Beautiful mixed race African American girl teenager female young woman sad depressed or thoughtful looking out of a window

That Pediatrics Article about Declining Childhood Independence Causing Declining Childhood Mental Health

This article in the Journal of Pediatrics — Decline in Independent Activity as a Cause of Decline in Children’s Mental Wellbeing: Summary of the Evidence — has been getting a ton of attention in the last few days, especially on Twitter, so we are updating our blog post about it.

If the article’s title sounds like what we’ve been saying here forever — darn tootin’. The authors are three prominent researchers in child development: David Lancy from the Dept. of Anthropology at Utah State, David Bjorklund at the Dept. of Psychology, Fla. State, and our own Peter Gray, a professor in the Dept. of Psychology and Neuroscience at Boston College — and a co-founder and board member of Let Grow.

Kids’ mental health is on the line.

Their piece summarizes a wide swath of evidence showing that a major (but not sole) cause of the increase in anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts among young people over recent decades has been the continuous decline in opportunities for them to play and roam independent of adults.

Reversing this trend — stat! — is key, as “children who have more opportunities for independent activities are not only happier in the short run, because the activities engender happiness and a sense of competence, but also happier in the long run, because independent activities promote the growth of capacities for coping with life’s inevitable stressors.”

Emily Oster, author of several popular books on data-driven parenting including “Expecting Better,” examined the paper and wrote in her substack that indeed, it is indisputable that kids are less free, and less trusted to be competent, responsible, resourceful young adults than they were in the ’80s:

Why “The Babysitters Club” matters.

You can see this even in something like The Baby-Sitters Club. The seventh graders in these books — published from 1986 to 2000 — are babysitting for young infants, including at night, making dinner, cleaning the house, and so on. The feel of the world is somewhat different than what many of us experience with our children now.


Emily Oster

Meantime, we have met 7th graders not yet allowed to play at the park, walk to school, or cut their own meat.

Why are trust, responsibility, and independence so crucial to kids’ mental health?

Because that’s how you get a sense of what you can handle, and of who you are in the world: A competent, growing person — not a baby or a bonsai tree.

Kids need independence milestones.

Think about a time you were trusted by your parents or another adult to do something without them — come home by dinner, run an errand, walk your sister to soccer…

That’s a milestone we don’t SEE as a milestone, because it seems so…minor. But those are the milestones that mark the path to maturity. Take them away, and kids are stuck in baby mode, feeling helpless and needy.

And depressed and anxious.

The Journal of Pediatrics article talks about how important it is to have an “internal locus of control” — a sense that you can make things happen, and deal with problems that arise. An “external locus of control” — as I think you can guess — is the feeling that someone or something else is in the driver’s seat. (And you’re in a 5-point harness.)

Our culture accidentally has swapped out childhood freedom and responsibility for adult-run activities. We thought we were eliminating risk, and making them happy.

We went too far.

What to do now.


The article concludes that “concern for children’s safety and the value of adult guidance
needs to be tempered by recognition that children need ever-increasing opportunity
to manage their own activities


Well, individual parents can re-assess whether perhaps they are being almost “too helpful” when their kids are ready to do more themselves. Pediatricians can explain to parents that a risk-free life carries huge risks of its own. Schools can create more independent kids by assigning The Let Grow Experience (kids get the homework, “Go home and do something new, on your own”) and starting Let Grow Play Clubs, so kids get free, unstructured, no-phone play time back in their lives.

And anyone so inclined can help us get more “Reasonable Childhood Independence” laws passed. These say giving your kids some unsupervised time isn’t neglect unless you put them in obvious danger. Eight states down — plenty more to go!

The message through all of this — including, now, a peer-reviewed journal article — is simple: When adults step back, kids step up.

5 Responses to That Pediatrics Article about Declining Childhood Independence Causing Declining Childhood Mental Health

  1. ClemenceDane October 17, 2023 at 3:33 pm #

    I just responded to a Tweet about this study with a recommendation to join your Free Range Kids movement, Lenore – I @’ed you on it 😉 My Twitter (X) is @KDubbstedt

  2. Fanny October 17, 2023 at 3:52 pm #

    I am having an issue where my oldest kid who is 8.5 yo refuses to do things without me, even very small things, despite my very eager attempts and pushing him to spread his wings a little more. I personally think this started for him when a woman called the police on me for leaving him and his siblings in a car while I had a key made in a neighborhood hardware store at the beginning of the pandemic- I was in the building for 3 minutes and have time stamped texts as proof. He became very anxious after this incident. How do I remedy this? Or is this just his level of maturity and he will be less afraid in time? any advice from anyone is greatly appreciated! I am at a complete loss.

  3. Roger October 17, 2023 at 11:02 pm #

    Fanny, I sometimes have conversations like this with my kids.

    Put your shoes on.
    It’s the law.
    Is it illegal to ride in the car with no shoes?
    No, but some Karen might call the police on us anyway.
    Will we be arrested?
    No, but I don’t want to spend 20 minutes talking to a police officer about it.

  4. Mark Headley October 18, 2023 at 12:56 am #


    My impression is that reported declines in ADULT mental health have increased during this period as well. Likely for many similar reasons.

    I’d thought Free Range Kids advocated against much, or ANY, homework. I know no other way to end assigning homework that adults must do; that are beyond kids’ capabilities. That many households can’t afford computers, smartphones, apps, that schools presume in assigning much homework. IMO, school tasks important to assign warrant being performed with proper supervision, adequate equipment at school.

    In my experience, so much of school was wasted downtime where we weren’t supposed to be interacting, speaking, exercising. Yet weren’t free to perform what became homework.

  5. Common sense October 18, 2023 at 7:51 am #

    Mark, exactly this. I’m not a technophobe but I see things like smartphones as tools, not a life style.I don’t own a smart phone, just a flip phone and I tell people I don’t text. If you want to talk to me, do I text and message on my pad and computer? Yes. But my phone is for talking to others. So many people are on their phones all the time, missing the life going on around them. I have other things to do with my time than staring at what other folks think is I teresting