We can’t protect our children from everything, even if we really, really want to. It’s tempting when we see our child crying over a scraped knee to bundle him up in a blanket and keep him in our arms forever, where nothing will ever be able to hurt him again.
But we all know that’s not the right thing to do. Kids need to go through hard times. They learn from them, they get stronger, and they become better people. We would never have become the people we are today if we hadn’t screwed up. Our kids need to make those mistakes, too.
But it’s not just helicopter parenting that does more harm than good. As it turns out, a lot of things we think of as “common sense” ways to keep our kids safe don’t keep them safe at all. A lot of the time, they actually make things worse.
Teaching stranger danger
If you grew up in the ’90s, you were probably told never to talk to strangers. Everyone you don’t know on a first name basis was a potential kidnapper waiting to abduct us.
That messed us up. We were raised to believe that most people are evil, and it affected how we live. It made us spend less time outdoors, and it actually put us in more danger because, despite what we were told, most people aren’t evil.
Usually, when a kid gets hurt, it’s by someone they know. In fact, 93 percent of victimized children know their abuser. Instead, stranger danger makes kids afraid to talk to people who are usually willing and able to help them get out of a bad situation.
Instead of teaching kids that strangers are bad, researchers today say we should be teaching them what actions are bad and how to handle them if they happen. Instead of teaching our kids to keep away from anyone they don’t know, we should be teaching them to call for help or to refuse to keep secrets from Mom and Dad.
Keeping a tidy house is one thing, but when you scrub every germ out of your home, you’re actually putting your child at a major risk for health problems. Germs aren’t always a bad thing. They give your immune system a challenge, and that makes it stronger. If your immune system is essentially quarantined, you can develop some major issues.
Studies have found that cleaning your home with antibacterial soap actually increases your children’s risk of developing hay fever and allergies. Likewise, using a dishwasher instead of cleaning dishes by hand increases your child’s chance of getting eczema. It’s not that those methods don’t work. The problem is that they work too well, eliminating the harmless bacteria that make our bodies stronger.
In fact, one of the best things researchers say you can do to make a newborn’s body strong is to put their pacifier in your own mouth after it gets dropped on the floor and then give it to your baby. You’ll share all your disgusting, dangerous germs with your child – and your baby’s immune system will get stronger.
These days, people treat taking a peanut butter sandwich to school like walking in with a loaded gun. So many kids have allergies that we don’t risk touching half the things in the supermarket. As it turns out, though, part of the reason we’re allergic to so many things is that we avoided them in the first place.
Keeping a child away from peanuts for the first five years of their life, one study found, makes them seven times more likely to develop a peanut allergy. It might be done with good intentions, but it turns out that people aren’t born with peanut allergies; they develop them.
If you don’t want to spend the rest of your life at the grocery store carefully reading the ingredients on every single thing you buy, slather your baby up in some peanut butter. You’ll work wonders for his immune system.
Stopping bad habits
Nail biting might not make you look good, but apparently, it works wonders for your body. Your immune system gets stronger when you bite your own nails. Those gross, dirty things are loaded with germs – which is actually a good thing, strengthening your immune system so it can fend off the bad bacteria.
It also relieves stress. Nail biters, according to some studies, are actually better at handling stress than people who don’t bite their nails. Sure, it might not be a good look – but compared to other ways people handle their problems (smoking, drinking), it’s not that bad.
Avoiding risky play
Keeping children from climbing trees and play-fighting might save them from needing a Band-Aid today, but it can create some real problems in the long run.
Taking risks is one of the best things a kid can do. It’s the main way animals learn, so our bodies are wired to get as much out of a dangerous experience as possible. Letting kids run wild and free builds up their sense of self-confidence, makes them less anxious, and helps them judge risks later in life.
Kids who take risks also tend to grow up with better social skills and imaginations because they spend their time learning to play games that aren’t directed by an adult. And how risky are the risks they take anyway? Ironically, kids are more likely to injure themselves in organized sports – the athletics we condone and/or force them into – than they are in risky free play, a.k.a. athletic activities they pick for themselves.
Sometimes we need to step back, stop trying to keep our kids so safe, and just let them make stupid mistakes. It’s how they learn, and it makes them stronger.