Let Kids be Kids Again: Their Future Depends on It

April 15, 2019. By: Ben Wilterdink

The kids are most certainly not alright. And as many of America’s employers are now finding out, this means that many junior employees are not doing so well either. New research details how rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders are drastically rising among America’s youth. Identifying the causes of these troubling trends and acting quickly to reverse them should be a national priority, and fortunately, there are ways to work toward that goal.

The scale of the current mental health crisis among American teenagers and young adults alone should be reason enough to immediately take up this challenge. Analyzing results from a recent national survey administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, San Diego State University Professor of Psychology, Jean Twenge describes the findings:

From 2009 to 2017, major depression among 20- to 21-year-olds more than doubled, rising from 7 percent to 15 percent. Depression surged 69 percent among 16- to 17-year-olds. Serious psychological distress, which includes feelings of anxiety and hopelessness, jumped 71 percent among 18- to 25-year-olds from 2008 to 2017. Twice as many 22- to 23-year-olds attempted suicide in 2017 compared with 2008, and 55 percent more had suicidal thoughts.

Many of these struggling young adults are still in high school or college, but, if they haven’t already, they will soon join a labor market that has been deeply affected by technology and increasing globalization. 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 “snowplow 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.

As automation and globalization continue to change the labor market, the premium for soft skills is only likely to get more significant. David Deming, a Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, has documented how over the past several decades, the jobs requiring high levels of social interaction have grown significantly as a share of the U.S. labor force. Deming notes, “Between 1980 and 2012, jobs requiring high levels of social interaction grew by nearly 12 percentage points as a share of the U.S. labor force. … Employment and wage growth were particularly strong for jobs requiring high levels of both math skill and social skills.”

Building these skills starts early and, although shifting the culture to help support the development of these skills is a daunting task, it is made nearly impossible by the existence of laws that prohibit parents from granting even mature kids the opportunities to spend some time unsupervised. Parents across the country are (rightfully) concerned about bumping up against laws that treat an unsupervised child as one who is being neglected. Laws vary by state, but there are countless disheartening stories of parents being arrested or otherwise confronted by law enforcement for allowing their kids a bit of unsupervised time.

Fortunately, some states are taking the lead on creating an environment in which parents can give their kids the independence they need to grow. In 2018, Utah adopted the first “free-range parenting” law, which is meant to help foster self-sufficiency among kids by allowing parents to give kids the ability to participate in independent activities. With such a law on the books, parents don’t need to be worried about being arrested for neglect just for granting their kids some independence, such as allowing them to walk to and from the park by themselves. Although Utah is the only state (so far) with such a law on the books, South Carolina and Connecticut are also considering protecting parents with similar laws.

Although passing legislation to protect parents who are interested in giving their kids the chance to build soft skills and become more resilient by granting them some independence is urgently needed, it will not be enough to ensure kids are equipped with the skills they need to succeed in life. Reversing the shocking trends in mental health among teenagers and young adults will require a cultural shift beyond what public policy can reasonably achieve. An ongoing and concerted effort will be required, and resources like those offered by LetGrow and from experts like Haidt and Lukianoff can help communities guide their efforts. Ultimately it will be up to parents though, and every parent has the opportunity to play a role in changing the culture to better prepare kids for a successful future.

Ben Wilterdink is the Director of Programs at the Archbridge Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit focused on removing the barriers that prevent individuals from bettering their lives. You can follow him on Twitter @bgwilterdink.

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