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For many kids, lockdown is a blessing in disguise

Gone are the oppressive schedules, replaced with long stretches of glorious free time.

My youngest child is a handful. He is stubborn, opinionated, and passionate. He also hates school, and has made this known every day since September, when he started junior kindergarten. But ever since lockdown began in early March, he has thrived. His tantrums have subsided, his disposition has transformed, and he has become a happy, calm, and pleasant little guy. Our new quiet, socially isolated life has been the best possible thing for him.

It turns out, he's not the only child benefiting greatly from a slower pace of life. CNN reports that countless children are happier these days. Despite parents' initial reluctance to shelter in place, many found after a few weeks that their kids settled down and established comfortable routines: “They are less busy, have more control over their time, are sleeping better, seeing more of their parents, playing more alone or with siblings — and feeling better for it.”

I believe it. Finally, the thing that so many children have needed for so long – a less rigid, packed schedule and more free time to play and be bored – has come true, albeit for an unpleasant and distressing reason. This is something child psychologists and free-range parent advocates, myself included, have been calling for for years, but it's a hard rut to climb out of, when everyone around you buys into the idea that extracurriculars are a child's key to academic and social success.

There are no formal studies yet to support a pandemic-induced spike in child happiness, but there are good reasons to expect one – at least in those families fortunate enough not to be facing profound financial difficulties or coping with abusive relationships during this time. School, for example, has become so achievement-based, with outdoor playtime increasingly limited and behavior so tightly proscribed, that it leaves almost no time for creative play. Now that it's out of the way, children are suddenly free to do what they want – build LEGO, read books, build forts, sleep in, make art and music, cook and bake. In the words of Dr. Peter Gray, psychology researcher at Boston College and co-founder of the Let Grow movement,

“We tend to think children develop best when carefully guided by adults. So the belief is that even when they are out of school, children need to be guided. Kids rarely get a break from being judged and directed. [But now] they have time on a nice spring day to just sit outside and enjoy the sunshine.”

Because so many parents are working from home, their attention is not entirely focused on their kids, who are being left to their own devices for much of the day. This encourages independent behaviors, such as preparing snacks and doing chores and resolving disputes. One mom of five-year-old triplets and an eight-year-old told CNN that she hears her own name being called much less throughout the day: “I swear before they couldn't do anything without me. They couldn't even get a cup of water, [but now] there seems to be this newfound feeling that we don't need Mom overseeing everything that we do.”

archery© K Martinko – Homemade bows and arrows

Similarly, many siblings are learning how to get along for the first time. In the words of a Nashville teacher, Braden Bell, whose 17- and 13-year-old sons are finally bonding,

“In many ways we have gone back to how humans lived for thousands of years, and are having extended periods of time with immediate family. These are rhythms that we had as humans for a lot longer than our crazy contemporary lifestyles.”

While part of me is eager for lockdown to end so I can get a haircut and go out for drinks with friends, I'm also reluctant to see my family's life go back to how it was before. Despite my conscious efforts not to get sucked into a busy extracurricular-driven lifestyle, it still happened to a minor extent – enough to make each day feel like a hyper-scheduled laundry list of tasks that resulted in me collapsing in bed every night, wondering where the hours went.

My littlest son will still have to go back to school in September (assuming it reopens by then); I'm not going to continue homeschooling indefinitely! But I can now appreciate how this unexpected respite has helped him grow, mature, and calm down. Indeed, it's done the same for all of us, and I am determined not to forget the lessons learned from our pandemic life as we move forward.

Gone are the oppressive schedules, replaced with long stretches of glorious free time.