Nothing Could Be Better For You:
Why Children (and adults) Need More Free Time
In her 2002 Newsweek editorial “Doing Nothing Is Something,” author Anna Quindlen reflects upon how her free time as a child – the time with nothing scheduled to do – helped her develop her own talents as a writer along with her abilities to think abstractly and solve problems creatively, and discusses her concerns that families today who overschedule their kids’ lives are doing them a developmental disservice. Citing a University of Michigan study which revealed that American children had lost on average four hours of free time per week over the last twenty years and a handful of movements that have arisen across the country to advocate for additional recess in school and other ways to get kids more free time and lessen the burden on twenty-first century children, Quindlen clearly demonstrates that the concern is not only perceived, but very real. She goes on to attribute to the problem to American adult’s distrust of kids with nothing to do, our collective culture of competition, and the pervasiveness of workplace culture in private life, ultimately concluding that this way of life and the regimented scheduling that goes with it “not only has no room for contemplation but is contemptuous of it.” It would behoove parents today, she believes, to slow down, stay home, unplug the TV and the internet modem and force their kids to explore the insides of their heads or the woods outside their windows for a few hours a week. Based on my own experience as a kid, current research in psychological development and the continuing trends regarding the ever increasing busy-ness of American life since Quindlen’s editorial first appeared in Newsweek, I couldn’t agree more.
My childhood was different from that of most Millennials. My parents have been divorced as long as I can remember, and my little brother and I grew up in Manitou Springs, Colorado with our mom. We didn’t grow up with all the bonus academic programs, summer camps, leadership seminars, second and third school sports – plus a fourth one in the summer – and all other manners of extracurricular madness Quindlen discusses in her essay. I mean, sure, they were there – it just wasn’t what Andy and I were into and there was no reason for Mom to make us do it. Mom was self-employed, and worked from home as a seamstress and interior designer out of the back room of our tiny little house tucked away in the thicket of scrub oak between U.S. Highway 24 and the exit opposite that for the Cliff Dwellings Museum. The rainwater running off the highway carved a great, deep ditch behind the house, and there was a tall, bent-over oak tree leaning out over it. One day shortly after moving in, we got our friend’s dad to climb up there and hang a rope from the tree. Andy and I spent countless hours a day swinging on that rope, twirling and flying out over the ditch, doing our best to replicate the aerial acrobatics of Toby Maguire’s stunt doubles. And when the rope swing got boring, it was up into the woods, where we’d scavenge junk thrown off the highway and use it to construct forts among the boulders. Manitou is a small town, and a safe town – the kind of town where everybody knows everybody else and you can’t go out anywhere without your mom bumping into someone else’s mom from school and wasting an extra forty-five minutes in Safeway when you’re dying to get home and play for the sun goes down. Thankfully, Andy and I didn’t go grocery shopping with Mom a whole lot – we usually just did it for her. Especially in the summer, when the days seemed infinite in length without the imposed structure of the school day, Mom would send us on all sorts of errands about town while she stayed home and worked. And once the errands were done, we were expected to stay outside and keep riding until we “got the stink blown off” us, as Mom used to say, and the sun started setting. Andy and I rode our bikes from the Cog Railway at the base of Pikes Peak to the shops in Old Colorado City six miles away and everywhere in between picking up this or that grocery item for Mom, getting ourselves to soccer practice, or rounding up our friends for a pick-up football game or a hike up Red Mountain. I was free to roam and explore the world on my own, as long as I kept track of Andy, of course. I had to learn how to interact in an adult world, get lost and find my way again, coordinate plans with multiple friends, politely asking their mother to release them to play. I learned invaluable social skills during those adventures as well. Not only was I usually organizer of whatever impromptu escapade became the game of the day, but I often also found myself in the role of mediator and referee. When Andy accused Miles of not returning to his base after being tagged in “capture the flag,” or Zach tried to convince us it was third down, not fourth, that he’d just failed to convert on, I was the one the group turned to, being the oldest, to settle the dispute. Sometimes I could negotiate a deal, sometimes they had to fight it out – both helped me develop a sense of fair play and learn to solve conflicts peacefully and productively. I can’t imagine the person I might have turned into if I had been deprived of those formative experiences by having my free time strictly regimented and scheduled, filled with all sorts of frantic drudgery for the sake of making me competitive on future college applications, ensuring I contribute my fair share to the tax burden and GDP, and keeping me from launching water-balloons at the tourists in the Manitou Penny Arcade.
