As a mother of two young kids, I often see kids being shuttled from one activity to the next on weekends, with little breathing room, who are exhausted at the end of the day–and I’m occasionally guilty of the same. While they’re developing skills, on the surface, new research suggests that we’re doing them, and ourselves, a disservice by keeping them so constantly busy. We’re creating play deserts in which kids are thirsty for unstructured time, but instead whine for what’s most easily available: most often, technology. Not only do they never get bored, but they don’t get the time and space to develop creatively in the ways they need.
We’re facing a dilemma in our society–even as we want kids to get good jobs, and in the meantime develop social skills and meaningful relationships–we’re not allowing them time to play in unstructured ways. And we, in carting them around from one activity to the other, aren’t allowing ourselves time to play either.
We’re turning kids into adults too soon
As Peter Gray, a psychology professor at Boston University, argued recently, a lack of play and outside time can be at the root of many mental health problems of today’s kids. Without the mental space and freedom that time in nature allows, kids are being pushed to succeed academically in ways that aren’t developmentally appropriate. I’ve seen this myself, in years of clinical work as a speech-language pathologist–kids who, as young as seven or eight, are inside all but a few minutes a day, living the same sedentary lives as their parents.
Of course, mental health problems in kids are real, and based on a wide variety of factors, not only their environments. But, certainly for those with tendencies toward depression, anxiety, or attentional problems, being inside with little time to explore and create, and problem-solve, compounds the problem. We often don’t see the parallels between creating with a pile of sticks and solving a math problem in later years–but actually, doing that kind of unstructured creation is the fastest way toward learning more about the world, and being able to solve problems long-term.
I recently came across an article by memoirist Peter Birkenhead arguing that no such thing as overparenting exists–given the author’s extensive experience on the playground. Kids, the author argued, need to be helped not to fall off the monkey bars and not hit their heads, going backwards down the slides. Parents who do such things aren’t overparenting–they’re simply doing what they should do. And, of course, I agree–but that’s not what overparenting is.
What overparenting really is
Fundamentally, overparenting is the idea that “more is more”–that if we can be around our kids more, and filling their schedules to the brink, or adding more intensity to their days, or simply trying to make “each second count”–our kids will appreciate us, and will do better. It’s much more psychological than simply watching kids to make sure they don’t get hurt. Rather, it’s an attitude that separates work and play for kids, that suggests that homework is more important than building, and that structured activities are higher-quality than time alone or with family or friends. It’s not only one choice at one time, but a series of choices that prioritizes doing over being, that suggests kids are there to be made, not to explore. That’s the attitude that, in moving away from overparenting, we need to change—not our care for kids on the playground.