In 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, along with the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association issued a “joint statement to the Biden administration that child and adolescent mental health be declared a ‘national emergency.'” Children and teens suffer from rates of depression and anxiety that have increased over the last five decades. Although several factors have been identified as contributing to the decline in children’s mental health, a study review published in February, 2023, suggests that a steady decline in children’s opportunity to engage in self-directed play, exploration, and activities meaningful to the functioning of family and community, independent of adult control and oversight, are major contributors.
At one time, small groups of children walked or biked to school with little to no adult supervision. They engaged in meaningful part-time jobs by the time they reached their preteen years, jobs such as babysitting, managing a paper route, or lawn care. Children spent large chunks of time away from adults riding their bikes, exploring the community or nearby woods, and “hanging out” with friends. The message inherent from adults to children engaged in these activities is that children are competent, responsible, resourceful, and resilient. Unfortunately, the inherent message to children today is that children need supervision and protection because the world is not safe…messages that arouse anxieties and fears. But is it really true that the world is less safe today? According to statistics, our children are safer today than they were in the 1980’s. Crime rate peaked in 1991 and has been declining ever since. The murder rate today is about half of what it was in the 1990’s. Child abductions are rare. Most missing children end up being runaways, not abducted. (For more on child safety today, see Myth-Busting: Let Grow Looks at Common Child Safety Myths and Facts.) Yet, we continue to give our children the message that the world is not safe, “you need” our supervision and protection. As a result, our children have less opportunities to engage in age-appropriate risky behaviors, behaviors that provide them the opportunity to test and learn the limits of their physical abilities as well as how to trust in their own competence and resourcefulness, skills that boost their self-confidence and protect them from developing phobias and anxieties.
With all this in mind, let your children play. Let them engage in age appropriate, independent play and exploration. Let them enjoy a pick-up game with their friends. Allow them to go on a bike ride without you. Sure, teach them the skills they need to be safe, but let them go it alone at an age-appropriate level. It will provide them with opportunities to experience more happiness and feel like they make a meaningful contribution to their family and community. It will also help them grow a “head taller than themselves.”