But what do I know? Maybe my brother and I are merely statistical anomalies and it’s a miracle we didn’t grow up to be hell-raisers and outlaws – true menaces to society unable to fit in because we’d been allowed run amuck as youth and would never be able to conform to the sensible standards and routines of society, if even for our own good. Maybe if our time had been filled with summer camps, baseball leagues, debate teams, choir practices, piano lessons and chess clubs I’d have graduated high school at fifteen, college at eighteen, and be making six figures a year by now at some giant corporation with a beautiful wife, fancy car, and a big expensive house in the suburbs. Instead, here I am at twenty-six years old, just starting community college, unmarried, with no land or high-value assets to my name. It must be because of my mother’s flagrant disregard for my developmental well-being and future market value, allowing me to go so many hours without adult supervision and direction, right?
Wrong: the most recent research in psychological development indicates this isn’t the case at all. In fact, an original research article published in the online academic journal Frontiers in Psychology on June 2014 reveals the exact opposite to be true. The study, conducted by a team of scientists from the University of Colorado in Boulder and Denver University, evaluated the effects of “structured” and “less-structured” activities on the development of children’s self-directed executive functioning (EF), defined as “the cognitive control processes that regulate thought and action in support of goal-directed behavior.” They go on to say that executive functions “support a number of higher-level cognitive processes, including planning and decision-making, maintenance and manipulation of information in memory, inhibition of unwanted thoughts, feelings, and actions, and flexible shifting from one task to another.” In other words, when you’re home alone and Mom left the cookie jar within reach but you know she’ll be mad if you take one, or when you want to have another beer with dinner, but you still have to drive home later, self-directed executive functioning is what you employ to resist the urge. When you invent a clever little pneumonic rhyme for yourself about the order of the planets in the solar system based on their first letters and sing it to yourself later to write the answer on a homework assignment, you’re employing self-directed executive functioning. When you get home from school, look at the clock and, based on how many hours are left in the day, how fast you think you can work on a given assignment, and which one is due first, you decide to work a bit on your math assignment tonight and knock out that big paper for English tomorrow when you don’t have any classes, you’re employing self-directed executive functioning. There isn’t a practical part of our lives in which we don’t employ self-directed executive functioning in some manner, to some extent. The researchers collected data on children’s various daily activities (school, sports, hobbies, etc.) classifying them as “structured” or “less-structured,” tracked the how many hours each child spent engaged in each type of activity, and put them through a multitude of tests evaluating various elements of self-directed EF. They found a direct relationship between time spent in less-structured activities and improved self-directed EF, and between time spent in structured activities and poorer self-directed EF, describing these relationships as “robust (holding across increasingly strict classifications of structured and less-structured time) and specific (time use did not predict externally-driven executive functioning).” It is important to distinguish here between self-directed and externally-driven executive functioning: while the former is done at the will of the individual, the latter is done at the command of another, usually an authority figure. It’s the difference between choosing to do your homework because you want a good grade and doing it just because Mom told you to. The scientific verdict is in: scheduling every hour of our children’s day inhibits them from developing cognitive skills critical to academic performance, professional success, stress management, social interaction, creativity and innovation and just about every other facet of their lives.
Yet trends show that the “culture of cutthroat and unquestioning competition” and “workplace presence” Quindlen discussed being forced upon children by parents with too little time to unwind themselves is as pervasive as ever. A 2008 survey from Pew Research Center found that the number one life priority among self-declared middle class Americans is now “having enough time do the things [they]want.” Over two-thirds chose this survey option as their priority over all else, to include having children, getting married, or having a successful career. In the summary of their results, Pew poses the question: “Is this a reaction to the stress of modern life? Is leisure-time shrinking for middle class Americans?” To which I believe most Americans would respond with a resounding, “Yes!” A survey conducted by Opinion Matters on behalf of GFI Software found that 81% of Americans responded to work e-mails on weekends and 59% responded even during vacation. I think we’re all ready for some legitimate off-the-clock time.
