Wrapping children in cotton wool

  • Health
  • Sunday, 05 Jan 2003


Some parents say they want their children to grow up to be independent, even courageous. But their behaviour actually tells kids the reverse. 

BUBBLE babies. We're raising a generation of bubble babies. From the moment our children are conceived, we try to wrap them in plastic packing. An Arlington, Virginia woman stops drinking coffee when she's pregnant. A dad in Fairfax installs computer spyware to check the Web sites his daughter visits.  

Lisa and Danny Stone live in the Charles County house where Danny grew up. They know all the other residents on the cul-de-sac. When seven-year-old Danielle wanted to sell cookie dough for her school door-to-door, Lisa Stone asked each neighbor to call her as Danielle left for the next house.  

“Where I live, there's no reason for that,” she admits. “If I went out on the front porch I could see her. But it made me feel safe. I needed to know she was someplace.”  

Stone remembers the day she started feeling uneasy. She was holding baby Danielle and watching an ABC broadcast about a day-care provider hitting the children in her charge. “I sat there with a six-week-old, crying, 'I'm never going to work again. I can't put my baby in day care.'“  

And still, experts, educators, media doomsayers, politicians and marketing gurus tell us we aren't doing enough.  

The US Consumer Product Safety Commission orders the recall of teddy bears stuffed with beans because if beans popped out at the seams, young children could inhale them. (No such accidents have been reported, but the possibility exists.) Baby gates and electrical outlet protectors are supplemented by toilet lid locks and animal-shaped abduction alarms to be worn by children.  

Only US$19.95 (RM75.80) buys a 71-piece child safety kit that includes sponge tape to be installed on the sharp edges of furniture. The accompanying description reminds us that “accidents are the number one killer of children today”.  

Public Agenda, a New York foundation, polled parents last summer, prior to the D.C.-area sniper shootings, and discovered startlingly high levels of anxiety. Parents worried more about demons outside the home – drugs, kidnappers, their children's friends – than the ordinary devils of mortgage payments and not enough family time.  

A Cleveland mother told the surveyors: “We never once in our lives hired a babysitter. Because of things that go on these days, you would worry. There's babysitters that are raping your kids, murdering your kids.”  

“We were all struck by the pervasiveness of these attitudes and the intensity of them,” Public Agenda President Deborah Wadsworth says. “Parents have always been concerned about their kids, but now they feel as if they're fighting a war and have no allies.”  

In the past, writes Frank Furedi, a British sociologist, Mom or Dad might have worried about one or two little things – a child's stutter, perhaps, or a particularly troublesome friend. Today's parents on both sides of the Atlantic worry about “every little issue”. How worried should we be about our worries? A lot, says Furedi: “Our obsession with our children is likely to be more damaging to them than the risks they encounter in their daily interactions with the world.”  

This fierce protectiveness comes from a good place. It is a universal instinct among mammals that is necessary for species survival. God forbid we ignore it.  

But after sterilising, purifying, deodorising and scrubbing everything your offspring may inhale, swallow or touch, think about this: Recent research suggests that children who live on farms develop immunities to allergies that other kids do not. It turns out that some exposure to bacteria strengthens a developing immune system.  

Furedi, author of a new book, Paranoid Parenting, writes: “In a loving environment, even a traumatic episode need not prevent a child from bouncing back and developing into a confident adult. However, if parents stifle their children with their obsessions and restrict their scope to explore, then the young generation will become socialised to believe that vulnerability is the natural state of affairs.”  

Everybody grew up with a bubble child in the neighborhood. He or she was the one taking all those lessons. Now seven out of 10 students in middle school and high school are enrolled in after-school programmes for, on average, two hours a day, according to a Harris Interactive poll. Sports programmes are the most popular, with a result both ironic and troubling: The number of “overuse injuries” among youths as young as eight and nine –including stress fractures, sore heels, and tendinitis – is on the rise.  

Fewer than half of today's teen-agers work at paying jobs, according to the US Department of Labour, the smallest proportion since 1970. Discovering real-world capabilities and limits has been devalued as parents focus on schoolwork as the be-all and end-all for college-bound students. And who isn't college-bound these days?  

