By Peter Gray Ph.D.
Without school, children exhibited increased independence and responsibility.
Posted Aug 03, 2020
When COVID-19 resulted in closures of schools and after-school activities for children, generally beginning in early March of this year, there were some dire predictions about the effects this would have on children. Without the structure of school and other adult-directed activities, what would children do? How could parents deal with bored, restless children at home all day? What would happen to children’s minds and bodies? Would they just vegetate?
I have no doubt that the pandemic has had devastating effects on many families. But here I report on the results of a large-scale, demographically representative survey, conducted several weeks after schools closed, suggesting that most children were doing very well, in some ways better than they had before schools closed. The survey was developed and sponsored by the Let Grow nonprofit, headed by Lenore Skenazy (President) and Tracy Tomasso (Executive Director), of which I am one of the founding members, and the surveyed sample was provided by a market research company, OvationMR.
This is a preliminary report based on an initial analysis of the findings. I hope, in time, to conduct a more detailed analysis for an academic article, but academic articles are slow to come out, and these findings are timely right now, as educators, parents, legislators, and children themselves (to the degree that they have any say in the matter) think about what to do this coming school year. Below, I describe the survey method briefly and then summarize the main conclusions, along with some of the data supporting each conclusion.
Survey Method and Sample
The survey sample came from a large, demographically representative list of people in the United States, maintained by OvationMR, who are willing to fill out surveys for a small payment. The invitation to participate did not specify the survey’s purpose but did indicate it was open only to families with a child in the age range of 8 through 13. Separate questionnaires were developed for parents and children. The children and parents came from different families. That is, for any given family, either a parent or child filled out a questionnaire, not both. Parents were asked not to oversee their child’s responses.
The parent questionnaire consisted of (a) 11 items asking the parent to disagree or agree on a scale from 1 (Not at all) to 10 (Yes, very much) with a statement about themselves or their child, such as, “During the past week, my child has helped with chores around the house”; (b) seven items asking the parent to respond with Strongly Disagree, Disagree, Neither Agree nor Disagree, Agree, or Strongly Agree to statements such as, “I am gaining a new appreciation for my child’s capabilities while observing them at home”; (c) a list of eight adjectives—randomly ordered and ranging in valence from “Proud” to “Disappointed”—to check or not check in response to the question, “How does seeing how your child is coping with this period make you feel?”; (d) four additional questions, with separate response categories, dealing with the child’s online learning and outdoor play; and (e) nine open-ended questions in which parents were invited to comment on changes they had observed in their children or in their relationship with their children during the period of school closure.article continues after advertisementhttps://425f3a0b011c5d858fe613035102cdb5.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
The child questionnaire consisted of (a) eight items asking the child to disagree or agree with such statements as “I have been more calm than when I was in regular school” on a scale from 1 (No, this doesn’t describe me at all) to 5 (Yes, this describes me very much); (b) a list of 13 types of activities to check or not check in response to the question, “Which of these activities have you been doing more of in the past week?”; (c) a list of 12 adjectives—such as Bored, Happy, Sad—to check or not check in response to the request, “Choose all the ones that describe how you’ve mostly been feeling the past week”; (d) a yes/no question on whether they had been doing remote or online lessons provided by their school, followed by a question on how many hours a day that occupied; and (e) six open-ended questions in which children were invited to comment on specific aspects of their experiences and feelings during the period of school closure.
In all, 798 parent forms and 762 child forms were completed. The completed forms were nearly evenly distributed across the six age groups of children, across child gender, and across geographic regions of the United States. Twenty-eight percent had a family income under $25,000 per year and 18% had over $100,000 per year. By race of child, 15 percent identified as African American/Black; 15 percent as Hispanic; 6 percent as Asian; and the rest as non-Hispanic Caucasian/white. Of the parents who responded, 40 percent were dads, and the rest were moms. There were no obvious large differences in responses based on any of these variables, though there were small differences that could be statistically significant (not tested in this preliminary analysis).
Now, here are the main conclusions, along with some of the data supporting each.
Overall, children’s psychological well-being seemed to improve after school closure.
Some may be surprised by this conclusion, but those who have been attending to the increased stressfulness of school, with so much focus on drill and testing and with reductions in recess and other creative activities, should not be surprised. Specific findings supporting this conclusion include the following:
- Forty-nine percent of the children agreed with the statement, “I have been more calm than I was in regular school,” and only 25 percent disagreed. The rest were neutral.
