reality, however, we are mere moments from a meltdown.
It’s almost the end of the school week, and at this point, my children have:
- attended baseball twice,
- soccer once,
- and fought their way through homework battles.
Not only that, but the bus ride they have to take on the days that I work is a long one. It adds one hour to their already long school day.
By the time we get home, they’re exhausted, over-hungry and overstimulated.
Because I have an assignment due, I turn on the TV to preoccupy my kids. I grab them strawberries, carrots, hummus and salami. Then, I park myself in front of my books and do my best to cram as much reading about David Hume into a tiny window of time. My daughter scarfs down her strawberries and salami asking for a second helping.
I try to coax my son to eat. The lower his blood sugar the less likely he is to eat and the more likely he will lose his mind.
He’s like a ticking time bomb.
When dinner time rolls around, he still hasn’t eaten since lunch. He falls to the floor into a heaping pile of tears.
I struggle to urge him to eat. So do my parents, who help me with my children when I’m working or doing school work. My son finally agrees to try one bite of baguette. Success!
Related reading: How to respond when your child hates school
Though one battle is over, another is about to begin.
As dinner finishes, it’s homework time. My husband sits down with our daughter to do her home reading, spelling and finish off her math worksheet. As per usual, our strong-willed girl tries everything conceivable to get out of this duty. Sometimes, we agree to let her do it in the morning. Then, she is refreshed. The downside is that we are stuffing something else into an already busy morning routine.
Though this version of busy is unique to our family, the hustle, bustle and child stress is not.
In trying to give our children every advantage, we are making a huge mistake.
Since the end of the world wars, media has been telling us that in order to be worth more, we must train more, accomplish more, and own more (1). As a result, we largely think that good parents must give children “every opportunity to excel, buy a plethora of enrichment tools, and ensure [they] participate in a wide variety of activities.”(2) We are in a rat race to make as much money to buy our children as much stimulation as possible.
On top of that, many schools have reduced the time allotted for free play and recess in the name of improving math and reading scores (3).
Though we are doing this with the best of intentions, we are robbing children of what they truly need to be healthy and successful.
This is the undeclared war on childhood.
After his time treating children in refugee camps, family therapist Kim John Payne returned to the west. When he did, he was shocked that many of the children coming into his practice showed the same level of stress as those from war-torn areas. Of course, the privileged children were physically safe. Mentally, however, they were responding as if they were “…in a warzone where they needed coping strategies to feel safe” (4).
Parents are unintentionally compounding child stress by putting children in:
- stimulating childcare centres,
- schools that decontextualize learning, and
- far too many extracurricular activities.
Plus these children were drowning in stuff. They had too many toys and spent too much time in front of screens.
The truth is, instead of allowing children to develop in the way that nature intended them to, largely through free play, we expect them to live in adult-like schedules and learn in adult-like ways.
For the immature human brain, we are asking far too much (6).
…children are being raised in an increasingly hurried and pressured style that may limit the protective benefits they would gain from child-driven play. Because every child deserves the opportunity to develop to their unique potential, child advocates must consider all factors that interfere with optimal development and press for circumstances that allow each child to fully reap the advantages associated with play. – Kenneth Ginsburg
As a result, far more children are being diagnosed with mood, attention deficit or conduct disorders (5).
It is for this reason, Payne refers to this approach as an undeclared war on childhood. Though we aren’t meaning to, we are slowly increasing child stress until it is reaching consequential levels.
Overscheduling and overstimulating kids are both hurting them and ill-equipping them for their future.
Though parents are inclined to think that more time spent in tutoring, organized sports, and studying will lead to better outcomes, research suggests otherwise.
For one, boredom fosters creativity.
An over-scheduled child does not get ample time to invent, imagine and create. In general, people who experience boredom regularly outperform those who don’t (7).
Secondly, free play promotes higher-level thinking needed for life long success.
For instance, consider a game of baseball played in a little league versus a game with the neighbourhood children. In the case of the former, children get more thorough instruction on how to throw, hit, and catch. In the latter, they are able to practice these skills while negotiating the rules of the game. For instance, children need to agree on what constitutes a home run, what the bases will be and how the rules will be adapted for younger children. They need to come to a consensus about who bats first and who will play what position if any. And, they need to both advocate for themselves while maintaining the best interest of everyone else so the game can proceed.
By depriving children of opportunities to play on their own, away from direct adult supervision and control, we are depriving them of opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives. We may think we are protecting them, but in fact, we are diminishing their joy, diminishing their sense of self-control, preventing them from discovering and exploring the endeavours they would most love, and increasing the odds that they will suffer from anxiety, depression, and other disorders. – Dr. Peter Gray
Finally, children will need the skills developed in free play for future success.
Telecommuting is on the rise and will continue to rise as the job market shifts. With that, the boundaries between work and home will blur and our adult children will need the skills to work in a self-directed, contentious, and creative manner (8).
What is a parent to do? How to combat child stress and stop the war on childhood.
Step 1 is to minimize toys, multimedia, and schedules.
Payne recommends children have no more than 20 toys. In his experience, children value their possession more and are more creative. Not only that, but he reports that children with fewer toys complain less about not having anything to do (5).
Secondly, it is hard for children to procure the benefits of boredom with the noise of an iPad or TV in front of them. It is also overstimulating and is much more passive than play.
Finally, approach extracurricular activities and homework with a less is more attitude.
Step 2 address your fear of them missing out.
Despite all the evidence, it is easy to feel like our children are missing important opportunities. Instead, we need to reframe our thinking to realize free-play is where the greatest opportunities lie.
Payne states that children whose parents reduce passive entertainment (such as TV or Youtube), extracurricular activities and visual clutter exhibit vastly less disorderly behaviour. Not only are they easier to parent, but their mental health and overall contentment are also greater too.
Step 3 Embrace a lazier form of parenting.
Give children the opportunity to explore, entertain, and try new things on their own. This will bolster their feelings of confidence and efficacy.
Step 4 Spend as much time outside as possible.
Children who spend more time outside are happier, healthier and more imaginative.
Step 5 advocate for your child.
Ask why homework is being assigned. Demand more time for free play. Advocate for longer times spent outdoors. Generate awareness within the parent-teacher committees and meanings that kids should be allowed to be kids.
Ending child stress – a conclusion
As the school buses line up curbside to collect students, I wait with snacks in hand. My children burst out of the school doors and embrace my legs. I hand them popcorn and baby carrots. They take turns passing the bag around to their friends before breaking off and running down the field.
There are no toys and no play structure. And yet somehow, the children find incredible ways to play.
I can’t entirely change my work schedule, but I have cut back. And, we’ve reduced screen time and other aspects of our schedule too.
The happiness that exudes from my children is worth every lost cent. My goal is no longer to cram in more but to find creative ways to do less.