Americans are working harder and harder, producing more and more, for lower and lower pay. A report published by the Economic Policy Institute in January 2015 revealed that while worker productivity rose 74.4% between 1973 and 2013, while worker compensation rose only 9.2%, after being adjusted for inflation. Meanwhile, a technological revolution is eliminating jobs with automation faster than we can come up with new ones or train people to fill them. And as the struggle to make ends meet becomes more and more difficult, more and more hours in our schedules are filled in, more and more hours spent racing here and there, doing this and that – setting up appointments, paying bills, making sales, going to interviews, taking night classes at the community college, and . . . oh, yeah – the kids! Of course, we’re still taking care of our kids! Although, it’s usually by keeping them just as busy as ourselves. Even if we wanted to give our kids a few more “less-structured” hours per week, we simply don’t have the time ourselves. I was lucky: besides having a stay-at-home mom who grew up in the fifties, Manitou was a safe town. Everybody knew everybody and there was hardly any crime. Most of us today don’t know our neighbors well enough to let our kids play in the street, especially if we aren’t home, so we dump them off on some other adult we can pay to keep them busy and hold legally responsible for their safety should they lack the self-directed executive functioning capacity not to swallow Hot Wheels cars or stick paperclips in electrical outlets. For every person and organization out there seeking to ruthlessly exploit every spare man-hour they can squeeze out of us adults, there’s another looking to capitalize off keeping our kids occupied while they do it.
The problem is not one of lifestyle choices – the problem is systemic. The busier and more regimented our lives get, the busier and more regimented our kids’ lives get, and slowly but surely our society loses its collective self-directed executive functioning – its ability to evaluate new information, think outside the box, question its own goals and motives, and choose a new direction. President John F. Kennedy once said, “The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics, whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were, and ask, ‘Why not?’” Yet today, faced with the looming catastrophe of global climate change, we have a system that is stripping children of the ability to do just that. At a time when we need revolutionaries, we are cultivating conformity. The excruciating scheduling and regimentation of our free time, and in turn our kids’, came as an extension of the places we spend our un-free time: school and the workplace. The collective delusion that high profits and improved standards of living are mutually dependent led us to structure our education system in accordance with the needs and desires of the corporate state. In his famous 2007 TED Talk on education, Sir Ken Robinson aptly points out that “our education system has mined our minds the way we strip-mine the Earth: for a particular commodity.” The result is a population, in spite of their education, and in some cases because of it, too indoctrinated and hopelessly dependent on the system to understand the fight they are locked in, let alone that they are losing it. Karl Marx understood that the capitalist system inevitably pits capital – the employer – against labor – the employee – in an eternal struggle over the length of the working day. As the data shows, and every American can feel, capital has been winning that battle since at least 1973. We started stealing our kids’ time in proportion to capitalists stealing our own.
We need massive systemic change that redistributes the masses of wealth the rich have accumulated from increased productivity to the workers who created it and education reform that focuses on developing free, creative, independent human beings, not disciplined, obedient workers who can increase stock prices and corporate profits. Instead of working more hours for less pay, we could all be working less hours for more pay. We could have more time to spend at home and keep the streets safe for our kids to play baseball and learn to ride a bike. We could have time to get more involved in our communities and our kids’ schools – make sure our children are getting what they ought to out of their education, and if they aren’t, demand change. Instead of a system that stifles creativity, only reproducing itself in various versions, each more ruthlessly efficient than the last, until its internal contradictions bring it to collapse, we could have a system that cultivates innovation, adaptation and imagination, producing free-thinking, intelligent and ethical people capable of appreciating and building upon the cultural achievements of the past and preserving their blessings for future generations, if only we can muster the courage to take a radically new direction.