More Structure for Kids Stunts Their Development

From planned play dates to sporting teams, from supervised homework to music lessons, the almost constant supervision of kids by parents and adults is a common theme in raising today’s children. But new research indicates that adults’ constant hovering over kids actually serves to stunt the development they need to one-day function as independent adults.

A recent study by the University of Colorado in Boulder found that children who spend more time in less structured activities exhibited greater “self-directed executive function” — a measure of the ability to set and reach goals independently — than kids who spend more time in structured activities.

Those kids who spent more time in less structured activities were better able to set their own goals and take actions to meet those goals without prodding from adults.

“Executive function is extremely important for children,” said Yuko Munakata, senior author of the study. “It helps them in all kinds of ways throughout their daily lives, from flexibly switching between different activities rather than getting stuck on one thing, to stopping themselves from yelling when angry, to delaying gratification. Executive function during childhood also predicts important outcomes, like academic performance, health, wealth and criminality, years and even decades later.”

What Parents Can Do:

  • Parents should find ways to increase opportunities for their kids to experience more time in unstructured activities.
  • Over time, parents should expand kids’ freedoms and responsibilities in age-appropriate ways that allow them to increasingly make their own decisions.
  • Parents should place a priority on child safety. But in our fast-paced information culture, as media sources publicize tragic crimes against children, it’s easy for parents to mistakenly assume that their children live in a more dangerous world than statistics demonstrate. It is not a common perception, but today’s world is actually safer for U.S. children and teens than it was 20 years ago. The Crimes Against Children Research Center has found that crimes against children and teens have decreased dramatically over the past two decades. Parents should strive to live out a realistic view of safety issues that allows for kids to engage in appropriate unstructured activities.

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Jim Liebelt

Jim Liebelt

Jim is Senior Writer, Editor and Researcher for HomeWord. Jim has over 35 years of experience as a youth and family ministry specialist, having served over the years as a pastor, author, consultant, mentor, trainer, college instructor, and speaker. Jim’s HomeWord culture blog also appears on Crosswalk.com and Religiontoday.com. Jim and his wife Jenny live in Quincy, MA.

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