November 30, 2004

Read This Or Your Child Will Die

Sheila links to Tim Blair, who links to Joanne Jacobs, who in turn links to this article by Richard Bailey on the culture of fear in child-rearing. Bailey speaks most specifically about the issue of taking kids on adventure outings, but his words are relevant to just about every other aspect of parental responsibility as well. One of several money quotes:

No environment will ever be completely safe and risk-free, and even well-supervised children manage to hurt themselves. But by speculating on what can possibly go wrong rather than on what children might learn from experiences, we are in danger of creating anxiety in some children and recklessness in others. Children who are fearful will not be able to learn, and those who are overconfident will be unable to make sensible judgements about risk, because their learning environment has become sanitised and over-managed.

In other words, by obsessing too much over the kiddies' well-being, we are, in fact, in danger of producing a generation of neurotic twits and idiots.

I'll leave it to everyone else to insert their own "When I was a kid...." stories.

Hyper-protective parents hellbent on preserving their little hothouse flowers from, well, Life, are a favorite topic of mine. I find such behavior appalling, not least because I think a lot of it (at least among the parents that I know) is based on those parents' own sense of guilt over other aspects of their performance. (Sure, they're both away 19 hours a day and the help is raising little Jason, but by golly, he's gonna have as soft n' cuddly an environment around him as money can buy! But that's a rant for another day.)

Children are naturally equipped to deal with the slings and arrows - both physical and mental - that are hurled their way by Fortune and traditional notions of child-rearing, including letting the kids loose in the socio-physical laboratories of the neighborhood woods, the school playground and other minimally-supervised places, allowed them to gradually hone their defenses, including both autonomic systems such as immunities and conscious ones such as judgement. The burned hand teaches best? The playing fields of Eton? Hello? (Slipping in one personal anecdote after all, ask me how many times I had to get beaten up before I learned not to throw mud flops at bullies on bicyles.)

I also believe there is an insidious snowballing effect in all of this. If you isolate the little darlin's from all the dangers associated with freewheeling youth, I believe their defense systems actually begin to invent new threats. I have nothing at all except empirical observation to go on here, but I think it is no co-incidence that we have seen an explosion of peanut allergies, lactose-intolerance and other such maladies since going into Full Protective Crouch over our kids in the last twenty years or so. Ditto with the apparent mass epidemics of various behavioral problems, ranging from attention deficit disorders on up to heightened junior high assimilation angst (a favorite topic in my neck of the woods). Oh sure, we're hot on the trail of various pharmaceutical and theraputic treatments for these new threats. And we've gone great guns to cleanse our environments of their physical manifestations. But even if you stamp them out, something else is going to pop up. Today it's peanut butter. Tomorrow, it'll be, I dunno, bologna.

Look, I'm not suggesting that we leave loaded guns, gasoline and matches or our Ginsu Knife collections lying around in the open for the two year old to play with. Nor am I suggesting that schools institute a daily Lord of the Flies period. And no, I'm not arguing that things like tougher seatbelt laws have not been beneficial. What I am suggesting is that it's okay for kids to fall out of trees or off monkey bars. It's okay for them to take a toss from their bikes or skateboards. It's okay for them to learn to fight it out amongst themselves - whether in an organized activity such as dodgeball or in the more free-flowing atmosphere of playground politics. And yes, it's okay if, despite all your warnings, sooner or later they manage to touch a hot iron or stove-top. Sure, all of these things can produce short-term traumas - burns, scrapes, broken bones - but in the long run, they also will produce kids with the skills and capacities to survive and thrive in the Real World where, once they grow up, no one else is going to look after them.

Posted by Robert at November 30, 2004 12:27 PM

When I was a kid (say 10 or 12) a friend of mine had guns. A pellet gun and a .22. Nothing too sacry. We used to shoot them all the time in his back yard. His dad, who was a WWII vet, used to take us shooting at the range. No one thought anything of it in the early/mid 1970s.
He used to get great fireworks for 4th of July, too -- never mind the year round supply of M80s and cherry bombs.

And yet today I have all of my fingers and toes.

In 2004, any/all of this would be grounds for a DSS visit, a lawsuit, a mandatory Ritalin prescritions for all involved.

Posted by: DWC at November 30, 2004 12:41 PM

So I shouldn't leave out my guns and ginsu? News to me...

Good piece. Yips, (if I may) to you Robert.

Posted by: The Maximum Leader at November 30, 2004 12:43 PM

How about factoring in our expectations that the kids we do have will live to adulthood, all two of them?

My wife's paternal grandmother had 12 pregnancies, but only three children who survived to voting age. Not uncommon for the boomers to have two or three or more siblings. Not uncommon for todays kids to have no siblings or only one. There are no spare heirs today and it does probably increase the parental protectiveness levels. A shame when I think of all the dangerous fun I had as a kid - one of four in my family.

Posted by: chuckR at November 30, 2004 01:09 PM

Things like this always remind me of the George Carlin bit where he attributes the fact that he never caught a cold as a youth to his frequent swims in raw sewage, which (in his mind) built up his immune system (and then that reminds me of the satirical bit from his short-lived sitcom where he was Patient Zero of a biochemical outbreak because he cynically believed the instructions "Lather. Rinse. Repeat." on his shampoo were designed by the manufacturer purely to force consumers to buy more shampoo... say, what were we talking about, again?...)

Posted by: LDH at November 30, 2004 05:03 PM

Amen. Incidentally, I think there have been scientific studies suggesting that parental obsession with santization has been responsible for the explosion of allegies. Theory goes, if your body doesn't get exposed to germs, it doesn't learn to distinguish bad foreign bodies from not so bad foreign bodies so the immune system just treats, say, a grain of pollen, as if it were a potentially lethal pathogen. Basically, your immune system needs its daily workout just like your body does or it gets out of shape. I don't have a link to support that or anything, but it is very logical and I did first hear it from a physician, so I think there's some truth to it.

Posted by: Nicole Griffin at November 30, 2004 08:51 PM

Why do they now require kids to be pumped full of that ritlin junk? i mean they should ban ritlin and hey when i was a kid me and my brothers(and sister) played WAR with play machine guns(we made them with wood and leinths of pipe)my sister was nurse hey we dont need the do gooders saying kids must play some dumb peacful game like WOODSTOCK CONCERT

Posted by: mad heron at November 30, 2004 09:51 PM

Okay, I realize this is just a result of what I'm going through right now, but I don't understand how any parent who has ever gone through potty-training with their kids could ever be worried about the hazards of mere outdoors nature ever again.

And, heck, your kid died from being bit by a rattlesnake? Could be worse: you could be a Chiefs' fan....

Posted by: Nathan at December 1, 2004 03:04 PM
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