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KQED: “Today’s 18-year-olds are like the 12-year-olds from a decade ago.”

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Read Time: 4 minutes

Wonder why kids — yours, ours, everyone’s — often seem easily flummoxed, discouraged, and young for their age? Or passive? Or just plain anxious?

This blockbuster report by Holly Korbey on the KQED website is a grand tour of modern childhood and what needs to be fixed. The title says it all:

Young adults are struggling with their mental health. Is more childhood independence the answer?

Korbey’s answer is a qualified yes. She cites a “growing body of evidence” that suggests young people’s problems in “adulting” and mental health “may be rooted, at least in part, in modern childhood.” Specifically, she zeroes in on the way our culture demands today’s children do very little on their own, ostensibly for “safety’s sake.” Kids arrive with little experience handling life’s ups and downs.

This accidental crippling of our kids is showing up on campus as fear and depression. To look at whether, in fact, giving kids’ too little independence too late is the real culprit, Korbey interviews Georgetown Psychology Prof. Yulia Chentsova Dutton. The professor and her team devised a clever study:

[They] interviewed students from Turkey, Russia, Canada and the United States, asking them to describe a risky or dangerous experience they had in the last month. Both Turkish and Russian students described witnessing events that involved actual risk: violent fights on public transportation; hazardous driving conditions caused by drunk drivers; women being aggressively followed on the street. 

But American students were far more likely to cite as dangerous things that most adults do every day, like being alone outside or riding alone in an Uber.

The American students’ risk threshold was comparatively “quite low,” according to Chentsova Dutton. Students who reported they gained independence later in childhood — going to the grocery store or riding public transportation alone, for example — viewed their university campus as more dangerous; those same students also had fewer positive emotions when describing risky situations. 

When everyday life feels scary.

How tragic! Keeping kids too coddled, too long, seems to have the unfortunate result of messing with their actual sense of the world. Understandably, if you grow up being told everything is too dangerous or distressing for you to handle — even everyday stuff, like being on your own a bit — this actually becomes your world view. You haven’t had the experiences to counter it!

The article goes on to quote two of Let Grow’s founders — Jonathan Haidt and Lenore Skenazy — and a professor of psychology, Camilo Ortiz. His research involves treating kids diagnosed with anxiety. But instead of giving them traditional talk therapy, or medications, or even Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, he is treating them with “massive” doses of independence.

The theory is that kids who have been deprived of trust and unsupervised time are similar to people deprived of any other life-sustaining element, like food, or water, or sunshine. They’re so depleted, they can’t function well. So the trick is to make up for that loss by giving them lots of what they lack. In this case: Independence! So far, Ortiz reports, the results are promising.

A high school student takes a wrong turn.

Finally, Korbey talks to a high school student whose whole class did The Let Grow Project. That is Let Grow’s signature — free! — program for schools: A simple homework assignment whereby kids are told to go home and do something new, on their own, without their parents. Ohio teacher Martin Bach told Korbey why he assigned The Project:

I was seeing that student stress and anxiety levels were already bad, then COVID supercharged it,” Bach said. But a pattern of parents “swooping in to solve problems that kids could easily solve on their own” made Bach decide to create the unit on resilience and independence. “In my head I’m thinking, these kids are going off to college, how are they going to cope?”

As we’ve seen before in elementary and middle schools, The Project had a profound impact not just on Bach’s high school seniors, but on their parents. One girl drove her siblings further than she’d ever gone on her own before, and even took a wrong turn. Instead of that being a disaster, she found the “wrong” street absolutely beautiful and intends to take it again.

Which, in the end, is what Let Grow and the article are all about. Our culture has become worried that one wrong turn, or wasted afternoon, or bad play date could hurt our kids so deeply that we don’t allow them to take any steps not mapped out and overseen by us caring, cautious adults.

But when we do find a way to let them go — and grow — the world opens up to them.

And vice versa.

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