“I know it doesn’t feel right but everyone else is doing it.” These were the words I said far too often a few years ago when I was a new parent. It seemed to be the only response I could muster up when a well-meaning grandparent or friend (with no kids) commented on how busy we were as a family because of all my kids’ activities.
I did not say these words proudly. I said them with a pang of guilt for the hectic life I had created for my family. A life with “activities” that I had nothing to do with as a child myself. As the fifth child of immigrant parents, I was never in a single structured activity — ever. My parents didn’t have the time, money, or will to enroll me in anything at all and I found myself saying what many of today’s parents are fond of saying when they see how different childhood has become; “I turned out alright.” However, my pang of guilt would shift to fear and anxiety when someone would respond with a “yeah but the world is more competitive now.” Thankfully, what didn’t shift, what made me absolutely miserable inside, was a nagging feeling that I was harming my children more than helping them.
Even though my parental intuition was telling me to just let my kids play more, the fear of my kids “falling behind” made me enroll them in all sorts of structured activities. Thankfully, it was my knowledge as a researcher of self-motivation, my experience as a medical doctor who has worked with stressed, anxious, and depressed overscheduled children for over 12 years, and a teacher of millennial university students who often lack empathy, social skills, creativity, and critical thinking that finally made me act.
Sam was a first year University student when he was referred to me. He was taking English and music and had slashed up his arms with the bow of his violin. He told me it was not a suicide attempt but rather a protest against his childhood. Sam told me that as a child, he was a star student excelling in academics and music as he spent a lot of time in those activities. However, after Sam reached a certain level of technical ability, he started to fall behind. Around grade 11, the emphasis became more on reading comprehension, creative writing, music composition, and group projects and thus, Sam barely made it into University. Once in University, things became much worse and Sam admitted to me that he slashed his arms after he was caught cheating on an English essay that he just couldn’t “figure out on his own”.
Sam’s story is not unique. I have seen it countless times. A highly instructed child performing well with linear, technical tasks that begins to unravel when tasks become more complex, creative, or group oriented. A 2014 study that was published in the Journal Frontiers of Psychology, showed the relationship between the time children spend in less-structured and structured activities and the development of vital skills that are becoming ever more important in our 21st century world. Scientists call these skills self-directed executive functioning and as the study lead author stated, these skills “helps them (kids) in all kinds of ways throughout their daily lives, from flexibly switching between different activities rather than getting stuck on one thing, to stopping themselves from yelling when angry, to delaying gratification. Executive function during childhood also predicts important outcomes, like academic performance, health, wealth and criminality, years and even decades later.” The study results concluded that children who spent more time in structured activities had less self-directed executive functioning and those who spent more time in free flowing, open ended activities had greater self-directed executive functioning.
The key identified 21st century skills are creativity, communication, critical thinking, and collaboration. By leaving no time or space for trial and error, mistakes, and just figuring things out, over-instruction stand in the way of all of these skills. Of course, some level of structure is good for children, but with the endless cycle of structured activities that have taken over modern day childhood, our kids’ lives have been thrown off balance leaving them with the inability to think — for themselves, on their feet, and out of the box.
Ironically, todays’ well-meaning parents who are over-scheduling and over-instructing because of fear of competition are seriously under-preparing children for our rapidly changing modern world that increasingly demands complex cognitive skills that cannot be outsourced or automated. The days of awards and promotions for those who know the right answer are quickly disappearing (we have Google for that). We are in the era of conceptualization, where those who ask the right questions, find the right answer, and can apply knowledge within diverse groups and environments will succeed. Those who can discover, communicate, innovate, and connect will flourish.
I sometimes tell my patients that our intuition is often the source of our unhappiness. Intuition is the wisdom gifted to us by nature and when we go against it, we feel unsettled inside. It was those times when I said “I know it doesn’t feel right but everyone else is doing it” is when I went against my parental intuition. My parental intuition wanted me to let my children play more freely. I could see they were lit up from the inside with joy when they played. As a psychiatrist, I knew that joy was coming from powerful neurochemicals that were rewarding my children for the essential activity of playing freely. Free play has been proven to stimulate the area of the brain responsible for problem solving, strategic thinking, emotional regulation, and delaying gratification. Free, unstructured play has always been the most important activity of childhood, leading to the development of vital cognitive, social, and emotional skills. My intuition was right, I just had to listen to it.