Q. My wife and I differ on how our children—ages 9, 11 and 14—will spend their summer. I am all for plenty of free time playing, but my wife wants to schedule their days with activities like learning a new language, music lessons, team sports, theater lessons and tutoring. She tells me they need all this to get into a good university, and there are no advantages to lots of playing. My instinct tells me otherwise. What are the advantages of free time playing? Are there disadvantages to being in structured activities almost all the time?
A. Some of us—and perhaps you, too—remember childhood days in which we ran free and played with friends. When not in school, we were like my grandmother’s chickens: left to roam the range instead of being cooped up.
Free range parenting is one extreme of two opposite styles of parenting. The other is called tiger parenting. I suspect your ideas about parenting aren’t to the extreme of either.
The term free range parenting came from a book by Lisa Zamosky, titled “Free Range Kids: Giving Our Kids the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry” (2009). Zamosky seems to endorse the parenting style popular in the ’50s through the ’80s, in which parents sent kids out of the house to play on their own and told the kids to “be home by dinner.” When Zamosky let her 9-year-old son ride the New York subway system alone and wrote about it in the New York Sun, it generated quite a negative response.
You surely don’t want your children to do anything that isn’t safe, but you want them to have free time playing. You asked about the benefits of free play. In his book “Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant and Better Students for Life” (2013), Peter Gray, a Boston College psychology professor, says that “in free play, children learn to make their own decisions, solve their own problems, create and abide by rules and get along with others as equals.”
A recent study by University of Colorado psychologists looked at the schedules and play habits of seventy 6 year olds. This study concluded that kids who had more free play had a more highly directed executive function. Executive function includes the ability to generate personal goals and figure out how to achieve them on a practical level. It involves self-direction skills.
While you may be closer in thinking to free range parenting, your wife seems to have moved closer to tiger parenting. This term didn’t exist until Amy Chua wrote “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom” (2011).
Chua, a Yale professor, based her parenting style on her experience growing up in China, where children were not allowed to watch TV, have play dates, earn any grade less than an A or do anything less than excel at music studies or other activities. Tiger parents focus on the preparation for success in competitive universities and future professions. One advantage of tiger parenting is that the children of these parents do excel in their studies and often get into esteemed colleges and universities.
There are disadvantages, though, too.
In the Developmental Psychologist (July 2013), Su Yeong Kim reported that based on a longitudinal study, children with two tiger parents had a lower IQ than kids with supportive parents. Some recent studies have found that tiger parents contribute to their children’s depression and low self-esteem. You can read more about the impact on mental health here.
Why don’t you and your wife compromise and allow both free time and scheduled activities? In my mind, it is good for children to have a balance. Instead of moving toward free range parenting or tiger parenting, I suggest you find a middle ground.
Betty Richardson, Ph.D., R.N.C., L.P.C., L.M.F.T., is an Austin-based psychotherapist who specializes in dealing with the problems of children, adolescents and parents.
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