For kids, failure is a critical ingredient in success

TheGiftOfFailureFailure is a critical ingredient in success, especially for kids. If that statement seems counter-intuitive or even contradictory, it’s time for you to check out Jessica Lahey’s wonderful book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.

The Gift of Failure focuses on the benefits of letting kids make mistakes. Lahey starts with a brief overview of “how failure became a dirty word” in parenting, and why making your kids dependent on you is a really bad idea. Then she dives in to the nitty-gritty, how-to of raising successful kids. Each chapter emphasizes how failure promotes success in every area of a kid’s life, from household duties (she recommends ditching the word “chores”) to sports, homework, and friendships.

Parenting for Autonomy and Competence

Like the experienced school teacher she is, Lahey breaks her lessons down into easy-to-understand ideas, and includes concrete examples, and detailed advice for parents of kids from pre-school through high school. (If only she had been one of my teachers in middle school!) For me, the most eye-opening chapter–the one I kept reading aloud to my husband until he escaped to another room to finish reading his own book–was Chapter 3, “Less Really Is More: Parenting for Autonomy and Competence.”

Lahey assumes that if you’re an American parent in the 21st century, you probably need a bit of help stepping back and giving your kids more autonomy. (If so, you’re in good company). She starts by laying out some of the behaviors that define controlling versus autonomy-supporting parents. You may be surprised to find where some of your standard procedures fall. (Even this “free-range” mom recognized herself in some of the controlling practices). Thankfully, Lahey spends the rest of the chapter giving general suggestions for shifting to autonomy-supporting behaviors. The second half of the book dives deeper into specific areas, with advice on how to support kids’ autonomy and learning in school, friendships, etc.

Whose Life is it Anyway?

While the book talks about all the good reasons that parents should let their kids fail, there’s another lesson lurking within Lahey’s book: for kids to succeed, parents must stop linking their child’s success in school, sports, etc. to their own (the adult’s) need to feel like successful parents. Lahey is sympathetic to parents who are guilty of this, and confesses that she had to come to grips with this tendency herself:

I had to stop equating the act of doing things for my children…with good parenting. It still feels good to do things for them, and I still do–all the time. But the things I do for them are different now, and my motivations are based on an evaluation of their needs, not mine. Before I was doing things they could do for themselves to feel good about my parenting.

Boom. Before hovering over the homework or insisting on another hour of clarinet practice, parents need to stop and ask themselves who really benefits when they do all the work. Are you hovering because that’s what’s best for your darling, or because it makes you feel like a winner as a parent?

It’s an important distinction–as Lahey makes clear in her book, the kids whose lives are micromanaged lose out in the end. Their intrinsic motivation dies, as does the pleasure that comes from owning their achievements. And of course when everything is done for a child, he never develops competency in basic life skills. Whether it’s sorting the laundry, resolving conflicts with “mean” kids, or writing a college essay, at some point your kids are going to have to do for themselves. When, if not during childhood, the time when they’re supposed to be learning life’s most important lessons?

What do you think: should kids be “allowed” to fail? What about when grades, championships, and college acceptances are on the line? Were you allowed to fail as a kids? If so, or not, how has your parents’ attitude affected your success and confidence as an adult? Let us know, in the comments below!  


Want to joint the conversation about kids, parents, and society? Follow this blog (click the button on the right) and check out my Facebook page.

Danielle Meitiv is a scientist, writer, and mother of kids who roam. She loves to talk about kids, parenting, and society on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a passionate and experienced public speaker, and is represented by Louise Fury of the Bent Agency.

Kids need outdoor play

Dvora & Rafi Meitiv up a tree
A kid’s natural habitat

My previous blog post talked about the many reasons that free play is critical for healthy child development. But time free play is disappearing for most kids, especially free play outdoors.

A 2012 study of over 4 million children found that on most days, more than 40% of preschoolers didn’t even have one opportunity to play outdoors. Not a single chance to touch the grass, breathe fresh air, or bask in the sun. That’s a dramatic change from just one generation ago: in a national survey, 830 mothers were asked to compare their own childhood play with their children’s—eighty-five percent agreed that their children played outdoors less than they had at the same age. 70% of mothers said they had played outdoors daily, and 56% said they did so for 3 hours or more. Regarding their kids’ play, the percentages were 31% daily, and 22% for three hours or more.

Kids today are under house arrest

Many parents claim that “screens” lure children indoors and away from outdoor physical activities. It is true that kids are spending a lot of their time using technology: a 2012 UCLA study found that 90% of children’s leisure time is spent indoors with television, video games, and computers. However, studies in the UK found that 40% of kids would rather play outside, but their parents wouldn’t let them, citing concerns about traffic and ‘stranger danger.’ In the survey of 830 American mothers, most admitted that they restricted their children’s outdoor play, with 82% citing “safety” including fear of crime as the primary reason, in spite of the fact that all categories of violent crime are at their lowest point in forty years.

