Peter Gray: We Have Almost Destroyed Childhood

In this sweeping article about the importance of free, non-adult-lead play — the kind of playing most of us remember doing, like, all the time as kids — psychologist Peter Gray does not mince words. The Boston College psychology professor and author of Free to Learn (as well as the author of one of the most popular psychology textbooks used at Harvard and elsewhere) writes:

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37 Responses to Peter Gray: We Have Almost Destroyed Childhood

  1. Coccinelle November 2, 2016 at 11:05 am #

    Not to diminish the quality of past posts but this one is one of the best! It should be shared with the entire world, it’s so important.

  2. test November 2, 2016 at 11:49 am #

    That guy must have had very … erm … shitty adults around him when he was growing up. I have to say, many adults I grew up with were much better then what he describes there and I trusted them quite a lot. Conversely, while I had good friends I trusted, I also met quite a few controlling overreacting kids to know it is not just adults who react that way.

    There were definitely groups of kids who did spent most of their time mocking/hating adults and in constant rebellious power struggle he describes, but thankfully most of kids I socialized with were not like that. Funny enough, those groups were also in habit mocking and oftentimes mistreating kids that were not within their close group of friends. Turns out hostile kids are hostile to everyone not just adults.

    On the historical note, agrarian cultures in both west and east european kids had to help with work much sooner and a lot not because adults were evil. It was because it was needed, basics hard to come by and life was short. They could not afford 10 years old hanging around whole day. Definitely not when they had other 8 kids to feed.

    Yes, Prussia was militaristic and quite oppressive feudalism. Its attitudes did extrapolated to how they raised their kids. Through I would point out that schools in Germany were not available to all children at the time, it is only nobility we talk about here – other kids worked. Germany got mandatory schooling much later. Besides, making correlations with today makes as much sense as making correlation between Germany having cops and army today and Prussia before world wars and revolutions. Yeah they have cops and army, no the levels of oppression are incomparable.

    As for the internet, as much as I love and defend it, I would like to present you 4chan, 8chan, voat, all with doxing, bullying, ddosing whoever won over you in online game, occasional swatting and what not as a flip side of unrestrained childrens culture. (Adults contribute toxicity a lot too, sure, but anyone who ever played online sure met toxic 13 years old who is toxic to all around including other kids. League of legends are quite notorious.) It is not just friendship and roses. It makes adults call for age restrictions, because adults dont want to deal with crap generated those kids. Those kids peers don’t like the abuse either.

  3. Emily November 2, 2016 at 11:50 am #

    Yes. All of this. I also recommend that everyone here read “Free To Learn,” in addition to Lenore’s book. 🙂

  4. Chris McCauley November 2, 2016 at 12:13 pm #

    Great post!

  5. Rebel mom November 2, 2016 at 12:16 pm #

    Yep, 100% on target. Softball leagues, swim team, ballet, music lessons, whatever are NOT ever going to replace what kids get out of free play. I knew many fantastic teachers and other adults but my best times ever were still the ones spent alone or with good friends. Period.

  6. Rebel mom November 2, 2016 at 12:21 pm #

    Thank goodness we were poor growing up! My mom told me that was one of the reasons I wasn’t signed up for extracurriculars. Whew! There’s a silver lining to everything. And just for anyone who’s raising kids struggling financially, from a kids’ perspective it was great. Really. I felt so important and needed when I had to get out and push our old VW bug to jump start it. Being evicted was an adventure – where will we live next? My mom handled it fantastically. Thanks mom! I had a great childhood!!

  7. Beanie November 2, 2016 at 12:33 pm #

    As a parent who lives in a school district where test prep is king, this makes me very sad. So many lost hours. Our school has implemented a “leadership” program that includes none of these skills–it’s about renaming the elements of previous programs and having a team of adults telling kids what to do instead of letting them figure it out for themselves.

  8. BL November 2, 2016 at 12:41 pm #

    “This is illustrated today by children’s eagerness to learn how to use the latest computer technology; they are often far ahead of their parents on this.”

