Most people know that something is going badly awry with the next generation.
We know this not because older people are, as always, complaining about how the morals and manners of kids these days are so much worse than they used to be. We know it instead because the young people themselves are telling us so. In almost every category of mental health disorder—anxiety, depression, and so on—we see spikes that are unprecedented. The question is why, and why now?
It’s not often that an executive summary from TheJournal of Pediatrics ricochets around the internet. But this week we saw just that with the findings of a study from three researchers entitled “Decline in Independent Activity as a Cause of Decline in Children’s Mental Well-Being: Summary of the Evidence.”
The broad thesis is that, while many factors have led to the national emergency we are seeing with adolescent mental health, there is one major factor that is insufficiently recognized: the decline in unstructured, unmanaged, and unsupervised play.
The study shows, for instance, how rates of children playing outside has plummeted. This is not because of the “laziness” of video-gaming kids but because of parents’ fears of crime or traffic or, I would add, of not being seen as good parents.
This research is supported by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s upcoming book The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, which releases in March 2024. After reading the manuscript, I believe this will be a decade-shaping book—Haidt’s arguments are compelling and reshaped my thinking.
Haidt demonstrates that what we are currently seeing are not just the “normal” patterns of anxiety true in every era. Something has dramatically changed since 2010. One of the major points of the book centers on a shift from what Haidt calls “play-based childhood” to childhood based on “safetyism”—defined by “over-supervision, structure, and fear.”
It turns out that play and exploration are essential for what it means for us to thrive as human beings. And by play, I do not mean organized sports or hobbies (while those are important). I mean the sort of unstructured freedom to independently encounter obstacles and problems—and overcome them. And to pursue this for its own sake, not to put an item on a college admission application or a résumé or even to gain status with one’s peers.
This might look like spending a day wandering through the woods, playing an impromptu stickball game with the neighbors on a city street, or combing the neighborhood looking for arrowheads or lost coins—without a hovering parent in sight.
Why do we need this?
In the book Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World, M .R. O’Connor notes that one of the things that distinguishes human beings from animals is that our cognitive abilities are rooted not in instinct but in process.
No one tells cicadas when it’s time to find a mate or bees how to get back to the hive. Human beings, though, need to be lost. We need to find ourselves in situations where we must collect information, remember markers and monuments, and find our own way.
In this kind of “wandering,” we learn how to “record the past, attend to the present, and imagine the future.” A child who gets lost in a game of Capture the Flag or who doesn’t know how to get back from where she meandered in a forest becomes embedded in a story—a story filled with manageable “crises.”
“Out of the stream of information generated by our movement, we create origins, sequences, paths, routes, and destinations that make up narratives with starting points, middles, and arrivals,” O’Connor writes. “It’s this ability to organize and remember our journeys that gives us the ability to find our way back.”
In this week’s episode of The Russell Moore Show, I had a conversation with Amanda Ripley, who is probably the world’s most-respected living expert on matters of “high conflict.” Referring to some of my experiences over the past few years, she said, “I genuinely don’t know how you survived that.” I don’t either.
I can say that it was by the grace of God, which is true—but that grace didn’t just suddenly show up. Part of that grace was the fact that, growing up, I had ample time to explore on my own. When I wasn’t in school, at church, or at a family meal or outing, my parents did not know where I was.
I cringe when I think of the snake-infested swamps I explored and the busy roads on which I rode my bicycle with a friend—all without GPS or an app synced to a device in my mom’s pocket. That wasn’t because my parents were neglectful. In fact, just the opposite—both my parents were deeply involved in my life, as were both sets of grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, church members, pastors, and the Avon lady. They just never thought to helicopter, mostly because they didn’t think they were supposed to.
They would never have allowed me in a place of danger that would be too overwhelming for me. They would have stepped in immediately had they found out that I was going to a knife-throwing competition, a biker gang meetup, an Alice Cooper concert, a Southern Baptist Convention executive committee meeting, or anything like that. But short of that, I was given the freedom to find my own way. And that is grace.
Without a sense of play and of wayfinding and of overcoming manageable obstacles, any one of us could start to see the world as a dark, foreboding place and ourselves as at its mercy. With that sort of pressure, one simply cannot engage the imagination or learn how to quiet the limbic system. By learning how to find our way home literally, we learn that we might also find our way home metaphorically when needed.
As Christians, this principle shouldn’t surprise us. The Bible repeatedly pictures human life as a pilgrimage. God put his people in wildernesses without maps, with only landmarks that pointed to past mercies and future promises—a Bethel here and an Ebenezer there.
Sometimes God led his people with an unpredictable pillar of cloud or fire, at times leaving them in the tension of it all with what seemed to be a silent sky overhead. It’s the wilderness, not the temple courts, that teaches us that “man does not live on bread alone” (Deut. 8:3).
When his disciples wanted to know where they were going, Jesus would say, “Come … and you will see” (John 1:39). When one of them wanted to know the way to the other side, to where they could find him, Jesus simply said, “I am the way” (14:6).
We ought to thus learn from this moment. The next generation needs security—counsel, guidance, affection, love. But they also need to not be responsible for assuaging all the adult anxieties of their parents or teachers. They need to play. They need to wander. They need to imagine. That’s true of parenting, and it’s true of discipleship too.
Perhaps the best thing we can do for the saved is to let them get lost sometimes.
Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology project.