DEMOCRACY STARTS ON THE PLAYGROUND – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I never thought that parenting practices could have a direct effect on the health and functionality of our democracy, yet that was the thesis of an article in the Sunday New York Times on Sept. 1, 2018.

The article, by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, is called “How to Play Our Way To A Better Democracy” – subtitled ‘If we want saner politics, we need to start building better foundations from the playground up’.

The article postulates that democracy requires work and the kind of people who can work well together. “Democracy is hard. It demands teamwork, compromise, respect for rules and a willingness to engage with other opinionated, vociferous individuals. It also demands practice. The best place to get that practice may be out on the playground.”

In 1831, Alexis De Tocqueville was impressed with Americans’ talent for democracy. He felt that the secret to our success was “… our ability to solve problems collectively and cooperatively.” He praised our mastery of the “art of association”, which was crucial, he believed, for a self-governing people.

In recent years, we seem to have lost that ability to work together across party lines. We have lost the ability to cooperate with anyone who doesn’t share our core views and opinions.

There is apparently a biological, evolutionary aspect to our need to play as children. Playing helps develop our ability — as adults — to cooperate and compromise. “… Mammals enter the world with unfinished nervous systems and they require play – lots of it – to finish the job. The young human brain ‘expects’ the child to engage in thousands of hours of play, including thousands of falls, scrapes, conflicts, insults, alliances, betrayals, status competitions and even (within limits) acts of exclusion, in order to develop its full capacities.”

The type of play required for this beneficial brain development is referred to as ‘free play’. It’s defined as unsupervised activities, chosen by the kids and done for its own sake, not to achieve some goal. For example, guitar lessons and soccer practice do not count as free play.

On the other hand, a pickup soccer game with no adults present would be considered free play. Without the adults, the kids have to practice their social skills and take risks.

Starting in the 1980’s and 1990’s, children in America became increasingly more supervised during their downtime. Children became more scheduled, with an increasing amount of organized after-school classes and activities. Children’s play moved indoors and involved computers, but often no other children.

Even schools have reinforced this trend. They have reduced recess and free play time and are giving more homework to be done after school, from an early age.

Kids have two main areas of difficulty if they are deprived of free play and adequate interactions with their peers.

First, they are less resilient. This can be seen in the increased incidences of anxiety and depression in college kids. Second, they are less able to negotiate and deal with conflict management. Instead, kids learn to go to an adult to settle disputes instead of working things out on their own.

Liberal democracies rely on conversation and negotiation to resolve conflicts. But overprotected, play-deprived people tend to appeal to higher authorities to apply coercion to their opponent. Coercion is the enemy of self-governing democracies. The increase in litigation, inside and outside of the government, is a symptom of this.

If this thesis is correct, our high hopes for the younger generations may be misplaced. These young adults may actually be less capable of maintaining democracy than the baby boom generation has. And right now, we’re not doing too well on that front.

Let’s hope the pendulum swings back to allowing kids more free play time. Even if it’s not going to directly help our society as a whole, it will be healthier for future generations of kids.

26 thoughts on “DEMOCRACY STARTS ON THE PLAYGROUND – BY ELLIN CURLEY”

  1. I totally agree with this. I think that our younger generation kids are STILL waiting for “the grownups” — namely us — to fix it. They are in a permanent state of childhood and I wonder if it will ever go away. It’s very worrying. Because we aren’t going to fix it and we aren’t even going to BE here that much longer.

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        1. Tom —. I had been picked on and picked on. Probably had rep as a wuss. The bully — Fiorello Marino — still remembered all these years later —. Picked the wrong day to pick on the little kid. I saw those “red lights” and went ballistic. Yes, his nose bled and he grabbed his jewels in pain. ‘55–TKO.

          And, no one, bothered me again —. Until that brawl 14 years later in the redneck bar. The Marines one THAT brawl.

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    1. I have been hearing that the younger generations are more passive and self involved than other generations. If they look to their elders to fix things, then it certainlysupports the thesis about play in childhood. They were the generations of the helicopter parents who did or supervised everything. I have a friend who filled out graduate school applications for her twenty something son. At twenty five, he’s just learning to do his own laundry and take care of the logistics in life.

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  2. I agree too. Children seem much more dependent on their parents now for many things. When David was a Scout Leader back in the nineties he worked with two different troops. In one if they were going camping the kids were encouraged to work out their own menus, go out and buy the food and cook it. Each patrol had to work it out amongst themselves including who would be responsible for various chores. They could ask the leaders if they got stuck and would be helped to find solutions. In the second troop the adults did everything, planning, shopping and cooking. David thought the first way was better for the kids..
    I often feel that since kids have access to mobile phones they are more needy too. My workmates kids always seemed to be calling them “When are you going to be home?” “How much longer?” or “Can you pick me up?” .
    I wasn’t aware that free play was actually required in order for kids brains to fully develop but I’m not optimistic about the future unless today’s young parents take that idea on board right away.

