Peter Gray: Instead of Saying So Much SCHOOL is Abnormal, We Say Squirming STUDENTS are Abnormal

Here is an interview with my friend and hero, Dr. Peter Gray, author of the mind-opening book, Free to Learn. He is interviewed by another friend and hero of mine, Nick Gillespie, the editor in chief of Reason.com and Reason TV, which produced this piece.

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Video edited by Mark McDaniel. Cameras by Todd Krainin and Jim Epstein. Music by Broke for Free.

As Reason reports:

“School has become an abnormal setting for children,” says Peter Gray, a professor of psychology at Boston College. “Instead of admitting that, we say the children are abnormal.”

Gray….says that a cultural shift towards a more interventionist approach to child rearing is having dire consequences. “Over the same period of time that there has been a gradual decline in play,” he told Reason’s Nick Gillespie, “there are well documented, gradual, but ultimately huge increases in a variety of mental disorders in childhood—especially depression and anxiety.”

Gray believes that social media is one saving grace. “[Kids] can’t get together in the real world…[without] adult supervisors,” hes says, “but they can online.”

Gillespie wondered how much helicopter parenting is simply a reaction to women going to work, creating the worry that kids, now less supervised, are at risk?

“That certainly plays a role,” said Gray. “But my argument is there’s nothing about today’s world that should be preventing free play for children. We’ve got to figure out how to allow it to happen.”

Instead, said Gray, we keep expanding school into kids’ free time: Recess time is shorter while the school year is longer. And the hours after school are filled with supervised, structured activities that are basically just…more school. “We’ve truly become insane in this belief that children need so much schooling,” he says.

With so little time on their own, solving their own problems, said Gray, “Students are going off to college for the first time and now they are having psychological breakdowns about things that in the past would have been regarded as bumps in the road of life. Roommate disputes, the breakup of a romantic relationship –”

“And A-minus,” added Gillespie, who himself wrote a seminal piece in 1997 — long before most of us had noticed the helicopter problem — titled, “Child-Proofing the World.” I’ll excerpt in a later post. It is just fantastic.

But for now, settle down and watch these guys make sense of our world. – L.

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Peter Gray says school is taking over our kids’ lives like kudzu.

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30 Responses to Peter Gray: Instead of Saying So Much SCHOOL is Abnormal, We Say Squirming STUDENTS are Abnormal

  1. Peter May 1, 2017 at 9:01 am #

    This may be part of the infantilisation of the population and that may have a biological basis. Life expectancy has increased. In 1900 in Australia the life expectancy was 52 for men and 55 for women. The lower life expectancy was as a result of a higher childhood mortality. We have also had a lower birth rate.

    The result is that a smaller proportion of the population are children and a larger proportion are aged. But there may be a herd demographic instinct to keep children, able adults and aged to a herd expected percentage of each age demographic. The result is an “extended childhood” where young well into their mid 20s are seen as young and not as adult. There is also the “basement 40 yo”. And the “50 is the new new 40”. To keep the same herd percentage of “children” we have infantilised young adults well beyond the age when in previous generations they would have taken on more responsibility. The length of time between generations has increased with later marriage as part of this infantilisation to fit the expect herd of “young”.

    Thus we have helicopter parents and generation snowflake in campus who have to be protected from anything which may offend them.

  2. lollipoplover May 1, 2017 at 9:52 am #

    “But my argument is there’s nothing about today’s world that should be preventing free play for children. We’ve got to figure out how to allow it to happen.”

    I’d argue that kids today have A LOT of free time. They’re not doing heavy labor and chores with the modern convenience of high efficiency washers and dryers and microwave ovens. My kids spend 7 hours in school then are either playing sports for their school teams or home, playing with friends. The problem is the lack of free spaces to actually have free play. Most kids can’t just hang out at the playground after school for free play it’s reserved for the aftercare kids who pay.

    We want to let our kids have some freedom and adventures in their neighborhoods but the open fields and wooded areas have “No trespassing signs”. I don’t have the answer, but we need to get some buy in from the “Get off my lawn!” crowd first to make free play an possibility. It’s not just the attitudes that have to change.

