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Children Don’t Need More Free Time, They Need More Attention From Their Parents

girls with her parents

In a recent article in The New York Times, writer Kim Brooks brings up a serious problem that has arisen in the past decade: On the whole, kids have become sadder and lonelier. To make her point, she cites the increasing rates of depression among young people and quotes psychologist Peter Gray, who suggests a connection between structured school environments and suicidal ideation.

Brooks concludes kids need more time and space to play and interact with others. As it stands, she suggests, the children are confined and set to work on academic drills like prisoners in a labor camp.

In identifying this problem with today’s youth, Brooks is correct. Many teachers and parents have noticed something different with the current generation of kids: They seem more sluggish, introverted, yet constantly tense.

Much of this has to do with the fact that many have screens constantly casting a pale glow on their expressionless faces, but this is the effect of a deeper problem. Kids have come to fear real-life interaction and try to minimize personal contact as much as possible — so they hide behind their phones, distract themselves to relieve the tension, and make memes about how unbearably awkward and depressing everything is.

Parents and educators often welcome this (they are the ones providing those smartphones and iPads, after all) because it sedates normally rowdy children. Prescribing Ritalin and Adderall en masse was a thing for millennials growing up in the ’90s and early ’00s. The iGen now has screens in addition to medication, which often work better at tempering hyperactivity and neutralizing negative emotions but also result in more isolation.

Brooks notes the role of technology in the widespread depression among children but rightly sees this as more a symptom than a cause: “Children turn to screens because opportunities for real-life human interaction have vanished.” Screens do not make kids sad and lonely; sad and lonely kids tend to rely more on screens for consolation. Therefore, taking away the screens will likely not fix the problem but just make it more painful.

Parents Are Foregoing Bonds with Their Kids

Nevertheless, even if the correlation of phones and depression does not equal causation of depression, it does point to the real source of the problem: parents and cultural attitudes. Brooks deduces this as well, tracing the problem to parental attitudes, but she is overly harsh in her diagnosis and misses the mark. The culture has not left parents “entirely on their own when it comes to their offspring’s well-being,” nor does it force parents to “warehouse their youngsters for long stretches of time.”

What modern American parenting culture does instead is turn parenthood into another job among others, instead of a special relationship that is key to a person’s lifelong development. If this is the perception, then parents can, and probably should, outsource the work of parenting to professionals at a daycare or school and not worry too much about relating to their children. Ideally, the kids will make friends, learn skills, and eventually appreciate what their parents have provided.

Not surprisingly, then, many parents never really create a close bond with their children. True, they care enough for them to feed them, keep them safe, and make sure they learn something at school, but they often do not know or love them all that much — or at least their children don’t feel like they do.

If the kid is lucky, he may find a teacher or coach to be a mentor and talk to him. Other kids, though, will lose themselves in video games, television, or social media and indeed “lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Everyone Is Anti-Social, Not Just Children

Besides the cultural pressure on parents to leave their kids to experts, or random strangers posing as experts, it is important to note that adults today also suffer from isolation and depression. Although they may never say it, many will try to remedy the emptiness they feel by having children — though some might be content with “fur babies” instead.

Even though having a child may inspire an adult to become more social and change his or her perspective on life, it may just compound preexisting problems. If a person just wants to go to work during the day and relax and do self-care in the evening, never bothering with a network of friends or a church community, he will not like having children. Such people may like the idea of having children, and tweeting amusing anecdotes about being a parent, but they will find every possible way to keep their kids busy and far away.

Even if this is not the case and the kids stay home, an anti-social parent is bound to have an anti-social child. This is why Brooks’ free-range parenting solution does not solve the problem. Not only do kids (and adults) need time to play and socialize, they also need someone to teach them how to do these things. Schools can cut down on homework and extend recess, but this will mean little if kids just play on their technology and avoid each other with this time.

Parenting Requires Being Present With Your Own Kids

No, the real solution lies back with parents and the culture that informs and influences them. They must recover the truth about parenthood: It is a relationship that requires genuine interaction and modeling, not trendy strategies and professionals. If this truth were accepted, parents would make an effort to keep up with friends and family, play and talk with their kids, and start cultivating a real home. They would not continue their pre-child lifestyle, blow off social obligations, or delegate family life to other people.

Of course, making this effort is not easy. Parents may have to sacrifice money, time, and comfort, and subject themselves to things they may not immediately enjoy, such as playing Minecraft or reading the adventures of Flat Stanley (my toddler’s most recent obsession). With these sacrifices, however, comes a profound joy — the joy of loving others and being loved in return.

As Brooks laments, “Our kids are not O.K.” But this is because our adults are not okay, either. To save the children, adults need to save themselves from the lonely life that the modern world facilitates and encourages. Children could use more free time, but most of all they desperately need a loving home that gives them a reason to be free.