September 22, 2021

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Convenient screen-based games disabling children’s sense of adventure

Some weeks ago Seamus Mulconry, secretary general of the Catholic Primary School Managers’ Association spoke at the Oireachtas Committee about how parents are “bubble wrapping” their children, adding that this phenomenon is having an adverse impact on children’s mental health.

While I agree in principle with his statement, I  also believe the opportunities to remove the bubble wrap from children, at a pace that is appropriate have, for the most part, not available to parents. 

With the overarching message of ‘stay safe, stay home’, many children will have lost out on opportunities to develop autonomy over the past 15 months.  Perhaps some degree of developmental arrest is inevitable, but I don’t think we can blame Covid-19. Bubble wrap, helicopter and snowplough parenting are all pre-Covid concepts. 

The messages parents have been listening to over the past decade seem in many ways contradictory. On one hand, we are told to ‘be there’ for our children, to validate and scaffold and support them, while, on the other hand, the message is that we need to encourage children to be independent, resilient and be able to overcome adversity.

As a child psychotherapist, I am conscious that my messaging at times can also be contradictory. 

For instance, if a child is being bullied, I have encouraged parents to do everything in their power to eradicate these experiences. Yet I have also said that the goal of parenting is to become redundant and when your child no longer needs you, you have done your job well. So how do we perfect the concept of ‘benign neglect’ which will help our children become ‘autonomous and resilient’?

Learn how to pace yourself 

One of the really important skills of parenting is ‘pacing’. By that, I mean stepping back and allowing children to take on developmentally appropriate tasks and achieve a sense of control over their own choices. This is a real challenge for parents as if we pace things too slowly we run the risk of ‘molly coddling’ our children and not enabling them to become autonomous, but if we pace things too quickly, we risk over-exposing them to life experiences that they are simply not mature enough to manage.

A lot of parental pacing is trial and error and unfortunately our opportunities to experiment with these dynamics have been virtually non-existent for the past year and now remain few and far between. 

So how can we introduce children to responsibility at a pace that optimises the development of an autonomous self, while at the same time keeping them safe and not overwhelmed? There is no simple answer to this, and it is further complicated by the fact that our children’s experience of the online world is almost the polar opposite to their experience of the physical world and face-to-face experiences.

 Our children’s physical neighbourhoods have never been smaller, yet their virtual neighbourhoods have never been bigger.  This can create a paradox where some aspects of their lives are overly supervised, making empowerment difficult, while another area of their lives is bereft of adult supervision resulting in many of them roaming free in a virtual world.  The parental irony of insisting that many children have their hands held while crossing the road, only to be driving the virtual streets in a stolen car in a video game when they get home is lost on many.

 In a hyper-connected world, online gaming has become a part of our children’s lives. And while we can’t turn back the clock, perhaps there is something we can learn from our pre-gaming days?

I vividly remember summers when I was aged between ten and 13. I’d often head off with friends on bikes to cycle over bubbling hot tar roads to the neighbour’s farm to watch the silage being cut. When we got bored we would take our bikes off to the lake and swim or fish. Or on special days when we would put in some plans, we might hike up the Dublin Mountains where we once rescued a sheep which was stuck in barbed wire – we recalled that story with escalating drama on many occasions afterwards. 

That world of adventure does not seem to exist anymore. Many parents, myself included, would not feel comfortable letting their teenager roam the mountains or head off to a farm unsupervised to jump off bales of hay and try other fun but reckless activities. But why not? If I can see the benefits of this freedom in my own upbringing, then why am I not willing to pass it on?

To start,  because my children are not as wise to the world as I was at their age, and the world is a different place now, with more traffic on the roads. And because of the dilution of a sense of community and neighbourhood values, there are not the same number of people looking out for our children as there was looking out for me and my peers in the 1980s.  But, most importantly, the temptation of convenient and physically safe screen-based activities mean that it is just easier to not encourage them to get up and out.

Obsession with adult-led activities 

The curse of convenience has led us to disable our children’s sense of adventure and our obsession with adult-led activities has meant that we have disabled our children’s opportunities to self-entertain.  What has also emerged is an adult-supervision culture, which involves Garda vetting of volunteers, scheduled sports training from four years of age, and the abundance of extra-curricular activities which have been created by and run by adults.  

These changes in the way we are rearing our children are not without explanation. Multiple reported cases of childhood abuse and high-profile child abduction news stories over the past two decades have impacted how we view childhood safety. Despite the evidence suggesting that the incidence of childhood danger is not rising, our perception and fear of childhood danger undoubtedly are.   But these understandable changes mean that unscheduled play rarely features in childhood. The adult organised ‘play date’ culture has taken over from unscheduled informal play, and so the natural ability of children to self-entertain, self-schedule and self-manage is often unavailable to them. All too often an over-reliance on adults emerges.

Cut loose this summer

Perhaps the unstructured summer months can be an opportunity to remove some of the metaphorical bubble wrap and enable our children to exercise these skills. Let’s use the non-scheduled time to our advantage. This will be as much of a challenge for parents as it will be for children. 

 I am an anxious parent, but I plan to allow my 10 year old to go down the road to the shop on his own for the first time. We have done it many times together over the rolling lockdowns but this will be his chance to go himself. I have no doubt that I will be waiting by the window anxiously waiting for him to return safely and I am sure my head will be filled with thoughts of him being abducted or run over while he is gone. And, of course, it would be easier and less stressful for me just to accompany him myself. But my plan for this summer is not to opt for what is emotionally comfortable for me, but rather relinquish my sense of control and tolerate my anxiety for the betterment of his emotional development and individuation. 

I will keep you posted on how it goes.

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