- Likewise, 43 percent of the parents agreed with the statement, “My child is less stressed now than before school closed,” and only 29 percent disagreed. The rest were neutral.
- Eighty-five percent of parents rated their child as having been happy during the past week (6 or above on the 10-point scale). Similarly, on the list of adjectives to describe themselves over the past week, 62 percent of children checked Happy, while only 20 percent checked Sad, and 10 percent checked Angry.
- One of the many contributing causes of reduced stress and increased happiness may have been increased sleep. Fifty percent of parents indicated that their child was getting more sleep now than before school closure, and only 12 percent said less. The rest indicated no observable change in the amount of sleep.
- The schools’ requirements to do school lessons online at home, after school closure, was a source of stress for some children. According to the parents, 91 percent of the children were doing such assignments. Of the children doing them, 48 percent agreed with the statement, “I have been worried about making mistakes or not understanding my schoolwork,” 33 percent disagreed, and the rest were in the middle. However, in response to the question about how many hours a day it took to do the lessons at home, the median reply was just 3 hours. This left lots of time each day for other, non-school activities. Some children claimed, in an open-ended question, that doing schoolwork at home was easier and more efficient than at school because there were fewer distractions and less time wasted. For example, one wrote, “I can do 6 hours of school at school, but it takes 2 hours to do all of it at home,” and another wrote, “I work better alone and at my own pace.”
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Children appeared to gain a greater sense of independence and personal responsibility after school closure.
The primary purpose of childhood, from a biological, evolutionary perspective, is to grow increasingly independent and responsible. As I have argued elsewhere (e.g., Gray, 2013), schools tend to inhibit such development. The micromanagement of children’s activities at school, and at adult-directed activities outside of school, deprives children of time to figure out what they themselves would like to do and to learn how to take the initiative and direct their own activities. From this perspective, it is no surprise that the survey results indicate growth in children’s initiative, independence, and responsibility during the time of school closure. Here are some specific findings supporting this conclusion:
- Seventy-one percent of the children agreed with the statement, “I have been finding new things to pass the time,” and only 13 percent disagreed. The rest were in the middle.
- Seventy-one percent of the children agreed with the statement, “My parents have been letting me do more things on my own,” and only 10 percent disagreed. The rest were in the middle.
- Eighty-five percent of the children responded yes or yes sometimes to the question, “During the past week, have you learned new things on your own that weren’t part of your school assignments?” and only 15 percent responded no.
- Sixty-three percent of parents indicated that their child had developed new interests or skills over the past week, 78 percent indicated that their child had helped with chores around the house, and 67 percent indicated that their child willingly undertook activities that were new and/or a stretch for the child. In each case, the measure of agreement was a rating of 6 or above on the 10-point scale.
I have not yet systematically analyzed the parents’ responses to the open-ended question, “What new things, if any, has your child started to do on their own since school closed?” But a preliminary reading revealed repeated mentions of such activities as learning to ride a bike, doing gymnastics, exploring nature, reading for pleasure, learning new games, drawing or painting, knitting or other crafts, learning to play a musical instrument, starting to learn a new language, cooking, doing laundry, and engaging younger siblings in constructive ways. (For a short video presentation of what some children began doing, see here.)article continues after advertisementhttps://425f3a0b011c5d858fe613035102cdb5.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
A great motivator of self-initiative is boredom. Prior to the pandemic, with so much busyness imposed by school, homework, and adult-run after-school activities, children had little opportunity to be bored. It is significant, therefore, that 69 percent of parents reported (with a rating of 6 or above on the 10-point scale) that their child had been bored during the past week, and 67 percent of children checked Bored as one of the adjectives that described how they had been feeling. Boredom may be a negative feeling, but, as the prominent advocate of democratic schooling Daniel Greenberg has said, “boredom stirs the soul.” When adults don’t fall for the bait of amusing their bored children, children figure out interesting things to do on their own.
Parents gained a heightened appreciation of their children’s capabilities.
School closures and other lockdown effects of the pandemic gave many parents opportunities to get to know their children in ways that may not have been present before. Instead of carting their children from one activity to another or pushing them to get ready for school or do their homework, they began to see their children shine as they engaged in activities of their own choosing. Some discovered for the first time that their children could actually be helpful around the house and enjoyed being so. Here are findings that most clearly signify this heightened appreciation.
