The Promise of an Unprogrammed Childhood


In her New York Times piece on August 15 of last year, author Kim Brooks (Small Animals: Parenthood in an Age of Fear) makes the case that American parents are ruining childhood by a ‘fundamental shift to privatizing parenthood and institutionalizing childhood.” 

She ties the increase in childhood depression and anxiety to a lack of unstructured and safe ways to practice growing up and suggests kids are more socially anxious because they haven’t learned how to make a new friend, defeat a bully, or negotiate the rules of a game. Brooks addresses many of today’s components of childhood — screen time, heavily scheduled and structured lives full of sports, arts, lessons, camps, daily homework and cites organizations working for school-based changes that strengthen mental health – more recess, fewer tests, for example. It’s an interesting read at   

What struck me after reading the article, however, was a question. How could we change childhood to make our kids healthier? When two parents working outside the home is a necessity for most families, how can parents create more real-time human interactions and safe public spaces for childhood play?

Many of us of a certain age played outside all day long during the summer, ran inside to gulp down a family dinner, and then met up again for baseball, bike races, jump rope or just to hang out until the sun set and porch lights came on. Or for farm kids, staying outside until the cows “came home” to the barn.

Those days have come and gone for most Americans. We can’t go back, but we can forge forward with community conversations about putting our kids first and a little help from employers to make that happen.  

In rural areas and small towns, 40 percent of us know our neighbors. That shrinks to 24 percent in urban areas. Research shows that stronger communities are those that know each other. Maybe a little more free time would allow us to do that.

Suppose your employer offered flexible scheduling, both in terms of work place and work hours. Many do, more could. Many of today’s jobs include work environments that are online and off site.

If you have that flexibility, instead of scheduling your child for soccer, lacrosse, art class and choir – how about two days a week of pick-up games at the park or rec center or hosting the neighbor’s kids in your back yard or basement? Your kids would learn important social skills from this unstructured time with other children.

If only you had the time.

Employers that provide sick leave allow it to be used for a doctor’s appointment for self or family, but seldom is sick leave used to prevent illness. Suppose all employers reframe sick leave as wellness leave. 

Suppose you could use your wellness leave to be at home and supervise your children as they play in the neighborhood, park, or community center?  Maybe you could do this one day a week and others in your family or your community could do a day a week. This type of community effort could pay off in healthier children. 

I hoped to create a group of parents who would provide after school ‘care’ for our kids when they reached fifth grade  Rather than bore them by another year of the same aftercare routine at their school, I wanted us to trade off homes so the kids could hang out. I thought we could build a communal thing, similar to, but also different from what we had growing up. None of the other parents had this employment flexibility and my idea died. Perhaps it wasn’t the right time for us, but it could be for you and your children. 

It is unfortunate that many workforce jobs require employees to be in one place, being productive for eight or more hours. Perhaps automation – the kind of automation that shifts human labor to higher paying work requiring critical thinking – could free up hours that can be spent with children.

Research from organizations like California-based Challenge Success show that kids need recess, longer lunches, free play, less homework and fewer tests to be healthy. I hope our state educators are reading this research. But until the education system can find ways to change the teach-to-the-test culture, as parents and grandparents, many of us can help our children reclaim childhood. If you have time, give the time to a child. We will all benefit.

Kate M. Carey lives and writes in Lexington, NC while counting the days until she can retire to the beach.

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