  3. Caiti May 1, 2017 at 9:58 am #

    I cannot understand why elementary schools use recess as a reward/ privilege that is taken away from kids who “misbehave.” Especially since misbehavior generally involves things like an inability to sit still, being quiet, suppressing creativity and curiosity, etc. My son’s school is k-4 and they actually use after school detention as a common consequence. I would love to have access to the statistics regarding how well this actually works.

    I’m always excited to read Gray’s articles because he really goes beyond what most people argue about when they discuss education and instead promotes ideas most people wouldn’t have considered but get to the heart of the issue (such as unschooling).

  4. Backroads May 1, 2017 at 11:40 am #

    As a teacher, I have a class rule that my students are encouraged to call me out on, if I get grumpy and try to declare “no recess.”

    And they have called me out and reminded me of the rule.

    I will not take away recess.

  5. James May 1, 2017 at 12:22 pm #

    “I’d argue that kids today have A LOT of free time.”

    Depends on what you mean by “free”. If you mean “time not in school/at work”, you may be right. If you mean “unsupervised time”, I would disagree. Supervised activities like organized sports are fun, sure, but they shouldn’t be considered free time in the same sense that a Saturday afternoon without any plans is. Both activities are good, but they are distinctly different.

    I think part of the overarching issue is that kids are no longer allowed to be kids. Read “Tom Sawyer” sometime–kids back then played with bugs and fidgeted and passed notes in school. None of it was encouraged, but it was treated like the minor annoyance it was. My grandfather rolled cigarettes in the back of his classroom, and the only punishment was that he got his machine confiscated. Today kids doing those sort of things are treated as disruptive if not outright criminal. This has nothing to do with the amount of school or free time (though increasing the latter may give an outlet to it); this is an issue with how we approach children and childhood as such. Simply put it’s insane to expect pre-teen children to sit quietly and concentrate for 7, 8, 10 hours a day–it has never happened and never will. We need to accept that human nature exists, and is what it is, and stop treating normal childhood behaviors as somehow wrong.

  6. John B. May 1, 2017 at 12:51 pm #

    Perhaps Mr. Salads needs to listen to this guy.

  7. dmg May 1, 2017 at 1:04 pm #

    He is my hero too! =)

  8. test May 1, 2017 at 2:17 pm #

    @James “My grandfather rolled cigarettes in the back of his classroom, and the only punishment was that he got his machine confiscated.”

    Memories of my grand parents are completely different – such act would definitely lead either to spanking (if younger) or the general you do this three times and you get kicked out of school (if older). The school took less of time and achievement in school was seen as less important, but basic discipline while in was expected and enforced.

    I agree that kids would be better off with more free time, but I find historical comparisons always icky. They never specify period, age of the child nor social class they speak of. And even there they ignore long periods and majority of population whose children would not be allowed to play freely for hours without doing anything useful.

  9. test May 1, 2017 at 2:29 pm #

    @Peter On the “basement 40 yo”. If you are 40, chances are your parents are few years over 60. If that is the case, I am pretty sure they already welcome available help – whether financial or direct. At that age, your strength and health is going down. They might also welcome company – old people near or after retirement suffer from loneliness all too often.

    As they will be nearing 70, they will need more and more care. In the past multigenerational households were norm – and grandparents did benefited from the arrangement too.

  10. Reziac May 1, 2017 at 2:33 pm #

    Supervised activities are school under a different banner. They’re required to be done more or less as directed; they are not free play.

  11. Suze May 1, 2017 at 2:38 pm #

    The first line of this hit me the hardest “School has become an abnormal setting for children,” says Peter Gray, a professor of psychology at Boston College. “Instead of admitting that, we say the children are abnormal.”

    I’ve had said this many times to many people. If you took my Grade 5 class (which was in 1973) and fast forwarded us to 2017, we would, by today’s standards, all been taking Ritalin or Concerta because we were just acting like kids. No, we weren’t misbehaved or ‘bad’ kids either. The Zeitgeist has changed folks.