    Alas, too many children today use this as pretty passive consumers and naive users. How many can actually write a computer program or know internet architecture or even the guts of their own “digital devices”?

    Shades of my own generation’s stupid infatuation with television, which continues to this day.

  9. Kirsten November 2, 2016 at 12:49 pm #

    I wonder if we are seeing the first fruits of this trend in the form of the neo-fascistic demands of college students to bar certain words and topics from classroom discussion and for universities to create ‘safe spaces’ and segregated housing where only certain kinds of people are allowed to be.

  10. Dean November 2, 2016 at 1:27 pm #

    Agree completely except the part about more time in school.
    When I was a kid (innercity LA), classes that averaged 35 students started between 8:15 and 9 a.m., depending upon grade level, and we were there until 3 p.m. And we walked or rode our bikes anywhere from two blocks to as much as a few miles.
    Now we see kids being walked a block or two to school before 9 a.m., and being met and walked home between 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., not counting teachers’ no-pupil days (gotta have time for grading papers and filling out report cards for those class of 20-22), four-day weekends, etc.

  11. SanityAnyone? November 2, 2016 at 2:10 pm #

    Lenore Skenazy – Champion of Childhood!

    Enjoyed this article and it makes innate sense. Thanks.

  12. lollipoplover November 2, 2016 at 2:22 pm #

    “But when children play with other children, because of the more equal nature of the relationship, they feel free to challenge one another’s ideas about the rules, which often leads to negotiation and change in rules.”

    and

    “…this is why we see record levels of anxiety, depression, suicide, and feelings of powerlessness among adolescents and young adults today.”

    When someone feels powerless to make change or be heard, it can have devastating consequences to their self-esteem and confidence. Parenting is so much easier when you listen to your children about their wants and needs. Some actually do want and need parents still around and still have some play time with their friends, too. So many kids rush around on tight schedules and for what? More visits to doctors for mental health issues. Or taking out their stresses with substance abuse and addiction.

    Kids who solve problems become adults who solve problems. Social skills, conflict resolution, and new ideas are best learned when we are young and adaptive and not stuck in our ways already. They need…time. Free, non-scheduled time. And leaving kids to work out their minor spats instead of involving adults leads to less manipulative kids, too. When adults always supervise and intervene to solve minor disputes there’s always the little tattletale who plays power trips. Is anyone else seeing more little jerks who know all too well how to work the adults to get their way? Drives me nuts and I see so many who want and demand adult attention when they are old enough to work it out on their own.

  13. EricS November 2, 2016 at 3:53 pm #

    This enforces my belief and admonishment of adults to learn about psychology. The nature of the human brain. From the time we are born to the day we die. We all have the same brain, and it works the same way. The only difference is how each of us uses this brain. Think of it like an iPhone (or a Galaxy for the android die hards). They are all the same. They all do the same thing. But we, as users, use them differently. Affecting our lives (and others) accordingly. Some are “zombies”, some are more efficient in their day to day lives because of how they use this technology. It’s the same for the human brain. How we train it, what we do to imprint onto it, is a matter of individual choices. And we all know, not all choices are good choices. And many will understand this, but because the fear in them is so strong, they will force themselves to believe what makes them feel better, rather than what IS better for their children.

  14. EricS November 2, 2016 at 3:58 pm #

    @test: “On the historical note, agrarian cultures in both west and east european kids had to help with work much sooner and a lot not because adults were evil. It was because it was needed, basics hard to come by and life was short. They could not afford 10 years old hanging around whole day. Definitely not when they had other 8 kids to feed.”

    True. But this just proves how resilient, capable, and intelligent children are. These days, children are treated like they are extremely fragile, and they should never feel hardship, pain, and disappointment. They get spoiled because 1. Parents don’t want to deal with them. Or 2. Parents are worried their kids might hate them. A far cry from the mentality of previous generations of parents. And I don’t believe it’s a coincidence it all started at the rise of the internet, technology, and social media.

