A British researcher knighted for his 30 years of work on childhood leukemia has come up with what sounds like an amazing breakthrough—and an amazing metaphor.
For children to contract leukemia, scientist Mel Greaves has determined, two things need to happen. First, they have to have the genetic mutation that would trigger the disease. About 1 in 20 kids have that.
Second, they also need to have an improperly working immune system. This is something kids can develop if they are not exposed to enough germs in their first year of life. As Greaves explains in The Guardian, “without that confrontation with an infection, the system is left unprimed and will not work properly.”
That means that dousing our kids with antibacterial glop and slavishly swabbing every surface for bacteria is boomeranging on us. Our desire to keep kids safe is making them unsafe.
This ironic truth is one that resonates throughout childhood.
Just as the culture has plied us with ever more germ-avoiding products (such as the shopping cart liner—a cocoon of cloth you place your child in, as if the cart were ringworm on wheels), it has pushed us to overprotect our kids in every other sphere. For instance, rather than just let our kids play at the park, we have been encouraged to enroll them in structured supervised activities so they are “protected” from bullies, boredom and the burden of figuring out how to do something on their own.
The long-term effects? Regarding leukemia, “when such a baby is eventually exposed to common infections, his or her unprimed immune system reacts in a grossly abnormal way,” says Greaves. “It overreacts and triggers chronic inflammation.”
Regarding plain old emotional resilience, what we might call “psychological inflammation” occurs when kids overreact to an unfamiliar or uncomfortable situation because they have been so sheltered from these. They feel unsafe, when actually they are only unprepared, because they haven’t been allowed the chance to develop a tolerance for some fears and frustrations. That means a minor issue can be enough to set a kid off—something we are seeing at college, where young people are at last on their own. There has been a surge in mental health issues on campuses.
It’s no surprise that anxiety would be spiking in an era when kids have had less chance to deal with minor risks from childhood on up. The fear that is faced and triumphed over when climbing a tree makes other fears more manageable. Arguing with a friend and then getting over it shows children how resilient human relationships (and they themselves) can be.
The medical solution that Greaves is eyeing is the same one we endorse metaphorically: more exposure, early on, to the mini risks and challenges kids have faced until recently. That means stepping back and letting our kids step out into the world without our constantly being by their side providing “protection.”
Of course, sweeping the house from time to time is still a good idea. So is a bath. And so is helping our kids when they’re dealing with truly thorny issues.
But to create a more “immune” child, it’s time to get a little looser, a little dirtier and a little less overprotective.