View of Left Bank and Lake Susan with gazebo in the foreground.

The Importance of Community in Independent Play

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Last summer, noting studies reporting rising rates of unhappiness and mental illness among American teens – and seeing evidence of that trend here – the program staff at Montreat Conference Center scheduled some events for parents in our community. A year later, public consciousness and debate on the causes of the trend and possible solutions are continuing, if not increasing, and so the programs are being offered once again.   

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt raises a prominent voice of concern. In his new book, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, Haidt cites mounting evidence of a mental health epidemic and points the blame squarely at a combination of rampant social media consumption and fear-based overparenting. He advocates for eliminating children’s access to social media and replacing it with unsupervised, self-directed play. (If you don’t think you’ll read the book, fear not; Haidt is virtually everywhere.) 

Some of Haidt’s positions on cause and effect are controversial, and I’m certainly not qualified to judge their merit. Further, I admit to being a sucker for grand-explanations-and-solutions theories advanced in books like this one that are written more for general consumption than the academy (though the author brings some serious scholarly chops to the debate).  

These positions also resonate with me because I want to believe that, at their best, Montreat’s programs, recreation opportunities, and community offer children and youth something of an antidote to the dangers he is describing. I often hear from parents that one thing they love about Montreat is the sense of independence that their children develop in a place where they often walk to Clubs and/or other activities on their own, spend days (mostly) technology-free, and have less “programmed time” in their daily schedule. One parent noted recently to me that her children, after a few days in Montreat, develop “a bit of a swagger,” which she sees as a sign of blooming self-confidence. The same parent also noted the importance of the community in parenting here. “I let my daughter roam NOT because I don’t think she can get into trouble here, but because there will be about thirty pairs of eyes on her just about everywhere she goes.”  

Haidt might quibble with the thirty-pairs-of-eyes justification, but I believe that he would approve of the play and independent exploration that characterizes so many childhood experiences in Montreat. I think he would also encourage us to transport these lessons – to our homes and communities and to policy – and lawmakers, too. 

Whether or not you land in the same place as Haidt will depend upon your own expertise, experiences, and biases. Regardless, we will continue to offer summer programs to raise awareness and, hopefully, encourage further engagement and discussion. One occurred this past week, when some folks joined us for a free class led by Joyce Ann Mercer titled “Calm Parenting in Anxious Times” to discuss ways to be calm parents in times of stress. The next offering comes on Wednesday, July 17 at 7 pm at the Thompson Brown Meeting Room (lower level of Moore Center), when David Bradley, Marriage and Family Therapist and Pastoral Counselor, will be with us. We hope to see you there! 

Richard DuBose

Richard DuBose
President, Montreat Conference Center