  15. Donald Christensen November 2, 2016 at 4:37 pm #

    “This is an important lesson; it is a cornerstone of democracy.”

    Common sense, rational thought, and acknowledging (not necessarily agreeing with) another person’s point of view is a skill. This thinking must be used in order to develop. However with rules upon rules and children being treated as pets that can’t think for themselves, that part of the brain doesn’t develop as well. As well as this happening, the ‘Us vs. Them’ part of our thinking becomes stronger.

    We need to take a closer look at how our own views affect society. Most people view the political mess of today as something completely separate to this. As long as we keep saying, “It’s everybody else’s fault except mine”, nothing will improve.

  16. Stacey Gordon November 2, 2016 at 4:56 pm #

    Remember when I told you years ago that you were on the cutting edge of a political movement?

  17. Rebecca November 2, 2016 at 5:01 pm #

    THANK YOU FOR SHARING! Every time I read an article like this, it helps me stick true to what I know is important, against all the odds stacked against me. Every parent I know has their children bombarded by extra-curricular activities. FREE PLAY and UNSUPERVISED time is so important.

  18. test November 2, 2016 at 5:36 pm #

    @EricS “They get spoiled because 1. Parents don’t want to deal with them. Or 2. Parents are worried their kids might hate them. A far cry from the mentality of previous generations of parents.”

    I understood the article as call to reject any kind of control and strict or authoritarian child-raising methods. It criticizes previous generations of parents and praising only hunters and gatherers who presumably left kids do whatever kids wanted till pre-teens. According to article, we are too controlling and current American (?) school system too similar/inspired by old Prussian educational system.

    I think that many children would be helped by more freeplay. However, comparing current school system to one that sees it as “necessary to break the natural willfulness of the child” or considers “most important task” to “make the will obedient” is huge overstatement for most schools.

    “True. But this just proves how resilient, capable, and intelligent children are.”

    Afaik, that agricultural work often did not required all that much intelligence or capabilities beyond manual skills. Passing school today really requires more intelligence and trains it better. It did required hard work and resiliency. But mostly, the article frames everything basically as evil adults in agrarian societies destroying pure children’s souls for no reason by adding hierarchy instead of letting kids to do whatever they please.

    “These days, children are treated like they are extremely fragile, and they should never feel hardship, pain, and disappointment. […] And I don’t believe it’s a coincidence it all started at the rise of the internet, technology, and social media.”

    Not really in Japan or Germany although both have internet, technology, and social media. I think it is going to be more complicated then just that.

  19. James Pollock November 2, 2016 at 5:48 pm #

    “I don’t believe it’s a coincidence it all started at the rise of the internet, technology, and social media.”

    which is it? The rise of the Internet began in the 1980’s, and the rise of social media in the 2000’s. And, um, the rise of technology started with the invention of agriculture some 10,000 years or so ago.

  20. theresa November 2, 2016 at 8:38 pm #

    Adults seem to be good at fussing and ruining fun. Some cops in order to ruin Halloween fun and look like drug war heroes that someone handed out pot candy. Truth was that is was candy from Japan and never was pot in any way . do we want kids or robots? Because sometimes I can’t tell

  21. ML November 2, 2016 at 9:56 pm #

    After reading that, I feel like going out and playing a game of Calvinball.

  22. sexhysteria November 3, 2016 at 5:08 am #

    Social learning is fundamental to maturation and is precisely what kids themselves crave. I would add that kids should not only enjoy free play with peers but also with older and younger playmates to learn about their own limitations and the limitations of those weaker than themselves..

  23. Stacey Gordon November 3, 2016 at 1:56 pm #

    As you know, I think adults are wayyy to far up their kids’s asses all the time, however, I also believe that the alternative to being away from adults, means constantly surrounded by kids either. Alone/unsupervised time is also very important, especially for those of us that were bullied etc… sure, it’s fun to play and learn with kids..until things get ugly and the teasing starts. Don’t need the adults solving the problems, but don’t need to be around the kids causing the problems either. There’s a great deal to be said for exploring places alone, activities one does alone, such as reading, or poking around the library, shops etc… Our peers, are not always the best thing for us, nor the only alternative to 24/7adulting.

