caregiver, childhood, family

Bubble Warp

Great Miami River
Who gives symbols of rebellion power? You do.

No, that’s not a typo. You keep a person in a bubble, you’re going to warp them, physically and emotionally. Bubble wrap, the other spelling, is also an apt metaphor for over-protection.

Mirror-posted at According to Hoyt

I was working at an indoor playground this weekend, and in between the mad rush of what I was doing, I overheard parents talking about their children. I’m an inveterate eavesdropper, it comes with the writer brain, perhaps, or maybe just the oversized curiosity bump I’ve got. Anyway, I heard the same line of thought, but from several people, mothers and fathers, through the four hours I was listening. “Oh, don’t go on that, honey, you could get hurt.” To another adult “I think he’s less likely to get hurt on that structure. The big blue one looks like trouble.”

Now, I’m not suggesting that we as parents ought not to protect our children from harms. I’m all for vaccination and will fight for that as a scientist in a couple of years when it’s my job. I’m not suggesting we let the children climb on the cliff without a rope (and harness, and carabiners, and proper belay, and ascenders… but with those, let ‘er rip, kid!). I am suggesting that swaddling them in bubble wrap is harmful to their long term health. We must let them come to a little harm, because it will strengthen them for the adult life they must eventually enter.

As we bring home infants, we sterilize the house, doing our best to rid every nook and cranny of any conceivable microbe. Culturally, we have been doing this for almost a century, and science is discovering with alarm that the effects of over cleanliness and modern medicine are actually damaging our health. Ever wondered why there are now regulations against having peanut butter sandwiches in school? Well, the human immune system is like an engine with the governor taken off, and when the illnesses, dirt, and parasites are taken out of the equation, it is spinning out of control into an increasing array of allergies, autoimmune disorders, and possibly even Alzheimer’s Disease. (

Is letting the kid eat that worm he just grubbed out of the garden the solution? Um… probably not. But letting him roll around in the mud and play with the puppy, rather than penned up in a sterile house, might just help. Getting rid of antibacterial products (look for triclosan on the list of ingredients) will help conserve both your family’s health, and that of our environment. Look, I’m no eco-happy environmentalist, and I definitely not a ZPG whack-a-doo, but I was raised to be a conservationist. If you destroy it, and it doesn’t come back, you’ll starve. So don’t overhunt, but don’t underhunt, either. But that’s a whole ‘nother topic.

As the kid gets older, accept that sometimes he will fall off the slide doing something dumb, like not coming down feet-first. There will be tears. There may even be blood, and stitches, and a trip to the ER. It’s a rite of passage, and it won’t leave permanent trauma. Unless you make it that way. I remember vividly reading a passage in a favorite book about the best way to make a child terrified of something, whether it was a snake, or a bug… freak out, as a parent, where the child can see you. If you lose it, your toddler learns that this is the correct and appropriate reaction to the stimulus. Which isn’t so bad when it comes to a big hairy spider (and freakin’ hilarious when that toddler is grown into a 200 lb 6’ guy screaming like a little girl in the woods at a web on his face), but what are we teaching school children with zero-tolerance policies?

That poptart in the shape of a gun? Kids have been playing muskets versus knights since gunpowder hit the battlefield. Cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers… point a finger, pick up a stick and voila, a weapon. It’s not training them to be violent, if anything it’s teaching the opposite. Actions have consequences. I was brought up with the catechism “don’t shoot it unless you mean to kill it. Don’t kill it unless you mean to it it, or it was going to kill you.” I had a healthy respect for guns as tools from a child. Just like I wouldn’t touch Dad’s circular saw, or stick my fingers in the toaster. Respect, not blind helpless fear. No wonder kids get to be bitter teens and decide guns are the way to get the adults to listen to them, they are taught from very small that guns are the ultimate evil. No young thug ever went on a rampage with power tools, which are almost as deadly, nor even explosives. Guns are the demons of modern society, so they are the ultimate symbol to the hopeless rebels. Teach respect for a gun as a tool, and you take away that handle.

Is it too late? Are we so wrapped up in our communal cocoon of bubble wrap that there is no way out? I don’t know. I know my kids grew up playing outside, living in a house with no year-round climate control. They ate fresh garden produce, sometimes outside, standing where they had picked it, without so much as a rub on their pants to knock off the dust, first. They knew where my hunting rifle was, and they knew not to touch it (I’m pretty sure they didn’t know where the ammo was, but you never know). I took my eldest through hunter safety at the age of twelve, and she loved it. They sometimes snagged a bit of cookie dough before baking, or licked the brownie batter off the spoon. They seem to be doing just fine.

My Dad has a greenhouse (Ok, Dad, proper terminology, it’s a high tunnel) and we raised produce in it for a few years before I moved off the Farm. Tomatoes, starts for spring, strawberries, all good and yummy in the fullness of time. But first, in spring, once the starts were ready to go out, we had to go through a process of ‘hardening off’ the tender sprouts. You see, they aren’t ready to just go in the ground. You must get them used to the harsh sun, cool nights, and the wind. It will kill them if you transition too abruptly. Children are the same way. If they aren’t exposed to the buffets of real life, when they must stand on their own, they will collapse in a tangle like the tomatoes who have never felt wind. They won’t grow straight and sturdy, and they might die.

Get them ready. Let them take that fall. Don’t rush over, screaming and crying. Wait. See what happens. He may just sit up, look around, and when he’s not being paid attention to, stand up, dust himself off, and go back to his play. It’s all right, you don’t need to be on hand for every moment of every day. It’s not good for him, and it’s not healthy for you. Unwind the bubble wrap, and let your chick stretch his wings and grow strong.