Have fun, IRL: Parents should make a pact to get kids back to real-life play

  • Family
  • Saturday, 25 May 2024

Children must engage with the real world – from playing games to wandering to the ice cream store – and test their social waters. — 123rf

PARENTS may shrug that it's too late to reverse the epidemic of smart phones. But if we all banded together, couldn't we save childhood?

My oldest child just turned 11. Now is the time to be begging my friends – the parents of his closest buddies – to sign a pact: We will resist the temptation to hand them their own smart phones or let them join social media, at least until they're 16, even in the face of indignant cries that Everyone Else Has One.

Many parents fight daily battles over our kids' devices and are losing terribly. When I bought my son an Apple watch, I felt safer knowing he was just a call away when he ventured from home. The first time he and his younger brother biked to the neighborhood park on their own, it reminded me of sending them off to their first day of kindergarten on the big yellow bus. My heart tightened with both pride and worry as they rolled away, but I knew that the independence was good for them.

Now, though, I see that his connectedness comes with a cost. He's learning to navigate the constant pings of texts and Fortnite invitations, as well as the debilitating FOMO when he's been left out of a gathering. All amount to a heavy weight for the two of us to carry.

In my most exhausted moments, I wonder: What would it take to give my kids the kind of free-ranging childhood that I enjoyed in the '80s?

The stakes couldn't be higher. Gen Z (born in 1996 or later) are more anxious and depressed than previous generations. By 2020, young adolescent girls were harming themselves at nearly triple the rate as the decade before, according to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt.In his new book, The Anxious Generation, Haidt attributes the mental health struggles to not only the rise of the smart phone and social media but the loss of a play-based childhood.

I mourn the loss, too.

Kelly Kowalczyk lived around the block and was my neighborhood bestie. She'd call my family's landline or show up on my doorstep, her blond pigtails bouncing. "Can you play?" There was no parent acting as the middleman. We roamed the neighborhood, cruised one-handed on our bikes with the tassels and banana seats, and skinned our knees on the pavement. All because we found our own fun as mere seven-year-olds.

The age in which the typical parent now deems their child old enough to play unsupervised at a public park is 14, Haidt writes. Fourteen! We have shielded our kids from a neighborhood bogeyman, unaware that we have been exposing them to real and proven harms through their devices. The roots of this horror story are coming from inside the house.

Haidt offers four recommendations: No smartphones before high school, no social media before 16, phone-free schools and lots more unsupervised play and independence in the real world.

Afternoon outing

Yearning for my '80s childhood, I recently organised an afternoon outing for my son and his friends at our local park on a day when there was no school.I was clear with my fellow mums that this would not be a chaperoned playdate, as the park was blocks away, and I would remain working in the comfort of my own home. One mum sent a text thanking me for "hosting," and I lol'd her. She corrected herself. "Thank you for agreeing to let feral children periodically run through your house." That was more like it.

Another friend suggested no screens, and a consensus among a half-dozen mums was never more swiftly achieved.

Before I knew it, 10 raucous boys from various neighborhoods had descended on my backyard, some of them bearing metal bats in their backpacks. They took off to the park by scooter, bike and foot, like an armed roving gang.

All seemed fine, and I had my quiet house again. A couple of hours later, though, the first batch of kids pedalled back and breathlessly reported: Something happened at the park.

Two of the friends got into a scuffle. What started with trash talking over their ball-playing escalated into a thrown punch to the face, an intense headlock and wrestling to the ground.

Naturally, I felt responsible. Had I been naive about the potential for a Lord-of-the-Flies situation when rowdy, unattended children congregate? Should I have extended the invitation to maybe a few kids, rather than a dozen? Should I have at least told them to not bring their baseball bats? In hindsight, the obvious answer was yes, yes and yes.

Figure it out

But worst of all, did my '80s childhood experiment prove that kids actually needed constant adult supervision?

To my surprise, my friends, even the mums of the boys involved in the skirmish, said no. Kids need to figure things out without adults. They should take risks, even if that means messing up. They must engage with the real world – from playing games to wandering to the ice cream store – and test their social waters. (And when I think about it, trash talking and fighting were also part and parcel of our idyllic '80s childhoods.)

In this case, the two boys who tangled benefitted from sagacious mums who helped them process their emotions, apologise and repair their friendship.One mum told me she worries that we sometimes idealise our '80s childhood. Yes, let's give our kids the freedom to roam, she said, but we must pair it with 2020s parenting that provides them with the tools to sit with their feelings and grow from their mistakes.

Parents, if you are as exhausted as me with screens and the squabbles that they produce in the home, will you join me? Will you hold off on the smart phones and replace digital time with real-world experiences for our children? It's unlikely one family could go it alone, but if we joined forces, we could set a new cultural norm. As parents, we owe it to our kids to give them a glimmer of the independent childhood we were lucky to have.

So I'll continue to invite kids to join my feral children for some free-range play. It might just take some practice – for both kids and parents – before we get it right. – Star Tribune/ Tribune News Service

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