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Advice for hovering parents: Just let them play

You've seen them. The Hovering Parents. They are at school, the parent who wants their child's day scripted, for prior review and input followed by post day evaluation. They are in backyards taking over their child's fort-building project to do it more effectively and efficiently. The child who had started to build their backyard fort with a vision in mind is resigned to sitting off to the side, watching their parent build the fort, now complete with a watch tower, kitchenette and sleeping quarters.

When the fort is finished, the parent beams and says to their child, “Look at what you built!” The child forces a smile.
I've too often been this parent, trying to control and direct my child's play in order to maximize their experience. I want them to learn, grow, and develop by not allowing them to miss a single, rich opportunity offered by various clubs, programs, sports and structured quality time with their parents.

Unfortunately, instead of fanning the flames of creativity and learning, this approach smothers independence and development.
Free play—play that is self-directed by the child—is in steep decline and the consequences may be more dire than people think. “Since about 1955, children’s free play has been continually declining, at least partly because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children's activities,” said Peter Gray, professor of Psychology emeritus at Boston College, in Esther Entin’s article on The Atlantic.com, All Work and No Play: Why Your Kids Are More Anxious, Depressed.

“It is hard to find groups of children outdoors at all, and, if you do find them, they are likely [in a structured activity],” Gray said.

Gray draws a parallel between the loss of free, unstructured play to the significant increase of anxiety and depression among children in the past 60 years. Studies have documented this trend and, in addition, have shown suicide rates among youth increasing at an alarming rate during the same period.

Gray contends that as a society, we should look closely at free play, the core value it has in the emotional and mental health of children, and mitigate the factors that have almost eliminated it from the lives of children today.
My wife is a blessing to me in this area. She's made me realize that cereal crumbs on the couch, little faces smudged with jelly, and muddy jeans are not only bearable, but things for which we must be thankful.

She often reins me in when I want to direct our children's play as well. “Just let them do it their way,” she says. .
I recently received a text from my wife today that read, “Don't be annoyed when you get home. House a mess. Doing a project w/the boys, but will be fun.”

My panic set in as I wondered what this might mean. When I arrived home, the kids’ bathroom was awash in brightly colored paint. There were handprints, letters drawn from little fingers, stick-figures, and creative art from the young minds of a 4- and 6-year-old. The floor was speckled with drippings of paint. Shirts were smeared with paint erased. What couldn't be erased were the smiles on the faces of our boys as they proudly displayed their handiwork. Their mom had given them a clean slate and freedom to paint their bathroom. And the mess that ensued was beautiful.

Matt Tuckey lives in Boiling Springs with his wife and two busy little boys.


Benefits of free play

  1. Play gives children a chance to find and develop a connection to their own self-identified and self-guided interests.
  2. It is through play that children first learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self control, and follow rules.
  3. Children learn to handle their emotions, including anger and fear, during play.
  4. Play helps children make friends and learn to get along with each other as equals.
  5. Most importantly, play is a source of happiness.

Source: Peter Gray, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology emeritus at Boston College

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