  24. Stacey Gordon November 3, 2016 at 2:14 pm #

    Wish we could edit comments… I also “don’t believe” that being around our peers all the time is the only alternative.

  25. Emily November 3, 2016 at 2:40 pm #

    >>As you know, I think adults are wayyy to far up their kids’s asses all the time, however, I also believe that the alternative to being away from adults, means constantly surrounded by kids either. Alone/unsupervised time is also very important, especially for those of us that were bullied etc… sure, it’s fun to play and learn with kids..until things get ugly and the teasing starts. Don’t need the adults solving the problems, but don’t need to be around the kids causing the problems either. There’s a great deal to be said for exploring places alone, activities one does alone, such as reading, or poking around the library, shops etc… Our peers, are not always the best thing for us, nor the only alternative to 24/7adulting.<<

    OMG, yes!!! I was that kid……constantly being told that wanting to be alone was antisocial at best (at home or school), or dangerous at worst (out in the world, even if "out in the world" was just at, say, the park down the street). I spent so many years thinking there was something wrong with me for wanting to be alone, because both kids and adults TOLD me that there was something wrong with me, when I was just an introvert.

  26. lollipoplover November 3, 2016 at 4:36 pm #

    @Emily-

    My oldest is an introvert and prefers fishing and outdoor solo pursuits to decompress after school vs. groups of friends. He also enjoys sports with friends but needs his own balance. Middle daughter is very much an extrovert and always has a gaggle of teens here at the house. Youngest is a blend of both, I can hear her playing on our street now with the 4 and 5 year olds who live across the street- and she’s 10 but loves little kids.

    Free play should be just that…be free to choose what you enjoy! Not every kid is wired the same. I spent much of my childhood exploring the woods behind my house, sometimes alone but often with friends. What’s different now is many of these wild spaces are no longer available for kids and they are confined to parks with lists of rules (with all children must be supervised as #1). Gosh, my 13 year-old can’t even attend a high school football game without a parent! What 13 yo wants to be seen with their mom??

  27. James Pollock November 3, 2016 at 4:38 pm #

    ” I was that kid……constantly being told that wanting to be alone was antisocial ”

    Wanting to be alone IS anti-social… anti meaning “against” or “opposite”, and social meaning “in a group”. The mistake commonly made is to assume that being anti-social says something about the individual rather than about the group.

  28. James November 3, 2016 at 8:27 pm #

    @test:

    “Afaik, that agricultural work often did not required all that much intelligence or capabilities beyond manual skills.”

    I grew up in an agrarian area–we’re talking, the local grain elevator was a social hot-spot. You’re wrong. Agricultural work requires a vastly different skillset from modern life, but it required FAR more intelligence and capability than just manual skills.

    If a cow gets sick and dies, that is a HUGE loss. Imagine losing your car, or taking a 30% cut to your income. In pre-industrial agriculture, or even late 19th/early 20th century agriculture, the effects would be of that magnitude (the precise impact would depend on the farm, of course). If a crop does poorly, you may go hungry that winter. And so folks in agrarian societies became very observant about the world around them. They knew how to fix and make pretty much everything they worked with (no joke, I once saw my grandfather build a part to an International H tractor starting from a block of brass and a lathe). They knew how to read how animals behaved, basics of veterinary medicine (though they’ve always been far more willing to cut losses and slaughter the animal than a vet is), etc. They even knew rudimentary geology. My great-grandfather worked on gleyed soils, and knew how to identify precisely the moment they were most amenable to planting. Which makes geological sense (gleyed soils are going to be far richer than normal soils, due to the process that creates them). And they had to know pretty much everything a normal small business owner knew, because they WERE a small business owner. They were electricians, carpenters, plumbers, masons, mechanics–in short, whatever they needed to be.

