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All Work and No Free Play is a Toxic Mix: Enter the “Playborhood”

October 23, 2016

The “Anti-Helicopter Parent’s Plea: Let Kids Play” in today’s NYTimes Magazine offers a new name for an old idea: the “playborhood”. The article, by Melanie Thernstrom, describes the effort Silicon Valley parent Mike Lanza had to make to provide his children with the opportunity for free play. Having grown up in a neighborhood where play was unstructured and thus required imagination and initiative on the part of children, Mr. Lanza was distressed at what he witnessed in Silicon Valley as a parent:

Mike found himself up against the fact that in America, the ethos of wealth and the ethos of community are often in conflict: Part of what the wealthy feel they are buying is privacy and the ability to be choosy about whom they socialize with. Mike was determined that his kids would not only know their neighbors but would also see them, every day.

And so Mr. Lanza constructed a free-range play area in his back yard that included many dangerous features and a complete lack of structure and adult supervision:

He designed big neon-yellow plastic signs like those used to warn of wet floors, emblazoned with an icon of children playing and the word Playborhood. He invited kids to parties and gave the signs to their parents, to put in their yards and on the road in front of their houses so their children could “reclaim the streets from cars.”

His notions of free play were not completely embraced by his neighbors, one of whom was Ms. Thernstrom, and some of his ideas of freedom are a little over the top (e.g. allowing his sons to play on the 25′ high roof of their house), but the notion of de-emphasizing achievement and emphasizing liberty resonated with me. Mr. Thenstrom describes the typical Silicon Valley parent’s perspective on child-rearing and offers Mike Lanza’s contrary vision of childhood, which matches my perspective:

 Just as Silicon Valley leads the way in smartphones, Silicon Valley parents think they should be producing model kids, optimized kids, kids with extra capacity and cool features: kids who have start-ups (or at least work at one); do environmental work in the Galápagos; speak multiple languages; demonstrate a repeatable golf swing; or sing arias. To a comical extent, parents here justify the perverted ambition through appeals to research (enlarging the language center of the brain and so forth) while ignoring research on the negative effects on children of being micromanaged.

“What strikes me is that there is this extraordinary level of anxiety,” Mike told me. “Parents don’t have fundamental faith in their offspring.” He dislikes the vast expansion of the role of parenting into every aspect of children’s lives, including curating their children’s hobbies with excruciating care, and he says he aspires to be “the opposite of a tiger parent.” “As a libertarian, one of the biggest problems we have in American society is that children don’t have enough freedom” — children thrive on benign neglect. “Look, there is always a power struggle between children and adults,” he says. “One way to see the present is that the children have been decimated.It’s not good for children that adults have so much control over them.”

One of the books that influenced my thinking about parenting was Neil Postman’s The Disappearance of Childhood. Written in the 1980s, Postman decried the loss of freedom children were experiencing because of the desire of parents to ensure their children were safe and successful. He lamented that the self-regulated pick-up games he experienced as a child were being replaced with formal leagues governed by adults and that the opportunities he had to explore freely in his neighborhood was being lost as anxious parents organized play dates. Thirty years later it seems that the concept of neighborhoods requires an intentionality that used to occur organically, and too many children are suffering from loneliness as a result.

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