Mollycoddled kids 'grow up as narcissists': Psychologist warns growth of play dates supervised by adults is creating generation of children who cannot empathise

  • Children should often play without adults directing, says psychologist
  • 'Free play' allows them to build up empathy for other people
  • The child has to take into account the other child's wants in free play
  • Too much parent intervention 'stops them learning certain emotions'

Parents who hover around their children while they play with their friends risk turning them into narcissists, a leading psychologist has warned.

Dr Peter Gray said ‘free play’ - where children are left to their own devices, undirected by adults - is the primary means by which children overcome narcissism and build up their capacity for empathy.

He claims that the rise of ‘play dates’ and structured activities where there is always an adult present, and the decline of unsupervised neighbourhood play, is storing up problems for the future.

A psychologist claims that the rise of 'play dates' and structured activities is stifling children's social development. File picture

‘By definition, free play is an activity that any player is free to quit at any time. Children know that. Their very strong drive to play leads them to behave in ways that reduces the chance that the others will quit, and that means paying attention to the others’ needs and wishes,’ he said.

‘To play with other children you must please them as well as yourself, and that means that you have to get into the others’ heads and figure out what they like and don’t like.

‘That means overcoming your narcissistic tendencies – tendencies we all have to some degree.’

Narcissism refers to an inflated sense of the self, and a relative indifference to others.

‘Those high in the trait readily trample over others and are generally incapable of forming deep, meaningful, lasting relationships with others,’ said Dr Gray, a professor at Boston College in the U.S. and author of the newly published book Free To Learn.

'Free play... is how they learn to make their own decisions, solve their own problems, negotiate with others as equals, see from others' points of view, make friends, and manage risks'

‘Free play is how children practise taking charge of their own lives.  It is how they learn to make their own decisions, solve their own problems, negotiate with others as equals, see from others’ points of view, make friends, and manage risks. 

'It is also how they learn to control fear and anger.’

But if a parent is hovering nearby and steps in whenever someone gets upset or angry, they deprive children of the opportunity to learn to control these emotions themselves.

‘When children are continuously managed and directed by adults, they don’t develop an internal locus of control,’ he said.

He blames the ‘schoolish’ view of child development – the idea that children gain more from doing what adults tell them to do than from their own self-directed activities - as a key reason for the decline of free play.

‘Even out of school children today are far more likely to be in adult-directed activities and less likely to be playing with other kids on their own than was true in the past,’ he said.

‘As a society we have lost touch with the meaning of childhood.  We no longer think of it as a time of play, but increasingly think of it as a time of résumé building.  That is a huge mistake.’

Additionally, fears about safety mean children are often no longer allowed to play in their neighbourhoods without adult supervision.

Dr Gray advises that, where a ‘play date’ situation is unavoidable, adults should make themselves scarce as much as possible.

‘It depends on the age of the children, but for children aged four and older the parents should, to the degree possible, vanish. Even if they are present with no intention to intervene, they may not be able to avoid intervening.

‘When adults are present, children in our culture look to the adults to solve their problems rather than figure out how to solve them themselves.

‘If an adult can’t literally leave, then she or he should be very busy with adult things – too busy to be interrupted, and should not allow interruption.

‘Trust breeds trustworthiness. Children are far more competent – far more able to take responsibility for themselves and one another – than most of us give them credit for, but they need the freedom to practise that responsibility or else it atrophies.’

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