    The image of a farmer as stupid as the cows he works with is very much a myth. They don’t know what EPA Method 8260 is, but they were every bit as knowledgeable about their areas of expertise as any other expert was about theirs.

    And this started young. When I was in middle school it wasn’t uncommon for the kids on farms to have started their own livestock–cows, pigs, and the like. They were taking care of chickens much younger, and most declined the opportunity to continue in that field (chickens are….unpleasant). Their parents were there to help, but the animals were THEIR responsibility.

  29. test November 4, 2016 at 3:53 am #

    @James We are talking about agrarian villages hundreds years ago. They were not electricians, plumbers nor mechanics. All the special knowledge you mention was facilitated by education later on (which includes reading those people could not do). At the time they were mechanics and smart business owners, their children knew how to read and trained their brains in school.

    By the beginning of the 20 century, there were many people in my country here who could barely read because they grew mostly helping to family. They had hard time to adjust to changes later on or learn new things. They did not grew up to be able to quickly absorb new knowledge. They grew up with fixed sets of habits which they insisted on no matter what circumstances. In general, people who had some education outperformed them.

    Another data point: around the same time, practically feudalistic Russia and its illiterate Russian citizens were oftentimes unable to use new machines and techniques and their productivity was much much lower. These were people who grew up working and only working in (practically feudal) agrarian society. They were outperformed by better educated western farmers hands down.

    The traditional farm work on itself does not have track record of creating smart independent small business owners. Societies of people grew up like that did not produced was swats of skilled mechanics and what not. All of that brain stuff came in later and required enough people to know how to read.

  30. James Pollock November 4, 2016 at 9:48 am #

    I grew up in what you’d call a “transitional” area. When I was young, the major industry was farming (notably nuts and strawberries, but all kinds of agriculture.) Today the area under cultivation is substantially reduced. Agriculture is still one of the leading industries in the county, but tech is king… the largest concentration of workers for Intel is located in this county, and Intel is one of the biggest private employers in the state. We also have the world headquarters for Nike.)

    When the tech industry came to Washington County, it brought skilled workers from elsewhere. Farm hands didn’t transition to being electronics technicians and engineers. Farms produce some of the brightest and most skilled improvisational mechanics, but that’s a different skill set. Let me use a movie to illustrate the difference… Apollo 13 has a famous scene where the astronauts have to improvise an adapter so they can use cartridges for the lunar command module’s air scrubbers in the lunar lander. On the other hand, everything in the lunar command module and the lunar lander was designed by full-time professional engineers (OK, you can insert a complaint about the cartridges being different in the first place as a knock against those engineers… obvious in 20/20 hindsight.)

  31. BL November 4, 2016 at 10:04 am #

    “The traditional farm work on itself does not have track record of creating smart independent small business owners.”

    Not sure what you mean when you say “on itself” but I can tell you the Amish are no longer solely farmers and have done very well as small business operators while remaining about as traditional as can be in the 21st century.

    Check out a book by Donald Kraybill called “Amish Enterprise”.

    We have a large Amish community in my part of Pennsylvania so I’ve seen this with my own eyes.

  32. Anna November 4, 2016 at 10:52 am #

    “You’re wrong. Agricultural work requires a vastly different skillset from modern life, but it required FAR more intelligence and capability than just manual skills.”

    This is very true, and all the more so today, when turning a profit in farming takes imagination, vision, and good business sense. I know one very successful farmer and he’s a remarkable businessman, who had the foresight to position himself as a producer of new crops that could actually make money, while most of his neighbors just lose money every year.

    And by the way, it’s not true (as another poster has claimed) that when Americans were mostly farmers they were all illiterate rubes. It’s been estimated that the functional literacy rate in colonial America around 1800 was about 90% – far higher than today. Or compare the Lincoln-Douglas debates – attended by huge crowds of enthusiastic listeners – with one of today’s political debates, and see if you can still tell yourself we’re smarter than they were.

  33. test November 4, 2016 at 10:59 am #

    @BL By on itself I meant “without any education or other training added or at least surrounding economical system that promotes it”.

