Is there such a thing as too much play?

The debate about how much play is enough  is one carried out in the popular press, where experts and non-experts alike weigh in. Writing for the New York Times Magazine, Melanie Thernstrom reflects on the question from a personal point of view when her daughter is invited to the home of a friend from preschool, whose father has made a project out of being a free range, non-helicopter parent.

Thernstrom introduces us to entrepreneur and Stanford graduate Mike Lanza who has created environment in his yard where, in his mind, kids can take risks, become independent, and thrive.

He wants his boys to create their own society governed by its own rules. He consciously transformed his family’s house into a kid hangout, spreading the word that local children were welcome to play in the yard anytime, even when the family wasn’t home.

Kids in Lanza’s yard have access to a trampoline, playground equipment, a play river, a fountain and the roof of their multi-story home. Thernstrom expresses concern over the safety of children who are left on their own to climb around on the roof even asking Lanza if he is worried about a lawsuit. He is not.

In Mike’s worldview, boys today (his focus is on boys) are being deprived of masculine experiences by overprotective moms, who are allowed to dominate passive dads. Central to Mike’s philosophy is the importance of physical danger: of encouraging boys to take risks and play rough and tumble and get — or inflict — a scrape or two. Central to what he calls mom philosophy (which could just be described as contemporary parenting philosophy) is just the opposite: to play safe, play nice and not hurt other kids or yourself. Most moms are not inclined to leave their children’s safety up to chance. I certainly am not.

Some of his critics, including Thernstrom, object to Lanza’s sexist assumptions. For example, one reader from Brooklyn, NY comments:

Too bad Mr. Lanza isn’t as focused on improving his misogyny as he is on free play. A future where boys and men recognize females as equals (and know how to engage with each other) sounds even brighter than Mr. Lanza’s aspirations.

Others, such as this reader from Dallas, TX, observe that while Lanza offers little supervision of the children, the play space has been totally devised by an adult:

Yes, these kids are playing outside. But it’s in a world dreamed up, constructed, and subsidized by parents.

Or this one, from a Washington, DC reader:

Great idea, poor execution. The idea of all these toys in the back and even front yard feels constricting. It is just as confining as organized sports or art lessons, except that the kids in the article don’t even leave home.

Others are more sympathetic, and like Lanza, express nostalgia for the good old days, when children spent many hours outdoors with peers, unsupervised by adults. In the words of a reader from St. Louis, MO,

Kudos to Mike! He may take it a bit far, letting kids climb on the roof, but he has the right ideas about play. I grew up running all over our neighborhood, going to other kids’ houses without a parent at the age of seven, biking everywhere and going to the playground and up to the stores unsupervised. And I made it to adulthood with a lot of happy memories and an independent spirit. We have GOT to quit over supervising our children, for their sake.

Indeed, Lanza makes the claim that today’s parents are overly protective and unnecessarily anxious about imagined dangers and that such anxiety is hampering their kids’ development of important problem solving skills and feelings of efficacy. He makes a good point.

But is it true that supervising children’s play leads to anxiety and helplessness? Isn’t it parents’ responsibility to keep their children safe, to protect them from dangers, particularly when they may not have the skill or judgment to do that for themselves? Thernstrom investigates the problem of risk to children and concludes that the actual risk may not be as significant for Lanza as his relationship to risk and his feeling about the way one should live life.

It was clear that we conceived of risk in entirely different ways. He thinks of risk in terms of probability: How likely is it that any given child will plummet to his death? Google has an answer to that question (about 150 children in the United States die from falls from roofs, windows and balconies annually), but I know we would regard that number quite differently. Mike’s decisions aren’t curtailed by statistics, anyway. There’s a quirky, utopian libertarian quality to Mike’s philosophy; he is a man guided above all by his theory of how life should be. For him, low-probability events are very unlikely and therefore dismissible; for me, they are tragedies that befall someone.

In his investigation of the development of autonomy, D. W. Winnicott argues that in order to develop the capacity to be alone, an individual must first be alone with someone else present.(1) He says,

Although many types of experience go to the establishment of the capacity to be alone, there is one that is basic, and without a sufficiency of it the capacity to be alone does not come about; this experience is that of being alone, as an infant and small child, in the presence of mother. This the basis of the capacity to be alone is a paradox; it is the experience of being alone while someone else is present.

Winnicott is speaking here of infants and young children and of the role of the environment in the formation of an individual’s identity. He goes on to argue that one can only become an “I” in a protective environment. Ultimately, given the right conditions, one develops into an autonomous individual, an “I.” Once we  have internalized the protective environment, we have the capacity to be alone.

What are the implications of Winnicott’s understanding on Lanza’s play space? If young children are dropped into an environment without the protection of the presence of an adult, they may appear to be wildly enjoying themselves; internally, however, they may be experiencing significant anxiety, either separation anxiety, from being isolated from a trusted parent or, more seriously, annihilation anxiety, from being placed in a dangerous space without the structure or boundaries ordinarily provided by such a trusted parent.

Moreover, young children of four and five, who are consolidating a conscience, are faced with a particular dilemma. The earliest manifestation of the superego, or conscience, is typically quite rigid, a young child’s understanding of right and wrong being black and white. Deprived of external limits or boundaries provided by parental authority, children are forced to create such boundaries for themselves. Overly permissive parenting can thereby lead to the formation of an unyielding and harsh superego and to a personality structure that is very self-punitive. Such children often have an overdeveloped inside voice that screams, “You are bad,” and an underdeveloped one that says, “Good job!”

In his blog, Lanza suggests that he is, indeed, a very permissive parent. Contrasting his parenting style to that of tiger mom Amy Chua and others whom he believes are too authoritarian and directive, he proclaims that his parenting decisions are driven only by his children’s interests. While his attention to his children’s desires and intentions  is commendable, his refusal to provide any structure leaves his children at risk for needing to create it all for themselves. For example, in one blog post, he describes how by not providing structure, he has forced his son, Marco (age 9 at the time), to provide it for himself:

Because Marco has found strong motivation within himself to be responsible, I think he’ll eventually be better at it than if my wife and I had forced him to act responsibly through penalties and rewards. He’s thinking a lot about how he can improve, and he’s creating his own systems to be organized…To date, the change in Marco is primarily limited to his awareness of his failures to be responsible. He still routinely leaves his things all over the place, loses them, ignores his brothers’ needs, etc. In fact, as I mentioned in the beginning of this article, he just lost his winter jacket last week.

Not only has Marco become preoccupied by thinking about improving himself, he is still failing! Moreover, he is internalizing a sense of himself as never good enough. Perhaps the lack of responsibility noted is Marco’s rebellious reaction to his own overly developed superego.

It seems that it is easier to choose one extreme or another when adopting a parenting strategy or even when thinking about the role of play in development. In reality, however, as Winnicott has repeatedly demonstrated, effective parenting–good enough mothering— requires a delicate balance. As parents, we must provide structure and protection as a setting for play. Infants and young children do best when they are allowed to be alone, to play alone, but in the company of a parent. We must be empathically attuned, but we must ultimately fail in that empathy so that our children can develop the internal resources to become an “I.”  The delicate balancing act that will allow for the unfolding of a healthy identity involves both structure and free play, empathy and empathic failure.

^1.Winnicott, D. W. (1965). The capacity to be alone.In D. W. Winnicott, The maturational processes and the facilitating environment (pp. 29-36). New York, NY: International Universities Press, Inc.

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