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Why Kids Need to Go Play and Get Uncomfortable

Children need free time to figure out how to handle stressful situations.

Key points

  • Anxiety and depression are rising in children and young adults.
  • Parents are increasingly involved with scheduling and supervising kids.
  • Free play helps kids develop independence and resilience.

My Dearest Marty,

You are only in third grade and I feel like your future is at stake.

Anxiety and depression are crushing kids across our country. An increasing number of kids your age are thinking about self-harm and checking into hospitals for care. Suicides are up. Earlier this month, on our street in New York City, a 12-year-old boy jumped off the roof of his building and died. Teenagers at top-performing high schools are now considered an "at-risk group" for mental health problems alongside kids living in poverty and foster care. One reason is an "excessive pressure to excel." Anxiety was increasing in kids and young adults before COVID. Now, a bad situation is worse.

Are we asking too much of you?

Why is this happening? I’m no psychologist. I’m a journalist, a teacher, and a mom. But I see that kids today are under so much pressure to achieve and succeed constantly, whether on a sports field or in a classroom. And it starts in nursery school. I remember when you were in pre-K; I asked your teacher why there wasn’t more free play. She told me she had to get the kids ready for kindergarten admissions. The other class moms talked about their kids getting into Ivy League colleges in 14 years. I wondered what our tuition was buying other than anxiety. Everyone wanted their kid to peak at age 5. I want you to know that I haven’t peaked, and I’m closer to 55.

There is a problem with parenting these days. We are robbing you of the chance to develop independence and resilience, and you will need those to become mentally fit. We are overly involved, keeping you so busy with adult-directed activities that you aren’t forming your own ability to problem-solve and manage stressful situations. We are so focused on hoped-for future results that we are loading you up with after-school and weekend activities that feel like a means to an end instead of child’s play. You don’t have unstructured time to explore and grow outside of the watchful eye of your parents, teachers, or supervising adults.

Technology makes it worse. Today, you are playing Anime Fighting Simulator on Roblox with your three best friends. But in a few years, you will hold a seven-ounce object in the palm of your hand and scroll through images on a social media platform that connects you with your friends 24/7. Will you understand the pictures are curated façades that don’t give a true backstory about the reality of life’s challenges and difficulties? Will you think everyone else is happy, with no struggle or self-doubt?

 Courtesy of Adebola Dele-Michael
Marty and his friends enjoying some free play in Central Park.
Source: Courtesy of Adebola Dele-Michael

Focus on resilience

Psychologists and educators tell me that many kids they see in classrooms and counseling sessions haven’t developed resilience, the ability to bounce back from adversity. They say it’s like a muscle you have to build. You need reps in the gym. And a child’s gym is unstructured free time when kids have the chance to figure out how to handle fear, anger, and frustration without an adult intervening.

I want to give you the freedom to find your way, without worrying about an outcome — whether you will misstep, stumble and fall. Spoiler alert: You will. You will struggle. You will fail. You will feel frustrated, maybe even miserable.

What you won’t realize in those moments is what a gift that pain and suffering will bring. Because you will recover. You will grow stronger. You will emerge bionic, with better parts. That’s the way you develop resilience, grit, gratitude, and empathy. Those are far more important than any grade, degree, or dollar amount in your bank account. They are your antidote to anxiety.

There are hours, days, and years that will go well and others that won’t. You won’t be in control of a lot of things that will happen to you. But you can decide how to respond. Accept that you can’t always be your best self. And when you feel overwhelmed, ashamed, or in despair, call me. Call a friend. Find someone to talk to. You are not alone.

Becky Diamond
Family selfie, 2019
Source: Becky Diamond

Grow from experiences that make you feel uncomfortable

My dearest Marty, if I can offer you any advice, it’s to get out of your comfort zone. Take risks. Opt-in to activities that give you butterflies and make you sweat. Embrace failure and all that it will teach you. Find your passion, not mine. Seek out experiences that feel uncertain, uncomfortable, and unfair. Look for opportunities to share a meal with people who look nothing like you or pray to a different God. Talk politics with friends who have varied experiences and perspectives. Seek to understand them without judgment. Open your heart to others and share your fears with friends. Do an act of kindness every day.

I don’t have all of the answers but if you do these things, you will develop empathy and compassion for others. Over time, you will build inner strength, resilience, and grit. And those will form the building blocks of your character. Success is an inside job. It’s a journey — your journey. It’s your moral compass and it’s up to you to cultivate it. I will always be here to listen and to lend a hand when needed. But the best thing I can do for you is to back off. You've got this.

I love you now and forever,


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