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    1. You make a good point about cell phones. Kids are connected to parents 24/7 now. Before cells, if you were out or Mom was at work, you were out of touch for hours at a time, sometimes the whole day. Today, you can text or call any time and get advice or support. The kids never really havea to be on their own without a net. That in itself is detrimental for the development of independant thinking and confidence.

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      1. Parents give their kids cell phones when they are in kindergarten. It seems to me that they have NO freedom at all. Around here they do because this is the country, but even so — play dates? What happened to going out to play?

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  3. Absolutely. Kids roam in packs, they choose their friends, their ‘dangers’, their games. When you start organizing a child’s life down to the bottom, when does he have time to dream? To play on HIS level? I can remember those wonderful ‘playhouse’ games where we narrated the script as we went along: “this time you be the mommy and I’ll be the daddy and I’ll come home from work all tired…” and we learned how to deal with each other.
    When Mary has her life organized by lessons and playdates (oh, please) and homework and studying even in the fourth grade to get those grades so she can go to college 10 years in the future, I don’t wonder she’s depressed. I don’t wonder that she stands at the corner thinking, ‘do I want to go to the library or the park?”

    We rob them of choices, of small failures (you never learn by doing it right, you learn by doing it wrong and making it better), and overcoming her own difficulties. Her way. If you ‘help’ a chick out of the egg it’s struggling to escape from, you have killed it. He needs that struggle for his wings, his lungs, his legs. helping him work through it all paralyzes him for the rest of his sad, short life. And yet we do that to our kids, making it easy, when it should be harder.

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    1. Part of the problem is the young age at which we start deprving kids of their own playtime and independence. It used to be high school when you started to get serious about homework and your ‘future’. Now it’s kindergarten! My life changed in 7th grade, when schoolwork took overfree time. But I’m hearing about little kids in elementary school who are either doing homework or scheduled after school activities every minute they ar not in school. There goes the free play and all that good brain and social development!

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      1. Everyone is terrified that someone is out to “get” their kids. I don’t think that’s any truer now than it was when we were young. I do think schools give too much homework and THEY need to get it together with the value of play, but giving kids 4 hours of daily homework isn’t improving their minds.

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  4. We tend to under estimate the importance of play to children. It is here that we learn the consequences of our actions and learn to adjust behaviour just to get along with others. These are very important life lessons.
    Leslie

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    1. Social interaction is so different today for young people! Texting has its own rules and many kids live out many relationships promarily on their phones, not in person. So all of the rules have changed. That in itself is going to change the dynamic of kids learning social interaction. Today kids in their twenties are really just big teenagers. And thirty year olds are more like what used to be twenty somethings. So the whole social growth curve has been warped and lengthened.

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  5. It worries me, I don’t mind saying. My granddaughter was explaining how some “young people” meaning her age, can’t figure their way out of a paper bag with no problem-solving skills what-so-ever and it can be as simple as we ran out of bags, what do I do? when there are other sizes available. They can’t even think enough to call someone for help they stand in mute silence and stare at the empty spot until someone notices and asks what’s wrong. Scary!

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    1. And the next step from that is painfully obvious. The problem solving people with the ‘what happens next” skills will soon discover they have a whole new career, tricking the “what do I do next” people, taking their money, their jobs, their livelihoods.

      We’re raising a generation of followers, and like baby ducks, they will follow anyone who leads them.

      In my travels I happened upon an actual 8th grade assignment for a class in the mid-1800s. They were asked questions about philosopy, and how it related to this or that particular problem. It was not a ‘choose the best answer” assignment, they were expected to discuss different parts coherently, cogently. Sigh. Now we’re happy if we can get them to read once in a while.

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      1. Creating a genertaion of followers is not good at all. But the lack of problem solving and thinking skills is more troubling to me. You literally can’tget through life without those skills. There are stories about the level of helplessness of kids today that blow the mind. It’s no wonder how many young adults still live with their parents. Maybe when the parents get sick of taking care of their big babies, they will teach them some survival skills and throw them out into the world.

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    2. That high a degree of helplessness and lack of problem solving skills is indeed very scary. I hearad a story about two 14 year olds who fell into a well. They had cell service so they updated their Facebook pages, asking for help. 14 hours later, when someone on Facebook realized they might need help and they were finally rescued, they were asked why they didn’t use their phones to call 911 or even their parents. They had no answer. It simply didn’t occur to them!

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