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The Family That Plays Together

Have you heard about the recent studies on children and mental health? It’s pretty disheartening stuff, but unfortunately it isn’t really a surprise.

Ten years ago, Dr Peter Gray began writing about the decline in the mental health of children and teens and its correlation to an increase in hours spent in school and a decrease in free time and play. In a 2010 piece for Psychology Today, he observed:

“We would like to think of history as progress, but if progress is measured in the mental health and happiness of young people, then we have been going backward at least since the early 1950s.

“My hypothesis is that the generational increases in Externality, extrinsic goals, anxiety, and depression are all caused largely by the decline, over that same period, in opportunities for free play and the increased time and weight given to schooling.

“By depriving children of opportunities to play on their own, away from direct adult supervision and control, we are depriving them of opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives. We may think we are protecting them, but in fact we are diminishing their joy, diminishing their sense of self-control, preventing them from discovering and exploring the endeavors they would most love, and increasing the odds that they will suffer from anxiety, depression, and other disorders.”

He continued:

“During the same half-century or more that free play has declined, school and school-like activities (such as lessons out of school and adult-directed sports) have risen continuously in prominence. Children today spend more hours per day, days per year, and years of their life in school than ever before. More weight is given to tests and grades than ever. Outside of school, children spend more time than ever in settings in which they are directed, protected, catered to, ranked, judged, and rewarded by adults. In all of these settings, adults are in control, not children.”

Time has proven Dr. Gray’s observations at least partially correct. The last ten years have seen a continued decline in the mental health of children and teens, and parents are continuing to fill their kid’s days with ever more structured activities and ever longer school days and formal instruction.

So-called experts have churned out thousands of pages of books and articles and conducted countless interviews on the subject of mental health and children—blaming its rapid decline on everything from pollution to screen time—but I’m inclined to think that Dr. Gray and others like him have hit the nail squarely on the head.

John Taylor Gatto famously said,

Government schooling is the most radical adventure in history. It kills the family by monopolizing the best times of childhood and by teaching disrespect for home and parents.

It can be argued that not all public education is bad, of course. Certainly not every teacher aims to teach disrespect for home and parents. The Tuttle Twins spent the first nine books under the watchful and competent care of their beloved teacher Mrs. Miner, and her lessons were invaluable. There’s a lot of good that can be done within a broken system.

Indeed, there are many families who are perfectly happy with the public or private education their children are receiving, and who feel that their children are in loving and supportive hands during the hours that they are away from home each day. Some parents simply can’t homeschool for one reason or another, even if they want to. I get it, and I concede the point.

But what Mr. Gatto’s comment should show each of us, regardless of how we choose to educate our children, is that outside forces are constantly and relentlessly tugging away at the influence that parents have over their own children, and the time that families have to spend together for cohesion and support. When children spend more time in the care of strangers (even if they are kind and loving strangers), parents must be extra vigilant in protecting and wisely using the time that they have as families.

I agree with Dr. Amanda Gummer, founder of Fundamentally Children, who says that quality family time – sharing experiences and creating memories – gives children that sense of belonging they crave.

You get to pass on shared values and opinions, and you get to have discussions about what’s going on in life, and children feel more valued, more heard, and they understand their parents more as well.

When we created our Free Market Rules economics curriculum, we did it with the hope that parents and children of all ages would be able to sit around and have important and enlightening discussions about the lessons they had learned in their weekly study of the principles of the free market. We even went as far as to include a “Dinner Conversation Starters” section each week with prompts to help bring the whole family into the discussion.

Homeschool isn’t possible for everyone. Homeschool isn’t even of interest to some people—and that’s okay! The important thing is that parents feel that they have the ability to decide what type of education works best for their children and that they have the freedom to craft that experience.

So what can we as parents do to cause a turnaround in the fifty-plus year backward slide in the happiness and mental health of our kids? I have found that sometimes the smallest things end up yielding the most profound long-term results.

Last month, we released a collaborative story game called Tuttle Tales. It’s packed full of twists and turns, with every member of the family having the opportunity to craft new storylines and adventures for the characters they already know and love from our books. In less than an hour, you can build an entire story as a family, complete with wacky performances in silly voices (opera, anyone?) and ridiculously impossible (but hilarious) upheavals and events.

Maybe our kids don’t need to be in every sport, in every season. Maybe a little more unscheduled time (even if the result is boredom) wouldn’t hurt. Are our children getting the chance to really get to know us? Do we “hang out” with them? Do they know our likes and dislikes and interests? Do we play together as a family? Or have we allowed ourselves to be relegated to chauffeurs and cheerleaders and tutors—mere facilitators of their lives without any real connection or influence?

Child psychologist Dr Margot Sunderland said,

Repeated daily good connections between parent and child foster what is known as secure attachment, or resilience. Research shows that it leads to better functioning, a stronger immune system, better physiology, higher academic marks, a sense of wellbeing and contentment – and it prevents mental and physical ill-health in later life.

I’ve heard that, “Love is really spelled T-I-M-E,” and I think there’s something to it.

So whether we spend all day with our children because we homeschool, or we have only a few precious hours with them in the early morning and evenings, let’s endeavor to be purposeful in our influence and present in our time. It may end up making all the difference in the world.

—  Connor

Want More?

The Tuttle Twins children's book series is read by hundreds of thousands of families across the country, and nearly a million books (in a dozen languages!) are teaching children like yours about the ideas of a free society.

Textbooks don't teach this; schools don't mention it.

It's up to you—and our books can help. Check out the Tuttle Twins books to see if they're a fit for your family!

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