Making Childhood Healthy Again

Type: Article
Topics: Health & Wellness, School Administrator Magazine

June 01, 2019

Julie Lythcott-Haims is working to reverse societal factors that lead to widespread anxiety and depression among students.
Jule Lythcott-Haims headshot
Julie Lythcott-Haims, once a university dean, is working to reverse societal factors that lead to widespread anxiety and depression among students.

It can seem like the very purpose of childhood these days is to get into the “right” college. As we put more on kids’ plates and take autonomy and control away from them, children develop anxiety and depression. The teens I hear from say spending money on mental health resources while refusing to dismantle the achieve-at-all-costs mentality gets us nowhere.

Can we be brave enough to ask kids what it feels like to be a child in our community? Can we listen to what they say? Can we commit to being the adults who will make childhood healthy for children once again?

I think we have no choice but to do so.

Positive Priorities

The nonprofit organization Challenge Success (founded by Stanford lecturer Denise Pope) recommends “PDF” as the protective factors against anxiety, depression, self-harm and cheating behaviors that do not compromise rigor or achievement. P stands for playtime. D is downtime. F is family time.

It’s hardly rocket science. Nevertheless, it takes guts to prioritize such things when everyone around us is gunning for higher grades and test scores and more accolades and awards for children and, in the aggregate, for schools.

Playtime may be the hardest to come by. According to psychologist Peter Gray, free play is essential because it’s when children learn how to interact with others, develop creativity and imagination, strengthen their bodies and process what they have learned. But instead of letting kids play freely, these days we put them in cages of enrichment, where every hour outside of school is attended by adults and geared toward yielding tangible benefits for their future. The superintendent in Wilton, Conn., Kevin Smith, recently created a Free Play Matters Task Force to restore free play in the community. And at Swanson Primary School in Auckland, New Zealand, principal Bruce McLachlan eliminated all rules at recess, resulting in a decrease in injuries, bullying and vandalism and an increase in classroom concentration. The nonprofit Let Grow offers practical advice for communities wanting to bring children back outside. If you’re ready to get started, consider Gray’s advice: “You want to know what free play is? If there’s an adult present, that’s not it.”

Downtime can exist only in the absence of constant busyness. It allows kids to process and reflect upon what they’ve experienced and to decide for themselves what to do next. This builds resilience, imagination and critical thinking. We have to prioritize downtime and reduce the number of activities accordingly.

We also must ensure kids aren’t crushed by the volume of homework. You can champion Denise Pope’s view on the purpose and value of homework (“don’t confuse rigor with load”) and know when the volume crosses the line. Also consider joining the districts that either cap the number of Advanced Placement courses a student can take in high school at five (based on research that five is the upper limit as a predictor of success in college) or outright eliminate APs in furtherance of honors courses developed by the school’s faculty.

Suicide Responses

My children’s school district, Palo Alto Unified in California, had little choice but to make big changes after two recent suicide clusters claimed the lives of 10 students. With the help of Challenge Success and other influencers, the district implemented these changes to improve student mental health and wellness in our two high schools: (1) a later school start time; (2) a block schedule to stagger homework assignments and due dates; and (3) course exams scheduled before holidays to give students a true break.

Family time is the third protective factor. It can be any regular time when kids and parents can be together. Lives are hectic and calendars rarely align — I know this well with a teenage daughter devoted to dance practices five or more days a week. But if we let family time go, we begin to erode not only the protection it offers our kids but the very fabric of our relationships. With my daughter heading off to college in three months, I deeply regret that we didn’t find a way to have dinner together more often.

In addition to the PDF strategy advocated by Challenge Success, children are mentally well when they are given the agency to accomplish tasks on their own. This means parents need to do less hovering, reminding and rescuing and instead allow kids to be responsible for their own choices and outcomes. This inherently entails allowing kids to fail, which builds grit, resilience and greater competency.

Consider adopting a school policy that parents may not bring forgotten homework, sporting equipment or bag lunches to school. Consider a policy that parents must not do the child’s homework. If you have a school gradebook portal that allows parents to get updates more regularly than quarterly, consider turning that option off.

Finally, we must champion the fact that there are plenty of wonderful college choices beyond the most highly selective schools. Kids don’t have to mortgage a healthy childhood to get into a good college, period.

Make these efforts and your students will thank you. In the long run, their parents will thank you too.


Julie Lythcott-Haims
About the Author

Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshmen at Stanford University, is the author of How to Raise an Adult.

   Julie Lythcott-Haims