    So far as unstructured play, I was a huge proponent of it. Luckily enough, when my son was young I did teach him to go outside and call on kids in the neighbourhood. No shame in knocking on a few doors until you found someone to play or ride your bike around with …. no different than his Dad or I did when we were growing up in the 70’s.

  12. BMS May 1, 2017 at 3:07 pm #

    I teach at a university. Every term, the largest number of complaints I get are from the folks with A- grades. The folks who get C’s in my class typically do so by not turning stuff in – they dug their own hole, they know it, and they know that whining isn’t going to cause things to magically become turned in on time.

    But the A- folks are the worst. This is a tragedy. How could they not have gotten an A! They’re self proclaimed good students! They turned in all the assignments. Clearly I grade too hard! And I have to practically shout at them: “AN A- IS A GOOD GRADE!” Geez, I had classes in college where I would have called the Vatican to report a miracle if I got an A-.

    These aren’t freshmen either – these are juniors and seniors. It’s just crazy.

  13. Momof8 May 1, 2017 at 5:54 pm #

    Yes! It would benefit everyone to hear Seth Godin’s take on our education system. Here’s a link to his manifesto: http://www.sethgodin.com/sg/docs/stopstealingdreamsscreen.pdf

  14. donald May 1, 2017 at 7:21 pm #

    @BMS

    I have a relative that was in an abusive relationship. She was beaten and yelled at that she was worthless. This went on for several years. To make a long story short, her self-worth was almost none existent. As a result, her daughter was born and raised in this environment and ‘learned’ that she was worthless as well!

    She strived hard in school all of her life. She’s a straight A student in all areas. However, this isn’t enough for her. It’s as if she believes that if she is a top student, she will finally feel like she’s worth something! Of course, school grades won’t do it for her and that’s why she keeps trying! This is why an ‘A’ grade, an honors certificate, or a Nobel prize will never be enough for her.

    I later found out that this is a common occurrence.

  15. donald May 1, 2017 at 7:39 pm #

    @Momof8

    Thank you for that. That was an excellent read! I’d like to ad that ‘Learned Helplessness’ is also a major problem.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z73P47NCxoM

  16. Katie G May 2, 2017 at 6:40 am #

    Caiti- taking away recess is longstanding habit as punishment; you’ll see it mentioned in many a book that takes place from 50-200 years ago.

  17. lollipoplover May 2, 2017 at 9:44 am #

    “I think part of the overarching issue is that kids are no longer allowed to be kids.”

    See, I think it depends more on what parents are defining as what “they think kids should be doing”. If your idea is from 1970 (mine is), we have completely different lifestyles. I think the whole point of this is letting the kids pick what they want to be doing.
    It’s unnatural and unhealthy even for adults to sit for long periods of time without breaks. We’ve become so task oriented and goal oriented that no one values just farting around all day and wandering, adults or kids.

    https://qz.com/970924/the-psychological-importance-of-wasting-time/

  18. James Pollock May 2, 2017 at 10:52 am #

    “See, I think it depends more on what parents are defining as what “they think kids should be doing”. If your idea is from 1970 (mine is), we have completely different lifestyles.”

    But even in 1970, there was a huge variety. Some kids had substantial chores and even jobs, while other kids were watching so much television that the notion of “educational television” had just been invented. (And yes, some kids roamed around.)

    When I was in junior high school, in the late 70’s, the school year ended when the strawberry crop was ready for harvest, because the labor force that harvested strawberries was in the junior high schools. Today, the local acreage under cultivation for strawberries is greatly diminished (there’s way more money in semiconductor fabrication… all of the local Intel campuses are known by the names of the farms they displaced… but they are harvested by migrant adults, not local schoolchildren. Newspapers… when there were newspapers… used to be delivered by children. Those jobs were replaced by adults, too. Family farms… which used the kids’ labor… are increasingly replaced by corporate farms and migrant labor.

