Childhood anxiety is giving us anxiety. Nearly a third of American adolescents meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even among younger kids, anxiety is on the rise. But as my Let Grow co-founder, Boston College psychology professor Peter Gray, notes, crime rates are at a 50-year low, so it’s not because the world has been getting scarier.
It’s because we have been getting more scared. The media make us believe there’s a predator behind every pine tree. So we keep our kids closer than ever, meaning they rarely have the kind of free, unstructured, unsupervised time that serves as a pressure valve.
If only we could give kids back a smidgen of that freedom, would they feel less anxious — happier?
The solution is so simple you’re going to laugh, but it’s this: Have your kids do one thing on their own that you did at their age that you haven’t allowed them to do till now. Maybe let them ride their bikes to a friend’s house or play outside in the neighborhood or get themselves to school.
Our own survey of kids in kindergarten through sixth grade who did a Let Grow activity such as those — something on their own, at last — found that more than 50 percent felt happier afterward. What’s more, the parents experienced their own drop in anxiety.
Why? Because when fear meets reality, reality wins. All the worries swirling around in our heads get shoved aside by pride and joy when our blossoming children burst through the door, excited and elated.
It feels great to be the wind beneath their wings instead of the one weighing them down. That weight is anxiety.
So how can you get started? Easy:
1) Find a friend who is willing to do this seemingly radical, actually totally developmentally normal and healthy activity with you. (If you’d like to find other Let Grow families in your neighborhood, join Let Grow — it’s free — and use our ZIP code-enabled friend finder, also free.)
2) Ask the kids what they’d like their activity to be. If they don’t have an idea, here are a few: Climb a tree; run an errand; build something out of junk; go to the library; ride a local bus; visit a relative. Or tell your kids about something you did at their age — and then let them do the same thing!
3) Set a deadline to do it by one week from today.
4) Do it! Meet up with your friend, and pour a cup of coffee. Then send the kids out together.
You and your friend give each other moral support, and it’s more fun for the kids, too. One reason kids don’t run around outside is that when they look out the window, they don’t see anyone to play with.
Then, with your heart gladdened, do our fearful society a favor. Tell your story to your friends, to embolden them, too. After all, the more normal it becomes to send kids out to walk and play the more kids your children will have to walk and play with.
And if you take your story to social media and are so inclined, kindly mention @letgroworg and #letgrow. Thus grows a movement.
Lenore Skenazy is president of Let Grow, founder of Free-Range Kids and author of “Has the World Gone Skenazy?”