- On the checklist addressing “How does seeing how your child is coping with this period make you feel?”, 49 percent checked Proud, 45 percent checked Grateful, and 45 percent checked Impressed.” In contrast, only 8 percent checked Annoyed, 6 percent Disheartened, and 6 percent Disappointed.
- Seventy-three percent of parents agreed with the statement, “I am gaining a new appreciation of my child’s capabilities,” and only 5 percent disagreed. The rest were in the middle.
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Contrary to what many might expect, parenting for this sample was not notably more difficult than parenting when children were in school.
Even if parents are enjoying their children and are proud of them, one might expect that simply having children home all day, day after day, cooped up indoors, with parents feeling responsible for helping them with online schoolwork, would make parenting much more difficult than before the pandemic. From this perspective, perhaps the most surprising finding was the relative lack of support for the hypothesis that parenting was more difficult. Here are the most relevant data:
- Forty-seven percent of parents disagreed with the statement, “Pandemic parenting is easier than parenting during normal times,” 24 percent agreed with it, and the rest were in the middle. In other words, slightly fewer than half of the parents reported pandemic parenting to be harder than parenting before the pandemic.
- Fifty-four percent of parents agreed with the statement, “I am more stressed now than before school closed,” 25 percent disagreed, and the rest were in the middle. So, unlike their children, most parents experienced more stress after school closure than before, but that stress was not necessarily a result of their children being home. One can imagine many sources of stress for parents, including economic concerns, problems of working from home, concerns about potential illness, and other concerns that may be more salient to parents than to children.
- Seventy-three percent of parents disagreed with the statement, “During the past week, my child and I are having more conflicts” (indicated by a rating of 5 or below on the 10-point scale).
How might we explain the findings that parenting did not become notably harder for a majority of parents and that parent-child conflicts largely did not seem to increase after school closure compared to before? One possibility is that much of the conflict and difficulty of parenting before school closure had to do with getting the kids off to school, getting them to their after-school activities, getting them to do their homework, and getting them to bed so they could wake up reasonably refreshed for the next school day, all of which were now absent or reduced. Another possibility, as indicated by the responses to so many of the other questions, is that the children, recognizing the need to do so and sensing their increased freedom for self-direction, stepped up to the plate and became more mature, more helpful, and less provoking of conflicts than they had been before.
Regardless of everything else, most children were looking forward to going back to school—because they missed their friends.
Seventy percent of the children agreed with the statement, “I have been looking forward to going back to school,” 18 percent disagreed, and the rest were in the middle. One of the open-ended questions invited children to write about what they missed most about regular school. Of the 206 who responded to that question, 82 percent said they missed seeing their friends; 13 percent said they missed one or more of their teachers; 7 percent missed recess or sports; 3 percent missed music or art; 3 percent missed some other type of class or said they missed classes in general; 2 percent said they missed nothing at all; 1.5 percent said they missed lunch.
No big surprise here. Most parents know that the one thing their children regularly like about school is seeing their friends. This is true despite the fact that children have relatively little opportunity to actually play or socialize with their friends at school. In our society, where we isolate children into homes and greatly restrict free outdoor play, children are starved for friends, and for many children, school is the primary place where they see them.
A second survey was conducted a month later.
After I completed the analysis for and a draft of this report, I learned that Let Grow conducted a repeat survey in May of 2020, using the same questionnaires and new, even slightly larger samples. I have not yet studied the results of that survey closely, but my preview of them suggests that the findings in May were very similar to those a month earlier.
For example, to the statement, “I have been more calm than I was in regular school,” 51 percent of children agreed, and 25 percent disagreed, in May, compared to 49 percent agreeing and 25 percent disagreeing in April. On the parent questionnaire in May, only 18 percent agreed that parent-child conflicts had increased, compared to 27 percent agreeing in April. So, if anything, parent-child conflicts continued to decline even further as the period of school closure increased. I’m looking forward to doing a more systematic analysis to see if there were any significant changes in children’s ways of coping over the month between the two surveys.
And now, what are your thoughts and questions about all this? Do the findings of this survey coincide, or not, with your observations concerning your own children or other children you know? This blog is, among other things, a forum for discussion. Your views and questions are treated with respect by me and other readers. But please present them here in the comments section (by clicking on the little comment balloon below), not to me by email. By presenting them here, you help enlighten others, not just me, and you give many people the chance to respond to your questions. And I get way too many emails.
This article was originally published on Psychology Today .