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Over the Decades, As Kids’ Independence Declined, Their Anxiety Increased

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Read Time: 4 minutes

This article in the Journal of PediatricsDecline in Independent Activity as a Cause of Decline in Children’s Mental Wellbeing: Summary of the Evidence — has been getting a tsunami of attention in the last few days, so we are updating our previous blog post about it.

If the article’s title sounds like what we’ve been saying here forever — well, you’re right. It sure does! The authors are three prominent researchers in child development: David Lancy from the Dept. of Anthropology at Utah State, David Bjorklund at the Dept. of Psychology, Fla. State, and our own Peter Gray, a professor in the Dept. of Psychology and Neuroscience at Boston College — and a co-founder & board member of Let Grow.

Kids’ mental health is on the line.

Their piece summarizes a wide swath of evidence showing that a major (but not sole) cause of the increase in anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts among young people over recent decades has been the continuous decline in opportunities for them to play and roam independent of adults.

Reversing this trend — stat! — is key, as “children who have more opportunities for independent activities are not only happier in the short run, because the activities engender happiness and a sense of competence, but also happier in the long run, because independent activities promote the growth of capacities for coping with life’s inevitable stressors.”

Emily Oster, author of several popular books on data-driven parenting including “Expecting Better,” examined the paper and wrote in her substack that indeed, it is indisputable that kids are less free, and less trusted to be competent, responsible, resourceful young adults than they were in the ’80s:

Why “The Babysitters Club” matters.

You can see this even in something like The Baby-Sitters Club. The seventh graders in these books — published from 1986 to 2000 — are babysitting for young infants, including at night, making dinner, cleaning the house, and so on. The feel of the world is somewhat different than what many of us experience with our children now. 

Emily Oster

Meantime, Let Grow has met 7th graders not yet allowed to play at the park, walk to school, or cut their own meat.

Why are trust, responsibility, and independence so crucial to kids’ mental health?

Because that’s how you get a sense of what you can handle, and of who you are in the world: A competent, growing person — not a baby or a bonsai tree.

Kids need independence milestones.

Think about a time you were trusted by your parents or another adult to do something without them — come home by dinner, run an errand, walk your sister to soccer…

That’s a milestone we don’t SEE as a milestone, because it seems so…minor. But those are the milestones that mark the path to maturity. Take them away, and kids are stuck in baby mode, feeling helpless and needy.

And depressed and anxious.

The Journal of Pediatrics article talks about how important it is to have an “internal locus of control” — a sense that you can make things happen, and deal with problems that arise. An “external locus of control” — as I think you can guess — is the feeling that someone or something else is in the driver’s seat. (And you’re in a 5-point harness.)

Our culture accidentally swapped out childhood freedom and responsibility for adult-run activities. We thought we were eliminating risk, and making them happy.

We went too far.

What to do now.

The article concludes that “concern for children’s safety and the value of adult guidance
needs to be tempered by recognition that children need ever-increasing opportunity
to manage their own activities


Well, individual parents can re-assess whether perhaps they are being almost “too helpful” when their kids are ready to do more themselves. Pediatricians can explain to parents that a risk-free life carries huge risks of its own. Schools can create more independent kids by assigning The Let Grow Experience (kids get the homework, “Go home and do something new, on your own”) and starting Let Grow Play Clubs, so kids get free, unstructured, no-phone play time back in their lives.

And anyone so inclined can help us get more “Reasonable Childhood Independence” laws passed. These say giving your kids some unsupervised time isn’t neglect unless you put them in obvious danger. Eight states down — plenty more to go!

The message through all of this — including, now, a peer-reviewed journal article — is simple: When adults step back, kids step up.


  1. MMark says:

    Isn’t independence what at heart we’re aspiring to? Insofar so, then isn’t it an oxymoron to dictate when, how, we allow this with kids? Let Go! Elsewhere, Peter Gray incisively asked aren’t we promoting online socializing when we deprive kids the freedom to play together OFFline. Bingo! As with landlines when I was a kid and these unfairly demonized? Wish we regularly saw such insight, perspective from him. Rather than leaping to demonize smartphone use, thwart ultimate independence. I recall laughing when I saw e.g. NY Magazine devote an issue some 20 years ago (?) to OFFline dating.

  2. MMark says:

    Tamara, I gather we have no data on this rule: how prevalent, what impact? From my perspective, experience, businesses typically aren’t acting on their own fears. Rather, they are concerned w/ minimizing insurance fees. Govt could do this, if we want. As with most areas where we don’t like the market outcome.

  3. MMark says:

    To me, the link between less independence, less activity sounds well-established. This leaves the chicken/egg Qs what causes what. I’d expect children less independent hence to be less active. AND the reverse: a vicious loop if you will. When I had less control when, how to be active, this sapped benefits we hope for with more activity. I bristled. Felt deprived of independence I warranted. I recognized parenting my younger bro’ and me was plenty challenging. I usually did NOT see how such deprivations of independence helped. I experienced an undue lack of confidence in my responsibility. Or parental powers run amok. I remember trusting my mother, warning her I might not ace organic chemistry, as I had all other science courses. She responded in anger, saying I’d better study harder. I felt I was already studying as hard as I could. Nothing I could productively change. I could tell she wasn’t positioned to know otherwise. I didn’t self-destructively retaliate. Things played out as they would.

  4. TTamara Wineland says:

    Another impact on independence is litigations that arise out of unsupervised children getting hurt and parents overreacting. Kids can’t even swim at a pool with lifeguards without an adult present because of drownings. Isn’t that what lifeguards are for? Businesses are terrified of lawsuits. Added regulations around employment ages makes it even harder. So many contributing factors. What we need is LESS government.

  5. JJenn Martinez says:

    It’s like the world overtime has gotten crazier, and the phones help trap the kids inside and pour fear into others with terrible news. Understandable. I was raised in a stricter household, lived in an area that had a jumpy vibe, but I still wish I had that freedom. Watching Dora the Explorer sure taunted me lol. For a while I couldn’t even go around the corner to get a slushie without my older brother tagging along.

    You said “as long as we were home before dark.” Man, I wish I had a curfew! I wish my parents trusted me to do my thing, but the problem was that they didn’t trust everyone else. Whenever I did go out I was right under their radar, it was uncomfortable. Then when I came home totally unharmed and happy they gave me puzzled looks in return, as if they’re not used to letting me go.

    Own it being the first to comment. I just found out about this group today and I’m hooked by these stories. Finally, something needs to be said and shared, and it feels welcoming to do so.

  6. CCary says:

    Why am I always the first to comment? My younger brother and I had babysitters who were as young as twelve. These mature, responsible girls sat quietly and read (books, not screens) until our parents got home and paid them their fifty cents an hour. Neither the babysitters nor our parents kept us under constant close surveillance. My brother and I walked to kindergarten and back alone when we were five. By the age of seven, we could walk alone downtown to the library or various stores, to the park, to the swimming pool, or to our grandmother’s house. We played outside, all over the neighborhood, all day with other kids and no grownups around, as long as we were home before dark. We rode our bikes in the street, not on the sidewalk. Now I’m a cranky old dude, long beyond kid-rearing days, but if I had children today I’d give ’em the same freedom I had, which I suppose would last about fifteen minutes before I got arrested. Sad time to be a kid, but I suppose they’ll never know what they’re missing.