03/20/2014 05:19 EDT | Updated 05/20/2014 05:59 EDT

Are Hovering Parents Breeding Narcissistic Kids?

Kids don't get to be kids the way I was a kid, when I was a kid.

I grew up on a street filled with children who I biked with, played baseball with and whose basements I played in. To this day, many of those neighbours are still, at the very least, good acquaintances. We've regaled others with tales of those days, remembering them fondly, building forts in the winter and playing tag in the summer. Back when we were kids, we all played outside together for hours.

Sure we'd fight, and even be mean to each other some times -- we were kids. But we always made up. We were friends and we had a blast.

A new study suggests that because we played outside, away from our parents' sight, we were likely a generation of fewer narcissists. That's because, according to the study, free play breeds empathy and lack of it removes a valuable learning opportunity for children to care about what other children think and feel.

In fact Dr. Peter Gray, who spoke to the Daily Mail about the study, said free play is the primary way children learn empathy and overcome narcissism.

"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 told the Mail.

"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."

And so, playdates, where parents go to each other's houses and sip coffee while their kids play in the basement, isn't exactly offering the social interaction and experience we hope it does. Proximity to mommies who can, and will, and do intervene when Jimmy refuses to share his toys or Johnny refuses to talk to Sally removes a valuable opportunity for them to figure out how to manage the situation themselves.

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"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," Gray said.

Gray blames society for losing touch with what being a kid means these days. And he's right. To a large extent we are giving our children a lot less freedom than our parents most certainly gave us. However, I admit I would have a hard time letting my children play outside out of my sight, and obviously we must let our children play in age-appropriate ways. But that doesn't mean we can't try to provide as many opportunities for children to socialize, in different environments, as we can.

At first glance, the study points the finger at play dates as the crux of the issue. That moving from outdoor free play to indoor 'planned' play automatically means parental intervention at every conflict.

It's an over simplification to be sure, that even the slightest negativity triggers a call for mommy. With a three-year-old, sure, most likely, but a bunch of seven year olds playing together in a basement would react to each other quite differently.

I could see where proximity to immediate adult intervention might actually inspire older children to work harder to work together so that their mom doesn't need to step in.

The lesson to be learned from the study isn't that play dates are evil and breeding narcissists. But, perhaps, there is something to be said for letting our kids, even the little ones, work it out (obviously not physically) to see if they can resolve conflict themselves, before we even consider stepping in to try to help them.

It's that whole "give a fish" versus "learn to fish" thing. We do our children no favours by coming to the rescue and ending conflict the minute it erupts, every single time. There is something to be said for them learning how to do it themselves.

The Mail headline "Mollycoddled kids 'grow up as narcissists': Psychologist warns growth of play dates supervised by adults is creating generation of children who cannot empathise," is misleading.

Play dates aren't the problem. Parents who can't keep themselves from guiding every step and intervening at each and every mishap could be. We need to let our kids be kids. Conflict is healthy. Even for children. Learning to manage conflict is a life skill we need to give our children the opportunity to learn. So that they don't grow up to become narcassists.

Written by Leslie Kennedy


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