    It is not farm-work itself (animals care and what not) that makes amish entrepreneurs, it is that amish live within larger capitalist society and are (mostly) independent to do as they please and have to sell occasionally. That was not the case of pre-revolution France nor the case of old school Prussia mentioned in the article – both being agricultural – but also feudal instead of free capitalism. It was absolutely not the case in Russia by the beginning of the 20th century. This was agricultural country, largely traditionalist and not much entrepreneurship would happen due to legal system in place.

    If the article did not jump all the way to the feudal Prussia and general agricultural societies, I could limit my thinking to whatever became tradition in United States. However, article argued by early agricultural societies and by Francke to who died even before declaration of independence and did not referred to anything in USA later on.

    In any case, I don’t think it is agriculture. It is political/economical system that allows you to make independent decisions where being like small business is the think that leads to success (defined as ability to live by amish rules). Amish who run their small business can read, write and thus learn from books or keep notes about their business. That was not the case of majority of agricultural population most of the time in human history. The ability of general population to read came only after compulsory schooling was put in place.

  34. test November 4, 2016 at 11:11 am #

    @Anna The article argued by late 17th century Prussia and early agricultural societies. I agree that American 19 century farmers were way more literate and also more free to do business.

    But mostly, article does not praise agricultural societies (American or not) as being good for children – agricultural societies are deemed too strict. It praises only hunters who presumably left children fully free to do what children want till they are pre-teens. American 19 century farmers educated their children in reading (which is why literacy rates you mention) and required a lot work from them.

    I am not expert on America history, but I doubt average 10 years old farm kid, whether boy or girl, could freely play whole day out of adults sight. They could not, they had chores to do.

  35. BL November 4, 2016 at 11:19 am #

    @test
    “American 19 century farmers educated their children in reading (which is why literacy rates you mention)”

    … and this had little to do with compulsory schools, since those only came to the US later in the 19th century (and not to some parts until the early 20th).

    As a non-American example, literacy in Eastern Europe at the same time was very high among Jews, who valued scholarship, and low among gentiles who (apart from some elite groups) didn’t. It wasn’t compulsory schools that made the difference. Those turn out functional and complete illiterates by the millions.

  36. test November 4, 2016 at 11:47 am #

    @BL ” It wasn’t compulsory schools that made the difference. Those turn out functional and complete illiterates by the millions.”

    Poor uneducated Jews were first to die in Pogroms and regular revolutionary or whatever blow ups. They were also subject to different laws for centuries. Like, they were not even allowed to start a farm before 19 century, so they were not agricultural society. Nevertheless, Jewish kids were not free to do what they pleased as article considers optimal, they had to learn, work and live by quite detailed religious rules.

    19 century German poor kids started to learn read and write after it became compulsory – parents did not wanted them in schools because they needed them to work right now and were not educated themselves. They could not afford school anyway before that. The rulers started compulsory schooling, because population was uneducated population was unable to adjust to new world changes (industrialization).

    In country I live in, by the 1914, there were still villages where it was hard to get kids to school cause parents wanted them work right now – I read collected accounts from old people. It was oftentimes difficult for teachers, despite teachers having high respect. Nonetheless, literacy went up not entirely voluntary.

    Russia did not even had schools available for most gentiles even by the beginning of the 20th century. They just did not existed. And they were not free to start them nor able to. Russia was not exactly free country for peasants. What who values or wants had no role in it.

    In general, illiterate poor people (including Jews) were less able to escape to America when bad things happened.

  37. Anne November 4, 2016 at 6:01 pm #

    Stacey Gordon, I totally agree! Being around adults 24/7 is not the only alternative. As you said, “Don’t need the adults solving the problems, but don’t need to be around the kids causing the problems either.” In my kid’s case she’s an extrovert, but we don’t have much choice for free play in our neighborhood. We tried socializing with the new family on our block, but after two summers of their kids bullying our daughter, physically going after her, and openly disrespecting all the adults around them, we cut off those ties. Free play is a lot more elusive today than it was when I was a kid.