Why Are Our Kids Depressed?
Things are pretty good right now, and they have been getting better for a long time. People live longer than ever before. We are safer than ever before. We have more opportunities than ever before.
But our kids are more depressed than ever before.
Researchers and child psychologists are all trying to answer this question. An article I read on the subject in Psychology Today inspired me to write this blog post. You can read it here.
Many experts share the opinion that the increase in depression and anxiety in kids is related to a decrease in free play.
By tracking student surveys across decades, researchers have discovered that what is happening in the external world does not impact the rates of depression and anxiety. Depression rates were lower during World War II than they are today. Instead, depression and anxiety are both related to how people see the world around them. Specifically, how much control they feel they have over their environment. Feeling out of control is correlated to higher rates of depression and anxiety.
If this is true, then kids today must feel more out of control than kids did in the past. We have to ask why kids today feel like they have so little control over their environments.
I will use my own son as an example. Let’s see if you can spot why he feels out of control. We wake him up at 7:00 in the morning, so he can get dressed and eat breakfast before school. We let him sleep as late as possible, but that means we are usually hustling out the door to make it to school on time. Once he gets to school, he starts working on assignments from his teacher until the bell rings and school begins. My son has dyslexia, so every morning another teacher picks him up from his classroom for specialized instruction. During his dyslexia class, he sits at a table with several other kids with dyslexia and practices reading different words or letter combinations for a half an hour. They must all work at the same pace. He cannot move on until everyone is ready. When he returns to class, he joins the activity that has started without him. At 10:15, he goes to his one recess of the day which is closely monitored by the first-grade teachers. After recess, he eats lunch in the cafeteria. Again, lunch is closely monitored by first-grade teachers. In the afternoon, he has some classroom time and a specials class. Depending on the day, he will go to P.E. with the entire first grade, music, or computer class.
When school ends, he gets about an hour to relax before we have to get in the car to get to activities. He does taekwondo and baseball. He has one sister who plays tennis, one sister who plays volleyball, and one sister who plays soccer. Monday through Thursday we spend about four hours every afternoon on these activities. More often than I like to admit, we eat dinner in the car. By the time we get home, it is time for a quick shower and bedtime. I am proud of the fact that I read to him and his little sister every night, so the last thing they remember each night is snuggles and a story.
Did you spot the problem? Does this kid have any control over his life? Now, I like to think of myself as a pretty relaxed mom. I have always let my kids pick their own clothes. They can eat whatever they want that isn’t sugar. Whenever we are home for dinner, I make dinner, but they are welcome to make something else if they choose. They all chose their own activities. There is plenty of choice in our home, but I am realizing there isn’t a lot of freedom.
Our household is like so many others across the country. We spend most of our time delivering our kids to structured activities where adults tell our kids exactly what to do. When our kids perform as required, they are rewarded with grades, trophies, or praise. We are training our kids to be motivated by extrinsic rewards.
Our kids don’t have time for unstructured play, and unstructured play is where kids learn to be motivated by intrinsic rewards. When kids are playing, they are learning to solve their own problems, control their own lives, and develop their own interests. Through repeated play and practice, they improve their skills and learn that they can learn anything they choose. When children play, they feel in control of their environment.
I have always believed that when you know better, you should do better. I now know that the way we are living our lives is dangerous for my children. How can I do better? The rebellious part of me wants to pull my son out of school and start a play based school alternative for him and any other families that are open to it. Am I brave enough to do it?
At the very least, I know we need to cut back on scheduled activities, but what do we lose?
Share your thoughts on the connection between unstructured play and mental health. I would especially appreciate your ideas on how I can help my family.