  19. James May 2, 2017 at 11:33 am #

    “Memories of my grand parents are completely different – such act would definitely lead either to spanking (if younger) or the general you do this three times and you get kicked out of school (if older).”

    Well, I didn’t tell the full story. Apparently the nun who confiscated the machine was a smoker, and had him instruct her on the machine’s use before she confiscated it.

    “See, I think it depends more on what parents are defining as what “they think kids should be doing”.”

    I think we’re coming at this from different perspectives, lollipoplover. I’m coming at it from a biological perspective. Children are a part of the life cycle of human beings, and have a specific nature due to that. They are immature, by definition; they have different nutrient needs; they have different mental and physical needs. That’s what I think needs to be acknowledged, and what’s lacking in most discussions of education and free play these days. I’m not a huge fan of evolutionary psychology (not enough evidence supporting their hypotheses, in my opinion), but it’s obvious that every juvenile organism is different from the adults, and that proper care for juveniles is based on their needs. Humans aren’t any different in that regard–our needs are different, but that children have unique needs isn’t.

    Among the needs of children? Companionship, time to explore the world, unstructured play. These form the basis for psychological and physical health. To deny children these in order to make them pass tests that demonstrably don’t do anything to improve actual education (where does the USA rank in science, math, and reading skills?) is no different than denying children food.

    A few days ago we got some photos of our kids taken. There was another family with a boy the same age as our oldest. The boys started running around after each other and being silly, as only 3-year-old boys can. The other boy’s mother was mildly irate with her child, until my wife made a point of telling me (loud enough that the other mother could hear it) “Hopefully they get some energy out, and go to bed without much fuss!” You could see realization dawn on the other mother’s face.

  20. lollipoplover May 2, 2017 at 11:43 am #

    @James- I agree with most of what you are saying.
    All 3 of my kids are completely different in terms of what they would chose as unstructured play. My oldest would probably pick fishing most of the time with his best friend. The middle one is very social and spends more time with friends than all of them combined doing all sorts of stuff. Youngest is an artist and is always making or creating something and likes to spend time alone.

    I guess my point is, we don’t really know what our kids want to do with unstructured free play until we just give them the time to figure it out themselves. They usually pick things they enjoy doing better than the expectations from parents of what they *should* be doing during play.

  21. test May 2, 2017 at 5:25 pm #

    @BMS If you care about grades, you gonna fight for it :). But frankly, all that begging and negotiations can serve them in the future. Pay raises and positions go to people do ask for them, negotiate and demand them. Humble responsible worker gets less goodies. Even if you decide to be entrepreneur, investors are gained by asking and negotiating. Overblown confidence is all too often advantage.

    Thinking about it, if other adults had similar experiences and came to similar conclusions, it might be part of reason why students are like that.

    Moreover, if students seen other teachers change grade after begging, they basically have to start to do the same if they are competitive. I suspect that is also why it is done – it works and people you have seen to begged are hold to you as examples of “good students with better grades”.

  22. Papilio May 2, 2017 at 6:06 pm #

    “Instead, said Gray, we keep expanding school into kids’ free time: Recess time is shorter while the school year is longer. And the hours after school are filled with supervised, structured activities that are basically just…more school.”

    And that’s still not including the homework…? :-/

    @test: “chances are your parents are few years over 60. If that is the case, I am pretty sure they already welcome available help – whether financial or direct. At that age, your strength and health is going down. They might also welcome company – old people near or after retirement suffer from loneliness all too often.

    As they will be nearing 70, they will need more and more care.”

    Okay, wow. I guess I should tell my socializing, DIY-ing, sewing, wood chopping, we’re-off-to-Spain-see-you-in-two-months, home owning, home renovating, sixty-something parents to calm down a bit?

  23. JP Merzetti May 2, 2017 at 6:44 pm #

    You know it’s kinda weird.
    Elementary schoolchildren are “adulted” into worklife realities (formally known as school time) and young adults or soon-to-be adults, are infantilized.
    We just can’t let go of junior’s extended life plan, organized around a gazillion hours of formal education.
    At age eight, our eyes are seeing twenty-somethings.
    And then the twenty-somethings turn around and look eight all over again. Twisted.
    (hmm. maybe I should have used the word “adulterated” in that second sentence….)

