Politics and Child’s Play

September 3, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the unit on bureaucracy and rationalization, I ask students to think about the differences between Little League baseball and pick-up games. It’s the same activity — kids playing baseball. But Little League runs on principles of bureaucracy as outlined by Weber. It has clear rules and authorities to enforce them. In pick-up games kids are free to adjust the rules according to the situation. With no umpires around, it’s the kids themselves who make the decisions. So the outcome on a close call, like whether a runner is safe or out, might depend on the current score (“OK, we’ll give it to you”), the decision on the previous close call, the individual involved (“Hey, it’s little Mason — give him a break”); or it might be decided by rock-paper-scissors. These are all reasonable ways of reaching an agreed-on resolution. And in Little League, they are all off limits. Kids are barred from participating in the decisions that affect their own game.

In Sunday’s Times (here), Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff make the same point about adult-organized activity compared with “free play,” but they go much farther. It’s not just that different structures (bureaucratic or informal) demand different ways of acting and thinking. They have long-term consequences. “Free play . . . matters not only for the health of our children but also for the health of our democracy.”  Clearly, Haidt-Lukianoff are swinging for the fences.

There’s good data to show that they are right about free play getting squeezed out — by school and homework, by adult-run activities (lessons, organized sports), and by solitary vices involving screens. But Haidt-Lukianoff claim that the change has led to anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and suicide. They also argue that it makes for a more polarized society where those who disagree cannot work towards compromise solutions. Do we have any real evidence for these consequences?

The trouble is that Haidt-Lukianoff are talking about how free play affects individuals, but for evidence they rely on data about aggregates — rates of behavior now compared with the same rates in the past. The logic is tempting. Teens today, on average, spend less time in free play. Teens today, on average, report more symptoms of anxiety and depression.  But are those anxious and depressed kids the ones who have been spending less time in free play? We don’t know. It’s also possible that these psychological problems are increasing not just for teens but among the population generally. For example, it’s true that rates of teen suicide have increased in the last decade, but so have rates of suicide among all age groups, including those who grew up in the years when kids had more free-play time.

Then there’s Haidt-Lukianoff’s claim about “the health of our democracy.”
The second predictable consequence of play deprivation is a reduction in conflict management and negotiation skills.
It’s predictable, but has it actually occurred? Haidt-Lukianoff point to the increasing political polarization in the US. “Americans report feeling fear and loathing toward people on the other side and have become increasingly less willing to date or marry someone of a different party. Some restaurants won’t serve customers who work for — or even just support — the other team or its policies.”

But young people are not responsible for this polarization, as even Haidt-Lukianoff recognize. “Play is clearly not sufficient for political cooperation — today’s political elites had plenty of free play as children.” Those “conflict-management and negotiation skills” are part of a willingness to compromise rather than adhere rigidly to ideology in all situations.  So it might be helpful to see who prefers compromise and who prefers ideology. We might expect to find a greater preference for flexibility in what Sarah Palin called “the real America” —  small-town and rural, conservative in religion and politics, more in the South and Midwest than on the coasts.

In 2014, a Pew survey asked people whether elected officials should “make compromises with people they disagree with” or on the other hand whether they should “stick to their positions.” In most comparisons, “real Americans” were less likely to want compromise.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

If the decline of free play is related to the inability or unwillingness to engage with others, that suggests one other variable, one that Haidt-Lukianoff ignore — social class. I’m a little surprised that they don’t mention it since one of the most important and widely read books in sociology in the past 20 years, Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods, focuses specifically on the question of who organizes children’s play — adults or the kids themselves. Lareau compares the “natural growth” parenting of working-class parents with the “concerted cultivation” of middle-class parents. The natural-growth approach lets children develop more on their own, with less parental direction and intervention. Middle-class parents, by contrast, cultivate. They organize and supervise. They pay great attention to what their kids are doing and worry about how that fits with long-term goals. They’re less willing to leave things to chance. . .  or to their children. Needless to say, middle-class kids have far less free-play time than their working-class counterparts, who are left to organize their own play. 

If Haidt-Lukianoff are right, the better-educated, more middle-class people should be less likely to want compromise. But it’s just the reverse. It’s the less educated who want their elected officials to be uncompromising when dealing with people who have conflicting ideas.

This  lack of convincing evidence is disappointing, for I don’t think that Haidt-Lukianoff are completely wrong. They’re making an imhttps://montclairsoci.blogspot.com/2018/09/politics-and-childs-play-ii-different.htmlportant point about play and about politics. But they see the problem as psychological; they focus on individual psychological traits and social skills. They miss the important point that when we are looking at political processes, and even when we are looking at personal reactions and problems, it makes more sense to think about structures and situations, as I will hope to explain in a subsequent post.


Unknown said...

Home run! I, too, was irritated by this article for, among other things, totally conflating the groups involved--especially by class. And your pointing to Lareau is right on target. Upper middle class kids suffer--if they suffer--from over protection, but they are not the ones pouring gasoline on the civic fires. Great job finding the data!

Unknown said...

Didn't mean to be anonymous.
Claude Fischer

Jay Livingston said...

Thanks, Claude. The Pew data is from 2014 -- pre-Trump. Logic says that the differences should have decreased since then. To support Trump conservatives and the very religious have had to compromise important principles on things like federal power, free trade, opposition to Russia, and of course whether personal morality is relevant for politics. And liberals might be less like to approve of dealing with the devil. But my guess is that it hasn’t happened that way.