"Snowplough parents" clear away all obstacles. But letting children play free prepares them better for the future


Fascinating blog from the heart of Washington DC, which makes a pretty hard-nosed case for the most joyful and explorative of human responses to the world: play. 

Ben Wilterdink of the Archridge Institute begins by identifying a big problem in contemporary workplaces:

Researchers exploring how today’s workers are coping with the ambiguity that is now the hallmark of large portions of modern employment, found that“Younger workers show less capacity to cope with ambiguity than older workers.”

Furthermore, the researchers explain that, “Generations Y [Millennials] and Z express just as much desire for novel, challenging work as older workers. But they lack the skills and confidence required to manage uncertainty when it occurs, and are more likely to become anxious.”

Employers are struggling to adapt to that more anxious young workforce. The Society for Human Resources Management explains how this trend has turned many HR professionals into de facto counselors. 

Some are recommending that companies begin looking for ways to hire professional therapists to deal with the influx depressed or anxious young workers. Companies like DuPont and the Price Waterhouse Cooper’s United Kingdom office have even implemented changes aimed at boosting the mental health of their employees.

While the causes of these worrying trends can be difficult to pin down, many researchers point to the effect of social media in reshaping the way kids interact with one another. 

Some experts, like authors of The Coddling of the American Mind Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, have suggested that the rise in overprotective or “helicopter” parenting has played a significant role and has left a generation without the opportunity to build the skills they need to become resilient authors of their own lives. 

Whether it results from a misplaced hyper-emphasis on child safety or the desire to make sure kids have their schedules filled with all the right activities to ensure their entrance into a top university someday, kids have far fewer opportunities to engage in unsupervised or unstructured play time. 

The rise of so-called “snowplough parents,” parents who constantly clear obstacles for their children to spare them from frustration, disappointment, or even challenges, are depriving them of the opportunity to build important skills necessary to succeed later in life.

Ensuring that kids have the opportunity to develop the skills necessary to handle uncertainty starts early. Allowing kids enough independence to tackle new challenges, confront increasingly difficult obstacles, and even allowing them to fail and learn from those failures are crucial components in shaping kids into resilient teenagers and adults.

Perhaps even more important is the essential role of unsupervised play, an increasingly rare phenomenon, in childhood development. Research Professor of Psychology at Boston College and Senior Fellow at LetGrow, Peter Gray puts it this way:

When children play independently of adults they learn how to make their own decisions, solve their own problems, create and enforce rules, negotiate differences, and maintain the peace and order necessary for the play to proceed. 

These are extraordinarily important skills, which cannot be taught but can only be learned through experience, and the best experience for learning these skills comes from play with other children, away from adults.

In addition to likely helping kids stay mentally healthy as they get older, the same skills they learn from unsupervised free play are also increasingly valued in the modern labor market. 

Psychologist Angela Duckworth famously documented the importance of “grit” in a child’s future academic and career success in her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. For years, researchers such as Nobel Laureate and University of Chicago Economist James Heckman, have emphasized the role of “soft skills” in academic, career, and life success. 

Broadly categorized as a broad set of skills, competencies, behaviors, attitudes, and personal qualities, soft skills enable people to effectively navigate their environment, work well with others, perform well, and achieve their goals. 

Soft skills also include characteristics like motivation and socio-emotional regulation, the exact kinds of skills that kids learn when engaging in unsupervised free play.

From an entirely different angle, the same life-strengthening qualities of early-years independence in play are praised by the radical ecologist, the late David Fleming. 

Something of a prophet about the mental and cultural adjustments we may need to make in the face of climate meltdown, Fleming saw the play experience as one of the survival mechanisms we should profoundly value, when our business-as-usual ceases to occupy us. 

Carnival, one of the oldest collective forms of play, was (in Fleming’s view) how a healthy community intrinsically renewed itself – creating a “radical break” so we could think about who we want to be; allowing us a “second nature” so we can safely explore our deeper emotions, by mimicking and mocking them. 

But we have to draw on deep wells of play to be this joyously together. And in his massive and brilliant dictionary, Lean Logic, Fleming laments where we are with play:

Play is fragile and is not in good shape at present. It does exist to a weakened extent in professional sport, but even there the aim of winning is increasingly taken as the literal purpose of the event, rather than the enabling myth.

Play relies on such critical cultural assets as trust, social capital and the humour which blunts insult, and it is in trouble when these are in decline. Insult and rough-and-tumble are now largely forbidden; carnival is subdued; if an invitation to play is rejected or misconstrued, if a joke goes wrong, there is shame or worse.

The market economy suffers from play deprivation. But in the future we won’t be able to get by without it.

More here.