I have always appreciated Dr. Peter Gray’s perspective. He is a strong advocate of play as one of the most important things in childhood, and believes that children, in many ways, can lead their own learning. It was interesting to read his thoughts on the significant increase in suicide among young people in this piece. According to the article, “ . . . The recent rise in pre-teen, teenage, and young adult deaths is especially disturbing given how fast it has gone up, and the fact that it's bucking a trend of improving death rates for young people from other leading causes of death like accidents, homicides, and cancer. “ So while on many levels, childhood and adolescence has become more safe for kids, we have this rise in suicide rates. What gives?
Gray says, "What makes kids happy is freedom and play.” What has happened to freedom and play among kids over the last 10-20 years? We have seen a dramatic rise in the amount of structured “play” time kids participate in, whether it is organized sports, scouting, chess clubs, even computer gaming groups. Adults are going out of their way to create “safe” play opportunities for kids. If not in structured play time, kids are often home alone, on their handheld devices. The problem is, kids really need unstructured play time. This helps them to strengthen their problem-solving capacity, helps their brains grow new neural pathways, and builds connection among areas of the brain. As Gray says, “Play is the critical way that young people learn to build resilience and courage in ways they can't when their parents and teachers are watching.”
As I explore this issue more, I can’t help but think that it is really a problem of disconnection arising from fear.
In their ever-expanding fear of what might happen to their kids in this big, bad world, parents lose their connection to their own inner knowing of what is right for their kids. The rules and societal norms change so quickly that we just can’t keep up. And unfortunately, those rules are often based on a skewed version of reality. We fear for our kids being out in the world, and yet, that is how they grow and develop. We must look at how fear does or doesn’t play into how we determine what is ok for kids. What we thought was right yesterday is no longer right today. So we lose our connection to ourselves and to that clear voice that tells us what our kids really need. We know that kids gain so many benefits from being out in the world, and yet somehow we feel more safe when they are at home, connected to a device, or in a structured play environment. The lack of freedom is actually harming our kids. But, we aren’t connecting our action and our behavior to reality. We disconnect from our ability to act because of our own fear, which simply allows the fear to fester.
On top of that, our connection to our own kids often feels like it is losing strength. They are in so many structured play activities, and then have so much school work, that we simply don’t have down time with them anymore. Over the last decade or so, as Dr. Gray points out, school has become a job. Kids are expected to begin to build their resume before they are even allowed to hold a real job. As parents, we are working hard, stretched thin for time, and often overwhelmed with our responsibilities. Homework is done on computers, we adults are bringing work home. Everyone wants time to unwind, and today, that often means hanging out on social media, or getting sucked into some videos on YouTube. Have you ever felt like everyone is in their own little corner of your house and no one is connected? Have you ever texted your kids from one room to another room in the house? I know I have.
So how do we begin to address this idea of fear and disconnection?
It starts by connecting within yourself, to your own settled center.
Try this practice:
Sit quietly, in a comfortable position and take three deep breaths, inhaling fully through the nose; exhaling a nice, long, sighing-out breath through the mouth.
Let yourself know that you are safe right now, and your children are safe too. Let yourself simply be in this moment of safety.
Now, allow yourself to connect with one thing that brings up a sense of fear for you about your child. Let this be something that is not overly activating for you. Stick with a 2 or a 3 on a scale of 1 to 10. Maybe it is allowing your child to walk to school alone, go on a bike ride alone or with friends, or maybe it is letting them hand that assignment in late and handle the consequences on their own. Allow yourself to feel the discomfort of the fear arise in your body. Notice what the fear feels like in your body. Notice if it wants to grow bigger. Notice if you maybe want to turn away from it.
See what it is like to simply stay with the fear, breathing with it, maybe even placing a hand over the part of the body where the fear resides. If the fear begins to grow too big, notice the grounding points of your body: the sits bones underneath you, your feet on the floor, the hands resting on the body.
Now, see if you can begin to soften the body, soften the heart around this sensation of fear. You aren’t allowing the fear to grow, and you are not turning away from it. Simply feel it, seeing if you can create some softening around it. Maybe even seeing if you can find some kindness toward this fear, fear that arises from simply wanting your child to be safe.
Notice the sensation of the breath as it comes into the body and then as it leaves the body. Then come back to where the fear resides. Has it shifted at all? What do you notice now about the fear? See if you can simply allow it to be there. Fear is a natural human emotion, one that we all experience. Sometimes it indicates an unsafe situation, but often, it simply means we love deeply. Allowing the fear to be present without having to change it or eradicate it means you simply accept that deep love for your child and that you do so with kindness toward yourself.
When you are ready, you can open your eyes.
What was that practice like for you? Once we connect with how the fear lives in our body, we can approach it with kindness and allow it to soften. Now that you have let the fear soften a bit, can you think of one simple way that you can connect with your child or children today? This doesn’t need to be a grand gesture (if your kids are anything like mine, they will just laugh at you!). Just come up with a simple way to allow just a moment of real time, face-to-face connection. I like to go with my kids to walk the dog, or just go into their room and sit on their bed to listen to whatever it is they want to talk about. They like it when I have no agenda. Sometimes it can even be as simple as closing my computer when they walk in the room.