When kids are allowed outside, it’s usually to participate in a scheduled or organized activity. A survey by the U.S. National Centers for Disease Control for that in a typical week 27% of kids ages 9 to 13 play organized baseball, but only 6% played on their own. Many parents believe that participation in team sports is beneficial for kids and there is evidence to support that view. But this participation should not come at the expense of free play and when the benefits are compared, free play comes out ahead. A study published in the Creativity Research Journal found that hours spent participating in organized sports were negatively related to creativity as an adult, while time spent in unstructured sports settings were positively correlated with adult creativity.

Some parents justify channeling their children into sports rather than free play on the grounds that the children might get hurt if allowed to play without structure or guidance. The opposite is true. A study of more than 1,200 children, from 8 to 18 years old, who visited 2 Chicago hospitals, found that children were more likely to be injured if they spent twice as much time per week in organized sports as they did in free play. Why? “Unlike team sports, individual play in nature allows the child to tailor exercise to his or her own interests and abilities, often in conjunction with creative efforts,” says the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP).

Kids need outdoor play

According to the AAP, playing outdoors, in nature, “allows for the full blossoming of creativity, curiosity, and the associated developmental advances,” that kids need. “Play in nature provides children with opportunities for self-directed physical activity that can help promote physical health and reduce obesity.” Angela Hascom, pediatric occupational therapist and founder of Timbernook, says that as the amount of time kids spend outdoors decreases, sensory deficits are increasing and she’s seeing more kids with underdeveloped vestibular (balance) systems. “A child’s neurological system is naturally designed to seek out the sensory input it needs in order to develop into a strong and capable individual.”

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, speculates that the rise in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) among school children may stem in part from ‘nature deficit disorder’–the growing alienation of humans, especially children, from the natural world. While Louv stressed that the term as not meant to be scientific or diagnostic, evidence shows that time spent in nature can increase creativity, speed healing, and reduce anxiety and depression – in kids as well as adults.


What can parents do?

Let kids go outside! Let them explore the yard or a local park. Crime is lower today than it has been in forty years so there’s no reason to keep the kids in. Some of them may resist—if they’re used to being entertained, it may take them a little while to get into the groove of playing by themselves. But I guarantee, given the chance, most kids will take to free outdoor play like, well, kids – because it’s what they’re built to do.

What are your memories of playing outside as a child? Were you allowed (or expected) to entertain yourself or did you spend time in organzied activities? What do you think about the state of children’s play today? Let us know in the comments below! 

Want to joint the conversation about kids, parents, and society? Follow this blog (click the button on the right) and check out my Facebook page.
Danielle Meitiv is a scientist, writer, and mother of kids who roam.  She loves to talk about kids, parents, and society on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a passionate and opinionated public speaker and is represented by Louise Fury of The Bent Agency.



Playtime’s Over!

Just let the poor kid play!

Playtime’s over, kids! Bossy adults have all but killed it, replacing traditional free play with organized sports, extracurricular activities, and myriad ‘teachable moments’ designed to build a better child.

Over the past fifty years, the time kids spend in free play has declined dramatically, with the greatest losses occurring in the past few decades. From 1981 to 1997, playtime decreased more than 7 hours a week. Kids lost another 2 hours between 1997 to 2003. Overall, these losses added up to more than 12 hours a week over the past 25 years. Much of that time was stolen by what adults see as more ‘productive’ pursuits, such as schoolwork and team sports. But a growing body of research–piles and piles of it!– shows that kids learn best when left to what they do best: play.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP): “play…is essential to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth.” Play is so important to optimal child development that the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights recognizes it as a right of every child. Classical educator Christopher Perrin notes that the ancient Greeks saw play as so fundamental to children that the word pazein (to play) is related to the word for child, pais. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates recognizes the wisdom of letting children learn through play: “Don’t use force in training children in the studies but rather play. In that way you can better discern what each child is natural directed towards.”

What is play?

Not all children’s activities qualify as play. Most serious scholars of play (and there are many, odd as that may seem) don’t even group organized activities like sports in the same category. Anthropologist David Lancy, author of the highly-acclaimed (and very readable) text, The Anthropology of Childhood, views the idea that “adults might intervene to structure or control children’s play” as a “contradiction in terms” because for those who study play in culture around the world, the very definition includes attributes like “voluntary”, “purposeless”, “child-centered” “autonomous” and “autotelic” (= an end in itself). That is, “play” structured by adults isn’t play at all and fails to provide the myriad essential benefits that children and other mammals can only get from free play. According to Boston College psychology professor, Peter Gray, “free play refers to activity that is freely chosen and directed by the participants and undertaken for its own sake, not consciously pursued to achieve ends that are distinct from the activity itself. Thus, adult-directed sports and games for children do not fall into the category of free play.”