Elaine Tyler May, a professor of American studies at the University of Minnesota, says she has an 11-year-old niece who is “already frantic about getting into college”.  

And why wouldn't she be?  

“We're told that college is going to make or break their future. Schools are into this, especially private schools,” May says.  

Neurologist Richard Restak, author of the book accompanying the PBS series The Secret Life of the Brain, says children raised by anxious adults become anxious themselves. Psychologist Frans deWaal, who works at Emory University's Yerkes Primate Centre in Atlanta, has observed this in chimpanzees.  

When juvenile chimps play together and start quarreling, some of the youngsters inevitably squeal, he says. Some mothers, sitting several yards away, simply watch, but others go over right away to comfort their particular chimp.  

The babies whose mothers get involved become crybabies, deWaal says, and over time the other young chimps won't play with them.  

Jean Twenge, an assistant psychology professor at San Diego State University, reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that levels of anxiety among college students have risen significantly since the 1950s. In the Harris poll of teenagers, almost three out of four kids said they felt nervous or stressed at least some of the time, with half saying they felt that way often. The US National Institute of Mental Health says that first-time depression is being reported at an earlier age.  

Some effects of the bubbles are well documented: Today's indoor generation of children is three times as fat as it was 20 years ago, according to a report by former surgeon general David Satcher.  

Other effects are more subtle. Brad Inman, a journalist and teacher at the University of California, Berkeley, says he and his friends talk about kids they know who were guided along the fast track from preschool through Princeton, having neither the time nor the encouragement for real-world jobs. Now these golden young men and women are waiting tables, unsure where to go with their lives or how to get there.  

Teachers talk about students who are adept at saying what they know adults expect them to say but are stumped when asked to expand on their comments. “They are passive in a weird sort of way,” Inman says. “It's like they've withdrawn under pressure. I don't see the insane ambition I saw 10 years ago.”  

Joan Keller, who graduated this year from Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland, has noticed a lack of self confidence among her friends who “have never been in a strange situation where they really had to see what they could do”. An everyday example: She drives a car with a stick shift “and all my friends ask me, 'How do you do that?'“  

Wadsworth, of Public Agenda, tells of a friend in New York whose daughter refused to run cross-country in high school. She would have to wear shorts, she told her mom, and was afraid she'd pick up ticks. Ticks, her mother had taught her years earlier, carry Lyme disease.  

How to break through the bubbles?  

Say a child runs into a problem or asks to do something out of the ordinary. Sociologist Furedi, father of a seven-year-old, says it's OK to ask what can go wrong but then follow with this: “If the worst happens, does it matter, and what might my child learn from the experience?”  

We can all remember lessons in childhood that, though painful or scary at the time, taught us something useful: standing up to bullies, testing physical endurance, refusing to lie, risking failure in a tough course, getting back on the bicycle after a fall, learning how to handle a dictatorial teacher, acquiring the knowledge that life is not fair, easy, logical or as happy as some think it should be.  

Those big decisions were preceded by smaller ones. That's why in the Kellers' Glen Echo, Maryland, home, school lunches that were forgotten stayed on the kitchen counter. It's why Joan Keller, diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and needing more sleep than she sometimes got, was still allowed to set her own bedtime. “Every once in a while I'd stay up late and pay the price,” she says. In high school, Laurie Keller stopped waking Joan on school days, and when Joan was late to school refused to write a note for her unexcused absences.  

When one of Joan's best friends committed suicide near the end of Joan's junior year, her parents took her to a couple of counselling sessions, then pulled her aside. “You have to decide to get over this,” her mother said. “You need to start thinking about happy things, not sad things.”  

Joan remembers her first reaction: “How can you say that?”  

She didn't release her grief easily. She was accepted into the University of Maryland but decided to postpone college for a year. She took a job at a bagel cafe, helped her dad at his law office.  

Her mom was right, Joan now says. Recently a friend was involved in a late-night car accident that killed the other car's driver. Joan drove to Towson, at midnight to see her friend, concerned but not shaken. “These sort of experiences make me confident,” she says. – LAT-WP  

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