Tag: Child Psychology

The Nerf Generation

You’ve got be kidding me:

A middle school in Long Island, New York has banned the playing of typical schoolyard games and the use of many pieces of athletic equipment during recess.

CBS reported that Weber Middle School this week “instituted a ban on footballs, baseballs, lacrosse balls, or anything that might hurt someone on school grounds.” The ban also includes “hard soccer balls” and “rough games of tag, or cartwheels unless supervised by a coach.”

Assistant Principal Matthew Swinson explained that “sometimes when they participate in tag they use the opportunity to give an extra push.”

In a press release, the school district stated that “structured athletics” with footballs and baseballs do not pose the risk of “an errant throw injuring a child.” However, “unstructured play with hardballs” is dangerous and therefore impermissible. Their announcement explains that the children are confined by ongoing construction at the school, and therefore cannot be trusted with certain sports equipment. Nevertheless, the school made a specific exception for the spongy foam of Nerf balls, so that the children can safely “enjoy a 20 minute recess period.”

Now to be fair to the school, they claim this is a temporary measure caused by construction cutting off the amount of play space. They say that the confined recess space requires tighter rules to prevent injury and that they will lift these restrictions once the construction is done.

Nevertheless, their statements about the matter represent a diseased thinking that has slowly crept into not just our schools but our society at large. Note the point about “structured athletics”. This is part of a belief system that people simply can not function without constant supervision.

Let’s take a different topic: park closures. All week, I’ve been debating liberals on the closure of open air memorials, including the use of highway cones to block off overlooks of national monuments. It’s been an exercise in rationalization as eventually they’ll admit these things are being done to make the shutdown more painful.

But the midpoint of the discussion is when they say these closures are necessary to prevent injury and protect the government from liability. The latter is profoundly ignorant as the federal government enjoys enormous sovereign immunity from lawsuits. The former, however, reflects the increasingly paternalistic view that citizens can not be trusted to even walk down a sidewalk next to a memorial wall on their own.*

(*In reality, all of these explanations are bullshit. What it comes to do is Obama Defense Derangement Syndrome. The President is doing it, therefore there must be a good reason for it. Evil conservative oppose it, therefore it must be a good idea. This the current pinnacle of Democrat thought.)

Returning to the subject at hand, the implicit assumption is that children can not throw balls, play tag or even turn a cartwheel with an adult looking over their shoulder and making sure they’re doing it right. It’s not just the Port Washington School; it’s everyone, from schools to parents who won’t take their kids to a public park and just let them run around.

This attitude that children’s lives must be structure and controlled is not just insane; it’s dangerous.

Over the same decades that children’s play has been declining, childhood mental disorders have been increasing. It’s not just that we’re seeing disorders that we overlooked before. Clinical questionnaires aimed at assessing anxiety and depression, for example, have been given in unchanged form to normative groups of schoolchildren in the US ever since the 1950s. Analyses of the results reveal a continuous, essentially linear, increase in anxiety and depression in young people over the decades, such that the rates of what today would be diagnosed as generalised anxiety disorder and major depression are five to eight times what they were in the 1950s. Over the same period, the suicide rate for young people aged 15 to 24 has more than doubled, and that for children under age 15 has quadrupled.

The decline in opportunity to play has also been accompanied by a decline in empathy and a rise in narcissism, both of which have been assessed since the late 1970s with standard questionnaires given to normative samples of college students. Empathy refers to the ability and tendency to see from another person’s point of view and experience what that person experiences. Narcissism refers to inflated self-regard, coupled with a lack of concern for others and an inability to connect emotionally with others. A decline of empathy and a rise in narcissism are exactly what we would expect to see in children who have little opportunity to play socially. Children can’t learn these social skills and values in school, because school is an authoritarian, not a democratic setting. School fosters competition, not co-operation; and children there are not free to quit when others fail to respect their needs and wishes.

In my book, Free to Learn (2013), I document these changes, and argue that the rise in mental disorders among children is largely the result of the decline in children’s freedom. If we love our children and want them to thrive, we must allow them more time and opportunity to play, not less. Yet policymakers and powerful philanthropists are continuing to push us in the opposite direction — toward more schooling, more testing, more adult direction of children, and less opportunity for free play.

I believe that Dr. Gray is onto something. Sal 11000 Beta loves organized activities: swimming, gymnastics, dance, religious school. But I think she benefits the most when I just shove her out the door to play with other kids in the neighborhood. Her daycare was great at just turning the kids loose in the yard in the afternoon and letting do what they wanted. Some parents whined (apparently, the girls were playing at marrying each other). But the improvement in social skills was measurable. She learned how to interact with other kids, how to be considerate of their feelings and how to be spontaneous.

Yes, kids will sometimes act like jerks. I’m of average height now, but as a kid, I was always the shortest in my grade. I was also kind of sensitive, which made me the recipient of more than a few aggressive tags and “errant balls”. But even that bullying type of behavior is useful. It taught me to duck. And it taught me to fight back. I’ll never forget the day in Hebrew School when I punched a kid who’d been harassing me. My teacher, who had spent her childhood in Israel being bombed and shot at, was almost proud of me.

Kids gotta be kids, dammit. If they don’t get a chance to be kids when their kids, they’ll be kids when they’re grown up with far more serious consequences.

One last quote:

“We know kids are going to get injured … but we have a responsibility to lessen injuries,” said Swinson, explaining that the children could only be trusted with spongy balls.

Nonsense. You have a responsibility to prevent serious injuries. But the occasional bruise, bump, scrape or even broken arm is part of growing up (I once told Sal 11000 Beta’s daycare that I would be disappointed in them if she didn’t get at least one scrape or bruise a week). It’s how kids learn to avoid life’s sharp edges and be careful.

I work at a university. I’ve seen the kind of kids the Nerf Life produces — whiny, helpless, narcissistic adult babies who can not function without supervision. That they are outnumbered by kids who are hard-working and polite is a testament to the number of parents who recognize this horse manure for what it is and reject it.