Why Childhood Independence Is Key

An article in the the Journal of Pediatrics is titled, “Decline in Independent Activity as a Cause of Decline in Children’s Mental Wellbeing: Summary of the Evidence.”
The authors are three big names in child development: Anthropologist David Lancy, Psychologist David Bjorklund, and our own Let Grow co-founder Dr. Peter Gray, a professor in the Dept. of Psychology and Neuroscience at Boston College.

The piece summarizes a wide swath of evidence showing that as we replaced more and more of children’s free time and free play with
organized, adult-led activities, we thought we were giving them more opportunities for growth and joy.

But actually we were limiting their opportunities for problem-solving and resilience. (And did you know that happiness COMES from problem-solving?)

Reversing this trend is crucial, because, “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.”

Why is independence – and the trust and responsibility that grow from it — so key 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.

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 school…

Those are the mini-milestones that pave the path to maturity. Take them away, and kids are stuck at square one, feeling helpless. Needy. Less open to the world – its people, ideas, adventures.

Ironically: Treating kids as fragile is making them so.

The child development 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 swapped childhood freedom and responsibility for safety and supervision. We wanted to eliminate risk. We went too far.

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. “– Journal of Pediatrics


As parents, we can start thinking about whether we’re sometimes too helpful, when our kids are ready to do more themselves. Let Grow’s website, resources, and social media is where folks can learn, practice and chat about loosening the reins, with other parents rooting for them.

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