Are We Overprotecting Our Kids to Death?

Two scenes from Mexico, where my family just spent a week’s vacation. (Skip the envy. Nice weather, yes, but my husband slipped before we left and spent the whole time on crutches. Meantime, this was the general tenor of our kids’ conversation: “I just saw a stingray.” “No you didn’t.” “I did too!” “You just think you did.” “But I did!” “See?”)

Anyway, that’s not the point — thank God. The point is to contrast two scenes. The first, in town: A Mexican boy of about 8, sweeping his home. Not its floor. Its roof. With no guardrails.

Scene two, at the resort: Our own boys, 10 and 12, renting snorkeling gear: Mask, flippers, life jacket.

Even a few years back, my sister informs me, snorkelers did not wear life jackets. Now these are standard issue, at least for kids.

I was very happy the boys got them, since I am, at heart, a chicken. But if these jackets didn’t automatically come as part of the package, I wouldn’t have missed them, either. Just like most of us would not miss the safety belts that now come standard in toy wagons. Or the arm straps that now come standard in strollers, so you can plaster your kid to the seat as if you’re on your way to a  typhoon, rather than the park — where, by the way, there’s a spring under the teeter-totter so no one lands too hard, and the slide is short, so no one falls too far, and the ground is springy, just in case someone does.

Did I mention the fact that the swing chains’ holes have been filled in so no one catches a finger in them? On some playgrounds, that’s the case.

As we pile on the safety precautions and equipment, the expectation of zero danger becomes the norm. What seemed a reasonable risk even a year or two ago now seems foolhardy. Snorkeling without a life vest becomes a quaint memory, on par with putting your baby to sleep in a room without a sound monitor. Sure that seemed fine – until those monitors came along. After that, putting your baby to sleep without one sounded positively rash.

Then along came video monitors. Full color, flat screen ones that let you see and hear everything going on in the crib. At which point, putting your baby to bed with just a sound monitor sounded positively rash. (And don’t even ask about the infra-red cameras.)

Do children really need all this protection? It’s hard to say no, when all around us are the means to prevent our kids from encountering even the least likely catastrophe.

But the parents of the Mexican boy sweeping the railing-free roof are protecting their child another way – protecting him from feeling helpless and timid. Deliberately or not, they are raising a child who is confident in a scary place, or, if not confident, then at least forced to be brave, which is how confidence grows. He also looked pretty cheerful. And he’s good with a broom.

Those happen to be my exact goals for my own sons. So far?

Well, they’ve seen some giant sea turtles. And they’ve lived to tell the tale. But now that we’re back home, it may be time for another brand new experience.

It involves a dust pan.

Free-Range Kids Book Gets Its Cover — Thanks To You!

Perhaps you will recall, readers, a few months back when I asked for your input on the cover for my upcoming book, “Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts With Worry.” Overwhelmingly – 10 to 1 — you voted for the girl on the wall (versus the aviator boy). But a bunch of you added, “There should be a boy on the cover, too.”

Amazingly, the publishers then found a photo with a girl on the wall…trailed by a boy!

All right. Maybe someone Photo-shopped the fellow in. They don’t tell authors these things. All I know is, this is the cover of my book and I’m thrilled:

The Cover!

The Cover!

 The book itself is filled with stories, rants and “The Fourteen Free-Range Commandments,” including things like, “Play Dates and Axe Murderers: How to Tell the Difference.” “Boycott Baby Knee Pads and the Rest of the Kiddie Safety-Industrial Complex.” And, “Relax! Not Every Little Thing You Do Has That Much Impact on Your Child’s Development.”

It’s also chock full of delightfully irrefutable statistics. So when someone says, “I’d like to let my child play outside, but times have changed,” you can retort, “They sure have. According to the U.S. Dept. of Justice, juvenile sex crimes are down SEVENTY-NINE PERCENT since 1993.”

Then there’s a big section in the book called, “Safe or Not? The A-to-Z Review of Everything You Might Be Worried About,” where you can look up things like BPA in baby bottles and raw eggs in cookie dough to find out which, if any, you really have to watch out for – and which are just hype. And then there are a lot of dumb puns (because I can’t resist), and a lot of your own wisdom, since I’ve learned so much from your notes!

All of which is to say: If you’d like to pre-order, I’m not stopping you. In fact, I’m making it exceedingly easy. Just click one of these:

The book will be out at the end of April, just in time for Asparagus Month. (And — what do you know?  Mother’s Day! But May really IS Asparagus Month.)