    I dunno. I practically went out of my mind a few years back, when I came to the realization that to a lot of folks, mere childhood itself IS a disorder!
    (back off, druggies!)
    I was warned in high school about pushers. Only they were supposed to operate ‘outside’ the system.

    But really. Between a (moderately) dysfunctional household, and a school system I never fit into – the only freedom I ever got to save my precious sanity as a kid….was outside BOTH institutions.
    It was all that freedom that juiced my medicinal requirements to alleviate the kid-unfriendly harshness of life.
    Hanging out with a crapload of other kids who all pretty much felt the same way.
    You could almost say we kinda therapy-cured each other. By our own selves. Unsupervised. In three-dimensional real time and space. (Dude! you had cheese and onion sandwiches for lunch again!)

    So how do we expect kids to fit into our crapped-out world, exactly? Maybe for starters, by admitting that it is what it is.
    Like…..Free Range….requires the um….range. (beyond the balcony and the back yard)

  24. CrazyCatLady May 2, 2017 at 11:06 pm #

    When I was a kid…..back in the 70s and into the early 80s, there were not a lot of “after school” activities. Latchkey kids were a thing. Sports after school was Kiwanis Baseball. My brothers did this. They rode their bikes to practice and back. They rode their bikes to the various games. Occasionally, my mother, father or step father would bring siblings to the games. We were all proud of them at the end of the season even if it wasn’t a winning season.

    Lets look at now…now, parents are expected to attend and stay at practice, either as something that they signed and agreed to, or just from peer pressure from other parents. Siblings spend hours a day, at the park, climbing on the bleachers and being bored, being told to stay near their parents. Coaches seem willing to throw in extra practices, so that what started as 2 days a week, and game day, end up with 5 days a week and game day. If your child doesn’t come, your child doesn’t get to play.

    Yesterday I saw an advertisement for pop up huts for parents to sit in when the weather is cold or rainy. They hold one folding chair, no room for the extra child. Nope….not me. Just stay home already! Let the kids go play their game, have their practice, without 23 adults involved! The weather is bad…why do I need to stay? I will come on a NICE day! And no, I don’t want to drag the bored young ones unless their is a park that they can play in without someone bringing them back to me saying that I need to watch my kids.

  25. test May 3, 2017 at 4:32 am #

    @Papilio It is great that your parents have good health. People age in different speeds. We have family members who (while fully self sufficient) already welcomed help with lifting, shopping, repairs and such (due to health conditions). It is real help for them.

    They also liked frequent contact with family and mostly children.

    The older grandparents were, the more lonely they were (less mobility and their friends dying ).

  26. Beth May 3, 2017 at 8:28 am #

    @CrazyCatLady, if this site had a “like” button I would like your post 10,000,000,000,000,000 times.

  27. Donna May 3, 2017 at 2:17 pm #

    “When I was a kid…..back in the 70s and into the early 80s, there were not a lot of “after school” activities.”

    Much like today, this varied from person-to-person even in the 70s and 80s. I remember playing softball, taking dance lessons and gymnastics classes. There was also those pottery classes in upper elementary school. I was pretty terrible at any athletic activity so I did not have prolonged involvement in any of them, but several of my more coordination-gifted classmates took part in after school sports in rec leagues and even very competitive teams throughout most of our childhood.

    “Lets look at now…now, parents are expected to attend and stay at practice, either as something that they signed and agreed to, or just from peer pressure from other parents.”

    Again, there is great variety here. My daughter is/has been involved in many after school activities where the norm is drop kids off for practice. Some parents always do stay, but most do not. And those that do stay don’t do so generally for some helicopter reason but because it is simply easier than leaving and coming back. It is also not uncommon for only one parent to come to games/meets while the other parent is doing something with siblings.