The benefits of free play

Decades of research compiled by the AAP strongly suggests that undirected, unstructured play, or free play “allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills.” When play is child-driven, children have the opportunity to “practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue.” By contrast, “when play is controlled by adults, children acquiesce to adult rules and concerns and lose some of the benefits play offers them, particularly in developing creativity, leadership, and group skills.” A robust study led by Dr. Jane E. Barker of the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of Colorado Boulder found that “[t]he more time that children spent in less-structured activities, the better their self-directed executive functioning. The opposite was true of structured activities, which predicted poorer self-directed executive functioning.” (Executive functioning encompasses those skills that help people gets things done, such as plan, focus, manage time, and control behavior).

Dr. Sergio Pellis, a neuroscientist at University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, thinks “the function of play is to build pro-social brains, social brains that know how to interact with others in positive ways.” His research has shown that play leads to changes in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is most highly developed in humans and is responsible for executive functioning. But only free play produced this kind of brain development—play without adult intervention, coaches or rulebooks. It appears that the negotiation and problem-solving involved in even the simplest children’s games build the circuits in the brain that are essential for navigating the many complex social interactions and challenges that are part of human life.

If play is so critical to developing bodies and minds, why do kids get so little of it these days? What attitudes and activities have contributed to the loss of free play and what can we do to reverse those trends? I’ll examine these questions and more later in the week. In the meantime, check out the fun video I made with the kids about child’s play, a spoof on that Disney song, called ‘Let Them Go!’

What are your memories of playing as a child? Were you allowed (or expected) to entertain yourself or did you spend time in organzied activities? What do you think about the state of children’s play today? Let us know in the comments below! 

Want to joint the conversation about kids, parents, and society? Follow this blog (click the button on the right) and check out my Facebook page.
Danielle Meitiv is a scientist, writer, and mother of kids who roam.  She loves to talk about kids, parents, and society on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a passionate and opinionated public speaker and is represented by Louise Fury of The Bent Agency.



Avoiding Risk Can Be Hazardous to Your Kid’s Health

In last week’s blog post, Parenting is Risky Business, I wrote about the dangers of using “risk” as a criterion for determining child neglect: risk is subjective, and parenting involves weighing and taking risks all the time. Of course, parents want to shield their children from harm. But in the past few decades, has this desire morphed into an obsessive drive to shield them from all risk – one which does far more harm than good?

From birth until 18…

Many American parents fear the risk of allowing their children too much freedom, but rarely consider the risk of giving them too little. There is a growing sense of “surplus safety;” that everything potentially dangerous must be avoided. However, it is impossible to truly avoid all danger, and the attempt to do so would lead to a dreary life.

Excessive avoidance of risk may even hinder a child’s development. The girl testing her limits on the monkey bars and the boy begging to explore his neighborhood out of his parent’s sight are not reckless children out for meaningless kicks (or to give their parents heart attacks). They are engaging in ‘risky play,’ activities that carry the possibility of physical injury or getting lost, which Norwegian evolutionary psychologist Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter believes are developmentally necessary to combat debilitating phobias later in life.

The ‘non-associative model of fear acquisition’ suggests that people don’t develop phobias through exposure to or ‘association’ with scary situations or objects, like heights or snakes. Instead, infants are born with instinctive fears of situations that they are not physically or emotionally equipped to handle, such as the fears of strangers, dangerous animals, and the dark. As they grow, the exhilaration that comes from playful risk-taking allows them to confront and reprogram their reactions to these threats. Such play also allows children to rehearse handling the risks they may face as adults.

Children who are denied such opportunities to challenge themselves may have a higher incidence of mental illness as adults. According to Boston College psychologist Peter Gray, the sharp decline in opportunities for unstructured, unsupervised play, which often involves risky play, has contributed to an equally dramatic rise in anxiety, depression, narcissism, feeling of helplessness, and suicide among children, adolescents, and young adults.

Helping children learn to handle risk doesn’t mean tossing them out into the world to fend for themselves. Kids can develop the necessary skills gradually, by taking on progressively greater physical challenges or expanding the area in which they can roam without adults. Our kids started with unsupervised play in our front yard, and progressed to walks and bike rides around the block, to local stores, and to the library. (And up taller and taller trees).

We Americans once prided ourselves on our courage and willingness to take risks. Most of us descend from people who risked everything to leave their homelands and make a new life in this country. Every day, we decide which risks to take and which to avoid. By trying to avoid unlikely or minor threats, we may expose our children to far greater risks: The risk of growing up anxious, inept, or unable to take care of themselves. The risk of not developing resilience or the ability to judge the appropriateness of different kinds of behavior. What we risk most of all is raising children unprepared to meet the challenges essential to creating rich, rewarding lives; challenges Americans have proudly met for generations.

What do you think? Is it worth it to let kids take risks?