Unhappy teenagers, No. 2

Last Saturday I discussed the the unhappiness of teenagers.  I would now like to pursue the subject Why has their unhappiness reached such huge proportions? Many reasons have been put forward: a rise in the divorce rate,  a shift away from intrinsic to extrinsic goals, which can lead to a sense of not being able to control things, and higher expectations from parents who expect their kids to get to university. ; and technology, which is addictive, and which  is also accused of addling the brain.

But another interesting reason has been put forward. Children aren’t learning critical life-coping skills because they never get to play anymore. One researcher says that anxiety and depression is caused by the decline in opportunities for free play and the increased time and weight given to skills like reading.
If play seems trivial, it’s not. Play is brain-building for babies and young children. There is a sequence of how children develop, from the moral and emotional to the social and intellectual, says Dr. Ellen Littman, a clinical psychologist. Each phase requires building certain muscles, whether to do maths or make a friend.

“There is a developmental sequence and you can’t violate it all that much,” Littman days. For example, circle time in preschool is not about learning the alphabet or mastering Old MacDonald as much as it is learning to be part of a group, mastering the art of taking turns, and starting to listen.But preschool is increasingly about preparing kids for kindergarten, which used to be about play, but now operates more like first grade. Kids are expected to sit for longer and focus on more academic tasks, relegating play to recess. In 1998, 30% of teachers believed that children should learn to read while in kindergarten. In 2010, that figure was at 80%.

Children can do mathematics in first grade, but they are not developing the normal skills that come from interacting with play, including how to manage their emotions. Playing—unstructured time, with rules set by the kids (no adults acting as referee)—is how kids learn independence, problem-solving, social cues, and bravery. Adults fail to let kids have any independence for fear they will be abducted or hit by a car. Children learn to control their own lives when adults aren’t around to do it for them.

Too many parents micro-manage their kids’ every mini-success (while extolling the virtues of failure ) , helping them with homework, science projects, setting rules, then wondering why they can’t set their own.  They expect their children to try their hardest—at everything: school, music, soccer, piano, judo, street dance. They say it’s not all about winning, but celebrate winning in spades. They encourage kids to find a passion and make sure they are not sitting at home on their phones, or—god forbid, feeling bored.

Some answers

– Free play is not optional. It’s essential to healthy development.- Pull back on organized, adult-led activities, and allow kids to organise their own play, where they set the rules and parents play a less dominant role. But actually plan the free time to make sure it happens
– Try to get schools to open in the afternoons with monitors, but no organized activities.
– Advocate for a shorter school year and lots of downtime for dreaming.
– ban homework for young kids. Homework does more harm than good. Encourage kids to read actual books, and ban on computers during certain hours.
– children can’t be good at every subject. Let them fail a bit.

  • Owen Bell

    I completely agree with everything you say. Children nowadays are put under far too much pressure to succeed. The Finns have it best- they let their children play and explore a lot, and their education system is consistently rated the best in Europe.

    Regarding young children, I have very mixed feelings about the regular use of technology. Of course, the internet is a great resource, and I’ve got no doubt that certain games and activities online can improve your intelligence. The trouble is, young children are more prone to finding the internet addictive, or at least too compelling to pursue healthy pastimes in the real world. So I would suggest strict limits on technology use until around 16 years old.

    But it would be a mistake to blame the education system for the plight of today’s youth. Teachers, who while might have some wrong ideas about what is best for children, are not contributing to their declining mental health. Rather, the increased pressure from wider society has resulted in soaring levels of anxiety and depression, even amongst successful students at the best universities. Degrees are becoming more expensive but less valuable, due to more people having one. Grade inflation has resulted in young people ruthlessly seeking often poorly paid work experience in order to distinguish themselves. The housing market and the welfare system heavily favours the old. Most significantly, the ever prevalent levels of loneliness and isolation from close knit communities has left many young people, who are naturally sociable, feeling like their life lacks purpose and meaning. Even relationships are deteriorating, with young people marrying and even having sex later compared with their parents’ generation.

    So I certainly support all of your education reforms. But fixing the schools is only part of the solution. There has to be a fundamental cultural shift towards a more sociable and inclusive society if the young are to feel positive about their lives and their futures.

  • This is so sad! What a lousy situation we have created. The idea of opening up higher education to everyone seemed democratic and so potentially good for the nation. Unfortunately, the downside was cost, and I suppose it was inevitable that some politician would made everyone pay for it, a fact that has skewed the whole process from learning for the sake of real education to bits of paper that are supposed to get you jobs. Now no one knows the real value of any of it, and disillusion is rife. Nobody in power foresaw this.