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How to give kids autonomy? 'Anxious Generation' author says a license to roam helps

The author's 8-year-old daughter, Rosy, has a "kids' license," showing she has her parents' permission to ride her bike around her Texas hometown.
Michaeleen Doucleff
The author's 8-year-old daughter, Rosy, has a "kids' license," showing she has her parents' permission to ride her bike around her Texas hometown.

American kids are being walloped by a hurtful combination, says social psychologist Jonathan Haidt: too much screen time and too little autonomy.

In his new book, The Anxious Generation, Haidt argues that these two key factors have combined to cause the mental health crisis now facing America's teenagers. A study by the health policy research organization KFF shows that 1 in 5 adolescents reports symptoms of anxiety and depression. Haidt's book offers a series of recommendations for flipping both of these factors around.

/ Penguin Press
Penguin Press

For example, Haidt gives this advice to parents of children ages 6 to 13: "Practice letting your kids out of your sight without them having a way to reach you. While you cook dinner for your friends, send your kids out with theirs to the grocery store to pick up more garlic — even if you don't need it."

But as many parents know, granting kids more autonomy while delaying access to smartphones can be way tougher than it sounds.

Parents confront resistance from many directions: school policies, neighbors, other parents and even the law. Some parents have even faced prosecution. So I wanted to talk with Haidt, who is a professor at New York University's Stern School of Business, about the details of implementing some of his recommendations.

I started our conversation by telling him a story about my daughter, who was 7 at the time:

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Last summer, my husband and I taught our daughter to walk or ride her bike to the local market on her own. Within a few months, police had stopped her not once, but twice. The first time, they brought her home in the back of the police car, which scared her quite a lot.

How do you give children more independence when our law enforcement, our neighborhood and our communities aren't used to it?

Parents need to act collectively:

Step 1: We need to change laws in states to make it explicit that giving your kids independence cannot be taken as evidence of neglect on its own. We've already passed that law in eight states [Utah, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Virginia, Connecticut, Illinois and Montana]. It's being considered in many others.

Step 2: We then have to change group-level norms. And we can do that with what's called the Let Grow Experience. You encourage your elementary school administrators to download the materials from Let Grow [a nonprofit organization that Haidt co-founded to foster childhood independence]. That material gives teachers instructions for assigning kids a specific type of homework. Teachers tell children, "Go home, talk with your parents and find something that you think you can do, but you've never been allowed to do before. Something you think you can do by yourself."

Like going to the store on their bike a few blocks away?

Exactly. Children agree with parents on what the task is. And then the child does this type of assignment once a month for six months.

The brilliant part of this challenge is that it changes the norms. Before you know it, it's normal to see an 8-year-old carrying a quart of milk. It's normal to see a 9-year-old on a bicycle — that's how you change the norms.

So after the second police incident, we actually went to the Let Grow website and printed out the little licenses that kids can carry, saying that their parents have given them permission to walk around town. And our daughter loved that.

Oh good! That was my invention.

Well, thank you. It worked well. We actually thought about going to the police with other parents and discussing how we want our children to walk and ride around the neighborhood without problems.

Oh, I should have put that in the book. So, yeah, once the school does the Let Grow Experience, you can get 10 parents to go into the police station and say, "Here's what we want to do with our kids. And we want to make sure there's no trouble with it."

In your book, you also recommend waiting to give children smartphones until at least high school. As a parent, I'm already hearing parents talk about giving their 9-year-olds a smartphone. How do you even broach the subject with other parents about delaying, without sounding judgy or angering them? I worry that I'll hurt the friendship between our children.

Why not suggest that the 9-year-olds have a flip phone that only has the ability to make phone calls and text? No access to the internet.

Parents think the only option is a smartphone or no phone at all. That's what I thought. So I gave my son my old smartphone when he was in fourth grade and started walking to school. It didn't occur to me to give him a more basic phone. So that was just a failure of imagination. And it's funny because most of the parents now are millennials who grew up with flip phones. The flip phones let them connect. It did not harm them. I see no evidence that flip phones harmed millennials. So just give the 9-year-old a flip phone.

So flip phones allow parents to communicate with their children while they're away from home without giving them access to the internet and all the risks associated with it, such as the risk of bringing strangers into their lives.

Yes, it's really internet-linked devices that allow companies [and strangers] to reach your child directly. And that's really, really a bad thing.

Gosh, I hope it will be that easy to get many parents to go along with this and switch to flip phones. I know I will try.

To change things, we need coordinated action, like this. Parents feel hopeless right now. But they shouldn't feel that way. Things are going to change very quickly because we all want them to change.

Last question: The Anxious Generation focuses on smartphones, especially during middle school. But for many younger children, iPads and game consoles can consume nearly all their time out of school. Is there a developmental trajectory in which children develop screen-based habits at a very young age so that when they do have a phone, it's hard to regulate because long screen times have become a habit?

What you're describing is what I call a phone-based child. It doesn't start with the first smartphone. It starts with the first screens. When I say phone in the book, I don't just mean the smartphone — I mean every internet-enabled device.

If we're going to keep all of our kids alone in our houses because we're afraid to let them explore their neighborhood autonomously, then they're going to get bored. But if we make much more effort to have them spend time with other kids without screens, guess what? They'll figure out a game to play. If you send them outside, they'll figure out something to do. You know, in the '60s and '70s, there were crime waves, but parents still sent their kids outside to play. Today many parts of the country are much safer, and yet we're so afraid to let children go outside. If we're going to take away screens from children, then we have to give them freedom outside too.

This story was edited by Jane Greenhalgh.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michaeleen Doucleff
Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD, is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. For nearly a decade, she has been reporting for the radio and the web for NPR's global health outlet, Goats and Soda. Doucleff focuses on disease outbreaks, cross-cultural parenting, and women and children's health.