Coddling Children Harms Mental Health

The Daily Mail has an interesting piece over children in modern societies having “lost the right to roam” and the profound implications it has on their mental health.

When George Thomas was eight he walked everywhere. It was 1926 and his parents were unable to afford the fare for a tram, let alone the cost of a bike and he regularly walked six miles to his favourite fishing haunt without adult supervision.

Fast forward to 2007 and Mr Thomas’s eight-year-old great-grandson Edward enjoys none of that freedom. He is driven the few minutes to school, is taken by car to a safe place to ride his bike and can roam no more than 300 yards from home. Even if he wanted to play outdoors, none of his friends strays from their home or garden unsupervised.

The contrast between Edward and George’s childhoods is highlighted in a report which warns that the mental health of 21st-century children is at risk because they are missing out on the exposure to the natural world enjoyed by past generations.

[…]

The report’s author, Dr William Bird, the health adviser to Natural England and the organiser of a conference on nature and health on Monday, believes children’s long-term mental health is at risk. He has compiled evidence that people are healthier and better adjusted if they get out into the countryside, parks or gardens. Stress levels fall within minutes of seeing green spaces, he says. Even filling a home with flowers and plants can improve concentration and lower stress. “If children haven’t had contact with nature, they never develop a relationship with natural environment and they are unable to use it to cope with stress,” he said. “Studies have shown that people deprived of contact with nature were at greater risk of depression and anxiety. Children are getting less and less unsupervised time in the natural environment. They need time playing in the countryside, in parks and in gardens where they can explore, dig up the ground and build dens.”

Things have changed radically even since I was a kid in this regard. During school vacations and weekends, the neighborhood kids were often outdoors hours at a time. We managed to ride bikes, roller skate, and so forth without donning more protective gear than a test pilot. Indeed, we even rode around in automobiles without being strapped in to a protective pod.

Some of the additional safety precautions we take nowadays are likely prudent. But parents have somehow gotten the impression that our society is generally unsafe and that there are large numbers of predators out there ready to pounce on any child who is unsupervised more than thirty seconds at a time and therefore shelter their kids from any unstructured activity. This, despite all evidence pointing to decreasing crime rates.

While well-intentioned, all the coddling is likely doing more harm than good.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. floyd says:

    BRAVO! Unstructured time spent exposed to the natural world develops everything from social to mechanical skills. Along with physical and mental health, this exposure encourages a true perspective of how people fit into the world around them.
    A fine example is the pathetic abilities of the mechanical and structural engineers today, who come from school with only CAD and classroom and no “tactile” experience.
    This overprotective and over-structured approach has resulted in a nation that raises children, but no longer raises adults!

  2. I also have to wonder if this trend leads to increased statism as it produces children incapable of functioning without external direction and who as adults substitute the state for their now absent parents.

  3. MarkT says:

    …and I’ve wondered the opposite: does this lead to adults that prefer libertarianism as they rebel against their constrained youth.

  4. Anderson says:

    But parents have somehow gotten the impression that our society is generally unsafe and that there are large numbers of predators out there ready to pounce on any child who is unsupervised more than thirty seconds at a time and therefore shelter their kids from any unstructured activity.

    Unfortunately, it only takes one. I’m sympathetic with the post, but compared to what *could* happen, however small the risk, a little more prudence than we were used to may be understandable.

    N.b. that we tend to have smaller families now, fewer children, who are correspondingly more precious to us.

    I’m happy letting my 11-year-old be unsupervised around the neighborhood, at the movies, etc., because he knows how to stay (relatively) safe. But even at 8, I was more reluctant.

  5. Boyd says:

    First, a minor digression in response to Anderson: as the father of five, none of them are any less precious to me than my eldest would have been were he an only child. I would have considerably more money had he been an only child, I must admit. 🙂

    It’s a different world than when we or our parents were kids, and certainly our perception of the world as being less safe for children is different from those parents in past times. As noted here recently (I think it was here, my memory is calcifying with every passing day), we have more leisure time today than our parents did. We should use some of that time to focus more on our kids than our own parents did. This is far from a perfect solution, and could undoubtedly be done incorrectly, but it’s worth considering.

  6. Anjin-San says:

    This, despite all evidence pointing to decreasing crime rates.

    Can we see some of this evidence? I have been reading that violent crime, which was significantly down in the 90’s, has made a comeback during the Bush years.

    I agree with the general theme of the post, when I was growing up in the 60’s we roamed freely around town without fear for our safety. I used to take a but to San Francisco by myself starting around age 12 and hang out all day (Don’t think I told my parents about that) and never had any trouble.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    There are lots of difference between the way things are now and the way things were 30, 40, or 50 years ago. There’s lots more people on the streets with obvious substance abuse problems. A lot more people with serious mental problems have been deinstitutionalized.

    No doubt there’s some good in both of those things. But it’s not all good and one of the problems is that it’s just not as safe out there for kids as it was back in the day.

  8. ken says:

    Unstructured time spent exposed to the natural world develops everything from social to mechanical skills. Along with physical and mental health, this exposure encourages a true perspective of how people fit into the world around them.

    Sure just like in Lord of the Flies.

  9. floyd says:

    Ken;
    Only for the weak minded unprincipled follower types.

    Anjin-san;
    Utopia returns in February 2009! Thanks for the good news!
    Could you explain how local crime could be influenced by the federal administration? Bad immigration policy maybe?
    Unfortunately,The danger is always there,it is our response to it that changes.As the Buffalo Springfield song says”paranoia strikes deep”.
    Maybe it is just too much media fear mongering?

  10. floyd says:

    “”There are lots of difference between the way things are now and the way things were 30, 40, or 50 years ago.””

    ;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;

    Dave;
    Could it be the Father shortage? Or maybe a lack of principled men willing to stand for peace and security in their communities. The return of respect for fatherhood would surely improve safety in our streets.
    Signed; Pollyanna

  11. Anjin-San says:

    Could you explain how local crime could be influenced by the federal administration?

    Well Floyd, let me get the crayons out and diagram it. Perhaps it could be the same way the federal govt. influences local health care or highway construction,via funding. Clinton gave local governments a lot of money to hire cops. Bush gives a lot of money to Iraq. Can you see how that might affect local crime?

    Then there was the prosperity of the 90’s, the dollars filtered down a lot further then they do now. If folks in less prosperous areas have a shot at earning a decent living and getting a bit of the American dream, they are less likely to commit crimes. Well, this decade has been bitchin for billionaires…

  12. floyd says:

    Anjin-sin;
    No, I don’t see how the the federal government could take money from private hands,leave them without the ability to fully fund their own police protection, then give them back a fraction of the money and call it improvement.
    Maybe when the tools you have mastered extend beyond crayons, we could discuss the cause of lawlessness again.

  13. G.A. Phillips says:

    Yes Anjin-sin 30, 40, and 50 years ago when it was not illegal to teach and live by the biblical principles that founded this great nation and made it so strong. Godless is as Godless does, and you need to stop blaming any one else but your liberal self and your liberal kind. Dude like this rise in crime is Bush’s fault cause he spends money on the war effort to fight our enemy? I think that it is that you society destroying Donkeykooks have had that much more time to misguide our youth, and if you say one more about the great things that Booty Bill Clinton did I’m going to start to cry.

  14. Anjin-San says:

    Hmmm well the bigger whack jobs disagree with me, which give me a feeling I am on the right track…

  15. Michael says:

    Ken,
    Have you even read The Lord of the Flies?

    G.A.Phillips,
    Name one biblical principle that is at the foundation of our nation.