  28. Dingbat May 10, 2017 at 8:16 pm #

    I watched Peter Grays TedX talk from 2 years ago after seeing this interview and found one of the most interesting parts to be the number of younger people who think others are in control of their lives (while having increased levels of narcissism and decreased empathy). They don’t feel they are in, or have control over, anything in their own lives. Im sure part of this with be a result of strict parenting and school. I’m not sure of the ages of those who took the survey to do this but I wonder if it’s a large part of why they act so totalitarian on college campuses. His descriptions of animals that were not allowed play lashing out at others when introduced was fitting. What did the guy from FIRE call it? Vindictive Protectiveness (or perhaps the other way around). They try to control everything heard, thought, said and done by others. The Atlantic had had good articles on the matter

    https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.theatlantic.com/amp/article/486338/

    I also have to wonder if some taking this are influenced by specific parts of victimology feminism that have been front and center in schools and online for some time. One of the biggest complaints coming from libertarian and liberal feminists (during the feminist wars) in the 1980s & 1990s was radical feminists obsessive misuse and abuse of the patriarchy. They blamed every mistake, mishap, bad decision or personal fault on the patriarchy and several feminists called them out for it. Mainly because they were passing this down to younger girls.

    There were fantastic discussions about this during the Battle of Ideas in the U.K. Are We Creating Generation Snowflake? discussed the excessive infatiuation with safety that has seemed to rub off on students who walk onto campus demanding protection (from ideas, differing options, words in general) and safety above a quality education. Joanna Williams, education director and author of Academic Freedom in the Age of Confornity, discussed the issues with identity politics, chronic self victimization and the oppression sweepstakes (what we call the oppression olympics) on a panel about identity politics being unbridled narcissism.

    https://youtu.be/BwJ0DYsBZfw

    This is just a little clip of her talking points. I do not agree with every point she makes about sex ed but do know she takes the extreme position in debates about it and that she is speaking of the excesses with enthusiastic consent, etc… She’s talking about the out of control excesses in general.

  29. Dingbat May 10, 2017 at 8:33 pm #

    Of course I would also imagine that after you hear one group supporting rather extensive sex ed for 4 year olds and another preaching abstinence only you’d want it all removed too! It’s a constant fight.

    I enjoyed Peters discussion. They are good, but I don’t know how you get there from here.

  30. Dingbat May 10, 2017 at 9:19 pm #

    @Crazy Cat Lady

    Latch key kids were a big thing. I did an after school program some days in 6th – 8th grades (86-89). I was also a cheerleader in 7th & 8th and had after school practices and games. We did 4H, had self defense classes, and did other projects in the program. I went back in 8th grade because they asked me to help with the wee ones, which I loved doing. My brothers are 7 & 9 years older than me so I had a couple years of getting off the bus with them or meeting them at home. I was bored after they stopped coming home after school. One can only watch so many Scooby Doo reruns after school.

    ——————————————————————–

    Note on my other post with the Atlantic Article, if anyone reads it. There is a link about Williams college canceling speakers that has a pretty craptastic story behind it. The student group that invites controversial speakers is part of an uncomfortable learning initiative headed by student Zach Woods.

    https://youtu.be/KbM0RKeZYlQ

    I feel for this young man. He comes from a very impoverished area, his father works multiple jobs to put him through school, his family home is falling down around his ears, and when he goes home to visit he helps illiterate family members with job searches. After that he goes back to a school where students call him Uncle Tom and Coon because he would like to hear controversial speakers himself and he given an opportunity to formulate his thoughts and question them about their views. I think most of the speakers he invited were canceled. He was constantly being threatened by the so called SoJus snowflakes. He’s had threats slipped under his dorm door, has been told that he has the blood of dead black fem bodies fighting and dying in the revolution on his hands after he invited a female anti feminist to speak. I still do t know what that was about. It’s not just the students having complete breakdowns, though. His own mentor told him he was yet another black conservative sell out working with the devil. He is a liberal/progressive, and has met with many progressive leaders. It’s absurd. The way people have been treated on campuses the last 17 years is horrible, and it’s ruining everyone’s education.