Roughly six decades ago the US was almost entirely different than it is today. Debt was falling at astonishing increments after World War II, the American Dream was alive and well, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were throwing cheese at one another on the moon and kids were experiencing unparalleled amounts of freedom and fun independent of their parents. While most of these aspects of the 50s people still continually strive to achieve and bring back to our society, it seems one of these aforementioned differences is being pushed farther and farther away from our world and its growing distance might be more detrimental than anyone ever imagined.
I remember so vividly hearing stories from my father detailing his seemingly lawless youth in the 50s. He and his younger brother would often get on their bikes, at ages 8 and 5 respectively, and ride miles away from home on their own pretending to be a rough and tough biker gang out to eradicate wrong doers in the neighborhood. The only rules were to be home for dinner and not to cross any highways; oh and to always be respectful of your elders (that one was always implied no matter the activity). Together my dad and my uncle would create makeshift weapons out of whittled sticks, climb to the tippy top of trees in order to survey their vast kingdom, and wade through local creeks to escape from the evil clutches of whoever was after them. While most people now would potentially view my grandparents as extremely negligent and irresponsible, they were, in fact, the exact opposite. Kids need to experience freedom, independence and, at times, risky situations in order to grow mentally and letting kids experience this type of play is an incredible benefit to their psyche.
Many psychological studies have been conducted outlining the effects of reduced risky play in adolescence and how it alters the overall functioning of the brain. With rats being used as the test subjects, researchers found a way to deprive these rodents from facing different types of play during a critical phase in their development without abolishing other forms of social experiences. How did this experiment alter the rats? Well, when placed in a new environment the rats responded with heightened levels of fear, an inability to adapt and lashing out aggressively. In short, eliminating risky play during a rat’s most formative period of its life left it emotionally crippled.
This might seem like a somewhat intangible theory given the studies were done with rats and not humans, but societal evidence proves otherwise. Over the past 60 years, while there has been a rapid decline in children playing freely without adult supervision, there has been a substantial increase in childhood mental disorders such as anxiety and depression. Now, in comparison to the 1950s, roughly 8 times as many kids suffer from mood disorders. Those numbers are astounding! Especially when one knows that they could be easily prevented.
It’s obviously tough to let go of the reigns around your child’s life and hand it over to such small, inexperienced hands, but it helps with mental development to an unbelievable extent. This is not to say you should give over the keys to your car to your child and see what happens—instead, this freedom can manifest itself in small, but powerful, acts. For instance, if your child wants to head over to the local park to play basketball with some friends, let them have that independence. Or if your son or daughter has sharpened a rock they found in the woods to act as a weapon against local, make-believe villains, applaud his or her ingenuity and imagination.
Although letting kids push limits of their freedom might seem scary it’s really not at all dangerous. Kids will be kids. However, they ultimately know what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s harmful and what’s safe, so why not let them exercise that knowledge you as a parent have imparted on them and see what great things they’re capable of? Let kids live a little!
-Tony Korson, 04/15/15