That’s it. And now we return you to our regularly scheduled blog. Have a Free-Range day! – Lenore

Let ‘Em Eat Dirt

Once five friends forward you the same article, it is time to share it with the rest of the world. This one was by the New York Times health writer, Jane Brody, and it stated, quite simply: Dirt good.

Well, it didn’t state it quite that simply. Ms. Brody works for The Times, after all. While they’ve still got a dime in the bank (and that does seem to be their current balance), they’re willing to spring for whole sentences. So what she wrote was:

 Accumulating evidence strongly suggests that eating dirt is good for you. In studies of what is called the hygiene hypothesis, researchers are concluding that organisms like the millions of bacteria, viruses and especially worms that enter the body along with ‘dirt’ spur the development of a healthy immune system. Several continuing studies suggest that worms may help to redirect an immune system that has gone awry and resulted in autoimmune disorders, allergies and asthma. [Here’s the link:]

Got that? Dirt may help PREVENT all the allergies and asthma we’re seeing.

Without getting into the ins and outs of bodily worms (for the record: ew), let us just say that this is great news for all us of parents more than a little suspicious of the clinical levels of cleanliness being foisted upon us.

From portable Purell to the personal, anti-bacterial placemats we’re now encouraged to tote along to restaurants — as if  Applebee’s is teeming with typhoid — a slew of kid cleanliness products have sprung up that would have seemed absurd even 15 years ago. These products start with the assumption that your child and germs should never meet.

Which is a fine assumption if your child has (God forbid) just undergone a stem cell transplant.

Otherwise, healthy children and germs and dirt have had a long and happy relationship since the beginning of time. Ms. Brody even says that that may be why babies put everything in their mouths. Not to feel it or taste it. To get a great big mouthful of germs. (And worms.)

The science seems to suggest that only by being exposed to a whole slew of bacteria does the body learn to sort out the good from the bad. When the body only gets exposed to a limited spectrum of germs, it never develops that sorting skill. As a result it overreacts – perhaps with allergies — to ANY germs it meets later on.

So when you start to think, “Do I need a shopping cart liner? Those carts seem so gross.” Or, “Gee, I better wipe off that doorknob/toy/railing/tray/fork/swing/pillow/phone/pretzel/air molecule my child is about to touch….” Think about the fact that there is a difference between the cleanliness levels required by hospitals filled with the sickest of the sick, and the levels required by your average, suck-on-the-highchair-leg baby.

Then relax and let her eat the cookie that fell on the floor. Right next to that pile of nightcrawlers.

Our friends

Our friends

— Lenore

If mom loved you best, do you end up a happier adult?

Last night I helped one of my sons do the dishes, but I didn’t help the other son clear the table. Time to reserve a shrink appointment for the table-clearer sometime around 2017?

Or perhaps an appointment with the parole board?

Turns out: No. Neither.

A brilliant study by researchers at Temple University looked at 1369 siblings between the ages of 26 and 74. The idea was to find out whether the ones who felt their parents had been harder on them than on their siblings ended up with a chip on their shoulders the size of a dishwasher. A chip that made them mad, sad and bad the rest of their lives.

Happily for all of us parents worried about the very same thing, there was no evidence that the once-resentful kids ended up less happy than their mom-loves-me-best brothers and sisters. Or, as the report put it: negative early experiences with parents over levels of discipline seem to have little influence over adult psychological well being.

This is a good little lesson to remember as we go through our days worrying about whether we are doing everything absolutely “right” as parents. We worry about saying the wrong thing, encouraging our kid too much or too little, and – when we have more than one kid – we worry that we’re not always fair.

But since it’s actually impossible to be totally fair – and in our house, my Solomonic attempts have backfired, turning my boys into niggling little nuts when it comes to whether one or the other got a milliliter more root beer, or extra nanosecond on the computer – it’s good to know that somewhere down the line, it doesn’t really matter.

I hesitate to generalize, but I have a sneaking suspicion that quite a few of our parenting decisions probably don’t matter that much down the line, either. (Organic Rice Krispies? One year of ballet or two? No MySpace account until you type 30 words per minute, which is the deal in our house?) But it’s probably true.

Try to be fair – enough. Try to be kind. But also try to remind yourself as well as them: Nobody always gets it  right.

(But that’s not an excuse to avoid clearing the table.)