November 2, 2023

By Courtney Wise

Greetings, MindSite News Readers! In today’s parenting issue, a neuroscientist asserts that children’s lack of independent play is partially responsible for the current youth mental health crisis. Plus: Psychologists say book bans do more harm to kids than good, hypervigilant parenting stresses out kids and adults, Sesame Street’s emotional wellness initiatives, and memoirs on motherhood.

How the Lack of Independent Play Undermines Kids’ Mental Health

The youth mental health crisis preceded the pandemic, and Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology and neuroscience at Boston College, believes the decline of independent play among children has something to do with it. Play spurs children’s development by helping them acquire confidence, learn new skills, and make friends, Gray said in a 5-minute interview with NPR’s All Things Considered. But over the past 50 to 70 years, the amount of time children have to play without adults hovering and controlling their decisions has declined sharply.

Adults decided that children grow best under the heavy hands of our guidance, so we increased the amount of time they’d spend focused on academics and under our direction through adult-organized activities outside of school, he said. In addition, the 1980s ushered in new fears of children being alone, especially outdoors, without the supervision of adults. Add to that the elimination of recess in many cities across the country in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and you have a recipe for taking away kids’ agency (and fun).

Such changes removed children’s ability “to decide what they’re going to do and control what they’re going to do and solve the problems as they’re doing it,” Gary said. That shift undermined their wellbeing, he added. “That’s how children develop the kinds of character traits that allow them to ultimately become independent adults…They learn how to deal with peers without an adult intervening. They learn how to deal with minor bullying. There are always going to be bullies around.”

Book bans harm the children they are intended to protect, psychologist says

Between June 2022 and July 2023, PEN America counted 3,400 book bans of more than 1,500 titles. Censorship advocates argue the bans protect children from ideas and realities they’re too young to confront or understand. But that’s wrong thinking, psychologist and counselor Allison Bashe told KDKA, a CBS affiliate in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Consider the lack of books about Black children who are LGBTQ+ and what an often-banned novel like George Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue can do for them, she says. Banning such a book takes away that child’s ability to read literature with protagonists who like them, feel how they feel and experience the world as they do. Just as importantly, censoring books featuring people who are already marginalized in society further ostracizes a community at greater risk for negative mental health outcomes due to discrimination, Bashe said. Besides, parents already have the authority to filter what books their own children read. If they’re ever deeply concerned about a text being taught in the classroom, Bashe suggests reaching out to the teacher to select an alternative for their student instead. “They already have the right to request that a different option be offered to their child, and they can actually do that in privacy,” she said.

In other news…

Hypervigilant parenting stresses kids and adults: If you’re currently raising a child, Kathryn Jezer-Morton has a relatable word for you in this week’s parenting column for The Cut. You’re likely to believe you’re definitely, totally not a hovering type—except when you feel you have to be hypervigilant in front of other people. After all, you’re not a neglectful parent and it’s important to prove that to judgy strangers like me. Luckily for us, Jezer-Morton has some research from the aforementioned Peter Gray and his colleagues David F. Lancy, and David F. Bjorklund that lets us give ourselves—and our kids—a break. Their big hypothesis: Kids were mentally healthier when they engaged in more unstructured, unsupervised play with other kids.

The benefits of kinship care: There are times when some children are separated from their birth parents, in the interest of their safety and wellbeing. In such instances, keeping children with biological relatives is ideal to minimize the impact of the trauma, Michele Sharpe argues in a guest column for Yes! Magazine. Sharpe herself is currently raising her brother’s children as he and his wife work to recover from substance use disorder. “No matter what age a child is, family separation is an adverse childhood experience that can cause toxic stress, leaving children vulnerable to outcomes ranging from heart disease to poor academic achievement,” she writes. “But several recent studies, including [Alia Innovations’s 2019 research brief], “Evidence Base for Avoiding Family Separation in Child Welfare Practice,” demonstrate that children living with addicted parents, children in kinship care, and children living in abusive family homes all have better outcomes than children separated from their families.”

Sesame Workshop expands its Emotional Wellbeing Initiative: In an effort to help parents keep conversations about understanding, managing, and expressing emotions relevant and engaging for young children, Sesame Workshop has expanded its array of mental health resources. It includes four new videos, a digital storybook, and an interactive online game, I Notice, I Feel, I Can. There are also printables children can take away and articles to guide caregivers. Best of all, the resources are free and available in English and Spanish on Sesame Workshop’s website. 

Memoirs on Motherhood: Electric Literature has 8 suggestions for your next great nonfiction parenting read, all written by women of color. 

If you or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and connect in English or Spanish. If you’re a veteran press 1. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing dial 711, then 988. Services are free and available 24/7.

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Type of work:

Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter and freelance writer. She is the host of COVID Diaries: Stories of Resilience, a 2020 project between WDET and Documenting Detroit which won an Edward R. Murrow...