Recently I saw an article passed around that advocated for more free playtime:

We went to school, but it wasn't the big deal it is today. School days were six hours long, but (in primary school) we had half-hour recesses in the morning and afternoon, and an hour at lunch. Teachers may or may not have watched us, from a distance, but if they did, they rarely intervened. We wrestled on the school grounds, climbed trees in the adjacent woods, played with knives and had snowball wars in winter—none of which would be allowed today at any state-run school I know of. Out of school, we had some chores and some of us had part-time jobs such as paper rounds (which gave us a sense of maturity and money of our own); but, for the most part, we were free—free to play for hours each day after school, all day on weekends, and all summer long. Homework was non-existent in primary school and minimal in secondary school. There seemed to be an implicit understanding, then, that children need lots of time and freedom to play.

All of this (with the possible exception of the time spent in recess) rings true for my childhood. The article draws a direct line between decreasing free play and increasing mental disorders (among other consequences). I had no problem connecting the dots between my 5th grader's homework load and the possibility he will have various problems when he grows up. But then I noticed something odd:

I’m lucky. I grew up in the United States in the 1950s, at the tail end of what the historian Howard Chudacoff refers to as the “golden age” of children’s free play. The need for child labour had declined greatly, decades earlier, and adults had not yet begun to take away the freedom that children had gained.

The author is actually in my parent's generation and I was raised well after the "golden age". So my own childhood, according the the argument made by the author, shouldn't be the model to strive for.

I'm not asking if children should have more free play (they probably should) or suggesting that the author's argument is wrong (I don't really know). What I'm asking about is how parents can make decisions about how to raise their children without being biased by nostalgia from their own childhood. How can we avoid the temptation to revive "the good old days" that just happen to have occurred (of all possible epochs) when we were our children's age?

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    I get very cynical about articles like this: "I remember the good old days, when we wrestled that little kid with the glasses to the ground and pretended we'd gouge out his eyes with a knife, and the teacher didn't interfere. Happier, happier days." Always remember that "research professor of psychology at Boston College" is a successful product of his system. The kids who the system failed don't generally get columns in the Independent.
    – deworde
    Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 9:08

1 Answer 1


I think freedom to play in childhood persisted well after the 1950s in the US. I was raised in the 60s and I had siblings raised in the 70s, and we had a lot of free time. I taught elementary school in the 80s, and the homework and activity load was increasing at that point. My children were small in the 90s in New Zealand, and children there still have abundant free play time - so this is not a universal issue. We moved back to the States when they were middle school aged, and it was a shock! 3-4 hours of homework every night, weekend projects, expectations to be involved in multiple sports or music lessons and also find time to volunteer. Parents' lives in my community revolve around their children's activities.

I think nostalgia is appropriate in this case! Still, we must temper nostalgia by also acknowledging the advantages our children may have that we did not. They are born into an age where hierarchy is beginning to crumble. Leadership books today are pointing to changes in the workplace that will allow newcomers a greater say in how things are done, which their parents would not have had without "paying their dues" for decades. Today's children also have incredibly easy access to so much information which aids decision-making, providing opportunities that their parents would have been ignorant of. And of course, marginalized populations are better off today than they were years ago.

Beyond this, there is a degree of acceptance required. Perhaps you should take the view that you were born in the time you were meant to be born, and your children were born in the time they were meant to be born. And they were born to you. Maybe you allow them to be children of their time, but when you see that they are stressed, bring your own knowledge to the situation to help them cope.

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    It is easy to point to flip sides to all those advantages. Crumbling hierarchy > lack of structure. More information to make decisions > too much information leading to too many decisions, options and choice paralysis...
    – Weckar E.
    Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 3:35

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