This article was featured in One Story to Read Today, a newsletter in which our editors recommend a single must-read from The Atlantic, Monday through Friday. Sign up for it here.
What if my kid doesn’t have friends? That thought probably occurs to most parents at some point. People tend to worry about toddlers developing social skills, tweens getting included at school, and teens finding a supportive friend group; they wonder about the boy playing by himself in the sandbox, and fear a poorly attended birthday party. But although they dwell on whether kids have too much alone time, adults don’t tend to consider whether kids have enough of it. In fact, researchers told me, people seem entirely uncomfortable with the idea of a solitary child.
Kids’ lives, to be fair, aren’t always conducive to solitude; the younger ones require supervision, and the older ones are often busy trying to fit in. It’s true that time spent alone typically increases over a lifetime—and that throughout much of American history, children hardly had any privacy or free time at all. But still, psychologists today believe some crucial development can happen when young people are left to themselves.
In 2022, most children in the U.S. aren’t toiling in factories or helping raise a host of siblings. But many of them are booked up with school and ever-multiplying extracurriculars—and plugged into social media in between. The modern focus on enriching childhood has left many kids stressed and stretched thin, without much quality solitude or control over their days at all. What happens to them when the noise never stops?
From the time most children are born, they look for small moments to keep to themselves. Even infants will disengage from some interactions, breaking eye contact and crying if their caregiver tries to reengage them. Elementary-age kids, researchers have noticed, tend to pull away after a cognitively or interpersonally demanding task, taking up a solitary activity like reading or drawing. You’ve probably seen a teenager with headphones on or a hood up. Even in these small spurts, solitude serves a purpose.
Young children typically use solitary time to process overwhelming feelings. Robert Coplan, a psychologist at Carleton University, gave an example he sees frequently: Toddlers who are scolded by their parents will retreat to their room. “If you had a hidden camera in there,” he said, “you would see that they might be playing out that scene with a doll … having the doll be them, having the doll be the mom.” By thinking and rehearsing on their own, they start to better regulate “big emotions”—and learn from their mistakes. Paola Corsano, who researches child solitude at the University of Parma, in Italy, told me that solo play can even develop concentration and planning skills.
As children get older, their capacity for solitude and introspection begins to increase—and so does their need for these quiet moments. There’s a reason adolescents are famous for hiding in their room; they’re in a period of great self-exploration, and alone time helps them figure out who they are apart from peers or their family unit. Virginia Thomas, a psychology professor at Middlebury College, told me that teenagers start focusing more on the big questions: “Who am I and what do I believe and where am I going with my life and what does it mean?” They also tend to be sensitive to social pressures, and solitude can help them breathe and recharge.
Research suggests that adolescents who spend moderate amounts of time by themselves seem to get better grades and have lower self-reported rates of depression than those who don’t. And Thomas said that when they think on those identity questions, the resulting “self-connection” can serve them for the rest of their life. Rather than being easily influenced by the people around them, they’ll be more likely to make decisions that line up with their own values, Thomas believes. Of course, that reflection can happen in adulthood too—plenty of adults are in therapy, she noted, trying to figure themselves out. But if you ponder life’s big questions while you’re young, you may have a head start.
Obviously, none of this means that kids should constantly be by themselves; different children require different amounts of alone time. But to the extent that it’s reasonable, they should be the ones deciding that ratio—not adults. Studies have shown that when young people seek out solitude themselves, the effects are far more positive than if it’s imposed on them. Sometimes they want to be alone, yes, but they may also just want some autonomy. Throughout much of history, unfortunately, that’s been hard for kids to come by.
Contemporary youths aren’t the first to have their solitude infringed upon. Steven Mintz, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin, told me that for centuries American children commonly had numerous siblings, slept in a bed with them at night, and worked during the day. In the 19th century, during the Industrial Revolution, people started to reject brutal factory conditions for children. Eventually, kids began to have more free time—to socialize and play, but also to read, to wander, to be on their own. When older adults today look back on their childhood, they tend to rhapsodize about neighborhood kids running in the street, climbing trees and playing catch. But a free-range childhood also afforded ample opportunities to enjoy a quiet space and a clear mind.
That era didn’t last. A shift began around the mid-20th century, Kristen Lashua, a historian at Vanguard University, told me. Adults started to see their kids as vulnerable and impressionable, and, later, the world around them as dangerous. Norms shifted toward supervising young children at all times, to ensure both their physical safety and their future success. Today, children are in some senses freer than most kids throughout history—but they’re often surveilled and herded into planned activities. Those extracurriculars can be great, but consider what gets squeezed out. “One thing that solitude can be really good for is unstructured time,” Thomas told me. “You have this sense of freedom to explore your own interests, explore nature, explore the world.” Corsano told me that many parents, on the contrary, perceive free moments in their kids’ schedules as “emptiness” to be filled—usually alongside other children, because they see socialization as a primary goal.
And when young people are alone now, they’re often on their phone or computer. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; one study showed that social-media use made college students feel better about solitude, and it’s very possible that adolescents and even younger kids find it similarly comforting. But these platforms can also get in the way of the benefits of alone time. Coplan put it like this: You can define true solitude as being “offstage,” freed from the spotlight of social expectations. But if you’re still chatting with friends—or even just thinking about how your peers are judging your online presence—you’re not exactly in the wings.
So should parents be concerned about their kids’ solitude? Modern American children—many of whom have few siblings, no timesheets to sign, and a bedroom of their own—may seem to have plenty of access to time alone, especially compared to their historical predecessors. But our society requires solitude perhaps more than ever. Laboring kids didn’t need to worry so much about identity development, because they weren’t going to have the same choices to make in adulthood. Lashua, who’s studied the experience of kids in the 17th and 18th centuries, told me that even 12-year-olds in that era had their path set out for them: “You’re an apprentice to a clockmaker and you’re going to make clocks your whole life. And that’s what you do.” It was a different world.
In this world, parents can keep arranging playdates and signing their kid up for soccer. But they can also ask how their kids feel about that schedule, and make sure they know it’s okay to step back sometimes. They can also model solitude themselves. Thomas told me that when warm and attentive parents say things like “That’s Mommy’s alone time” or “Daddy needs to just be doing his own thing right now,” it gives kids implicit permission to do the same.
Granted, some kids need time to get used to being alone. “It's a little bit like spinach,” Coplan told me. “You have to learn to like it.” Without distractions, difficult thoughts and emotions can come to the forefront. But “solitude skills” can be built up gradually—even just in 20-minute increments, Thomas told me. Eventually, the hope is that kids can push through that discomfort and learn to sit with their feelings.
And for those kids who naturally love solitude, parents should know they’re not necessarily antisocial loners. These children have always existed: The historian of solitude David Vincent told me that even centuries back, kids working in agriculture found “cracks in the day” to play games or read when adults were out of sight. Recently, his 7-year-old granddaughter—who spends much of her time in violin lessons and other classes—pulled out a book at the dinner table, “entirely withdrawn from company until advised to do otherwise.” Maybe someday her solitude will get eaten up by even more activities, or spoiled by social media. But I bet she’ll still find pockets of it. When kids like her walk off the stage, we just have to applaud and turn the lights out. The curtains will remain open; they’ll be back.