Leaving Our Kids Alone And Letting Them Get Dirty

It Seems That This Is This Is A Partial Strategy For Fostering Their Success


My sister, Suzy — a 1984 graduate of l — lives out in Evanston, IL, with her husband and kids. My mother, who turns 84 next month, lives about a mile and half from my sis in a nice retirement community.

My sister has quite an enthusiastic following on Facebook — with many dedicated to reading her amusing, sometimes uproariously funny, insightful, and educational posts.

So, last Wednesday, Suzy related on Facebook a note that had been sent home to her and other parents/guardians of students at the local junior high, where Suzy’s daughter attends. Here is how Suzy introduced the note:

The below message was received several minutes ago from our junior high principal. Really? This warrants a letter to parents? When I was growing up a man smoking in the alley that "looked suspicious" was called a teacher enjoying his planning period. These kids wouldn't know danger if it clobbered them over their pampered little heads. Sigh.

Here is the note that the junior high principal sent home:

Dear Haven Families,

I wanted to inform you of an incident that occurred during 7th grade lunch today. Across the street and down the alley a man was smoking and looked suspicious to students. Rumors of the event circulated quickly. At no time were the students in any danger. The man did not approach the students nor was he ever on school grounds. The lunch supervisors were present and continued to monitor the situation through all the lunch periods. Please know safety is our number one priority.

Thank you ….

You think we may be over protecting our kids a bit? I mean, really.

Parents can’t let their kids out of their sight — it seems. When I was growing up, my parents considered it a relief I was out of sight. I suspect the parents of my friends had similar feelings.

In the day before 1000 different youth activities, after school, or on weekends, or during the summer, we left the house either on foot or on our bikes and we roamed — yes, that is absolutely right — we roamed and traveled through the streets and paths and along ponds and rivers all through Easton.

I’m not sure, but I am thinking that there were just as many sickos out there as there are out there today. Our parents and teachers surely educated us on keeping safe and recognizing and staying away from danger and risks, but not nearly as much time was expended — although some time surely was expended — by our elders in keeping us from doing our own thing and making our own fun and traveling a landscape over which there was very real possibility that bad men also traveled.

We were also provided ample opportunity to make decisions, make mistakes, take it on the chin — sometimes literally — and intimately know disappointment and travail.

We are protecting kids from everything. And this may hurt them culturally, intellectually — and believe it or not, biologically (I will get to that).

I was happy to read in this past weekend’s Wall Street Journal, a story by Paul Tough, that had this title, “Opting Out of the ‘Rug Rat Race’: For success in the long run, brain power helps, but what our kids really need to learn is grit.”

Click here to read the full story.

In his piece, Tough argues that nowadays, in social environments of the comfortable and affluent, parents who coddle and constantly provide for their children — and a big part of coddling and providing for involves, starting in nursery school, giving children any resource available to improve their brains and intellect — may actually hinder total development.

And what is not being developed?

What is not being developed is character — maybe more important than smarts to success and leading a worthwhile life.

Tough points out that economists call character “noncognitive skills,” and psychologists call character “personality traits.”

How can parents and mentors encourage and foster character formation in young people.

Here Paul Tough makes a suggestion:

… it seems, the most valuable thing that parents can do to help their children develop noncognitive skills—which is to say, to develop their character—may be to do nothing. To back off a bit. To let our children face some adversity on their own, to fall down and not be helped back up. When you talk today to teachers and administrators at high-achieving high schools, this is their greatest concern: that their students are so overly protected from adversity, in their homes and at school, that they never develop the crucial ability to overcome real setbacks and in the process to develop strength of character.

This all makes sense. After all, how many times have we seen the long-time privileged, pampered, and spoiled go into full panic when confronting even a mini crisis for the first time?

What about over overprotection hurting our children (actually, all of us) biologically?

Well, we know now that in our incessant and energetic quest to stay clean — and our overuse of antibiotic solutions and substances — we are helping foster new bacteria (some of which are not nice) that are resistant to our cleansing and antibacterial washes.

This cleaning also destroys helpful bacteria.

And it also seems that obsessive cleanliness deprives our bodies of helpful parasites.

In the same section of this weekend’s Wall Street Journal where I found Mr. Tough’s story referenced above, I discovered Matt Ridley's review of the book, An Epidemic of Absence, by Moises Velasquez-Manoff.

As Ridley describes in the review — itself titled, “Dirtier Lives May Just Be The Medicine We Need” — An Epidemic of Absence is “remarkable” and makes a persuasive and “fascinating” case how parasites can strengthen and protect our immune system and help keep us healthy.

Velasquez-Manoff shows that those living in environments that we might call relatively unsanitary are often times healthier than those living in far cleaner places.

In the final sentence of the review, Ridley writes, “ … that we should all be rearing our kids to be a little bit dirtier — in a healthy, rural, probiotic sort of way — looks more and more like good advice.”

Interesting — all of this.

So, maybe, in the interest of helping young people reach their full potential, we should urge them to risk disappointment, and not be afraid to get a little grubby.

JE September 11, 2012 at 12:50 AM
Amen to that!


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