By Sarah Vander Schaaff
Remember “The Opposite” episode of Seinfeld when George realizes, “…that every decision I’ve ever made, my entire life, has been wrong.” He then sets about to turn old patterns upside down—ordering tea instead of coffee and being blunt instead of agreeable in a job interview—and his life radically improves.
I sense a similar epiphany in the real-life version of parenthood, but whether we’ll change our ways is yet to be seen.
A new study out of the University of Colorado Boulder, says, “…the more time children spent in less structured activities, the better their self-directed executive function. Conversely, the more time children spent in more structured activities the poorer their self-directed executive function.”
The senior author of the study, psychology and neuroscience Professor Yuko Munakata, described executive function as extremely important for children.
“It helps them in all kinds of ways throughout their daily lives,” Munakata said. “…from flexibly switching between different activities rather than getting stuck on one thing, to stopping themselves from yelling when angry, to delaying gratification. Executive function during childhood also predicts important outcomes, like academic performance, health, wealth and criminality, years and even decades later.”
The researchers looked at 70 6 year-olds over a one week period, and had parents record their daily activities. Later, the children’s self-directed executive function was evaluated.
The study’s authors were careful to point out that no causality was established in their findings. Still, if we’re honest about our parenting, we might acknowledge that we keep our kids busy because we think those experiences will give our kids an edge in life.
Is that strategy, as George might say, entirely wrong?
The authors are considering a longitudinal study to better answer that question. You may be able to binge watch the entire catalogue of Seinfeld episodes before the results are known.
Still, perhaps this is another sign that the pendulum is moving. It is interesting to note that this summer also saw an announcement by the American Academy of Pediatrics recommending later start times for schools, not only to better meet the sleep cycles of adolescents but also to help address their chronic exhaustion. Even corporations are catching on, with companies like the automaker Daimler offering the Mail on Holiday to employees. The feature automatically deletes incoming emails when employees are on vacation to allow them to better savor their free time.
Meanwhile, as Labor Day comes and goes, and the pace of the school year kicks into full swing, I wonder: who among us will be brave enough to turn things upside down? What would it look like to drop some of the lessons, the practices, the classes and the scheduled games?
Would our children feel left out?
Or would we find, like George, that we’d had it all wrong before?
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