Monday, September 24, 2007

The Bubble-Wrapped Child

Yesterday's Washington Post had a very interesting article that may be of interest to those of you who are parents and grandparents. Titled "Buffer the Children, and Imperil Common Sense," the article by Robin Givhan laments the extent to which modern parents "in a certain demographic" go to protect their children from every conceivable illness, accident, or threat. She writes of children on tricycles wearing protective gear, and of how many children are kept away from sports for fear of injury, and from various foods for fear of future obesity, chemical additives, or whatever.

In many ways, she writes of the death of childhood. This is a topic I've thought about for a long time, as a parent and as a grandparent. We do, of course, love our children and want to protect them from injury and's irresponsible not to do so. But where do you draw the line between protection and over protection? If a child is protected from all dangers, how will he or she develop the common sense to recognize and avoid dangers on his or her own? An old saying says that the burned child fears the fire, and the message is clear - the child learns that fire is dangerous by experiencing a brief moment of pain and learning a valuable lifelong lesson.

Things were less complicated in years past. I grew up in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the 1950's and 60's, and at that time the homes in our area were fairly well spread out, with stretches of forest separating me from the homes of many of my friends. It was not unusual for me to walk home after dark through dense woods or along twisting rural streets without illumination. Today, I don't think most parents would dream of letting their children do that - too dangerous. Today, I think that children would be chauffeured door-t0-door ... safer, yes. But then, they don't experience the thrill of the forest at night, or learn how to walk safely along dark streets. My parents always told me not to talk to strangers, but they never went out of their way to wrap me in a no-strangers bubble. How do we teach our children to balance the avoidance of potential danger from bad people with the importance of learning social skills and politeness with strangers?

I think that many of our children nowadays are more sick more often because, paradoxically, many modern parents go to such lengths to keep them away from germs. I believe that such overprotection keeps the children from developing early the resistance to germs that will protect them from more serious illness in the future.

And how about television and the movies? Many parents get hysterical over things like the "wardrobe malfunction" that exposed Janet Jackson's nipple on network TV for a split-second, and yet no one raises an equivalent howl of outrage over the violence and foul language rampant on TV and in the movies. What are we protecting our children from?

In many ways, we've taken the fun out of childhood by being overprotective. In her article, Ms Givhan writes that "Children are assumed to be so fragile that they cannot be jostled." I think children are smarter and more resilient than we give them credit for. They need the minor hurts and scares of childhood to prepare them for the larger hurts and scares of life. We need to re-learn what my parents knew: it's important to let children grow up with guidance, but without the suffocating overprotection that keeps them from learning the common sense that will protect them for the rest of their lives.

Learning that lesson is hard. But no one ever said being a parent was easy. It's especially tough when life gives you the test first...and the lesson later.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



Amanda said...

Your childhood sounds like it would have been a lot of fun with the forest around your home.

I'm always trying to allow my son to explore and experience things but definitely worry about safety outside the home. Germs....I'm not so worried about. Except maybe the water in Palembang.

The Mistress of the Dark said...

I've been meaning to ask, what part of Pittsburgh are you from?

John said...

Great post. It's fun to watch kids grow, explore and figure things out on their own. When Aaron was little, he had to know how things worked. He was forever taking apart his toys. I was afraid that one day I'd walk into my garage to find my car dis-assembled. Hannah was the one that would play in the dirt and dig up worms and bugs.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

That's true. Children used to be able to take risks. By wrapping them up, it doesn't protect them for later life.

Serina Hope said...

I try to let Super Z and Princes H experiance life to the fullest. Surprisingly the person this bothers the most is my Mom. She has a false memory of what being overprotective. Way too often I have to say, : But Mom, you let me do the same thing at his age."

Random Magus said...

I feel the same way as well - nowadays childhood's end comes much too soon. And it's not only the parents - it's our entire society that is moving much too fast!

La Chanson de Phoenix said...

Oh... I live above Pittsburgh, very near the NY border, but not 'too' far from the 'burgh. The area here is also very lush with forest.

I wonder, however, if I have sheltered my own children too much (although we don't worry too much about safety equipment except helmets).