A new study was just released that flies in the face of conventional wisdom. For years, parents and faculty have worked to create safer, cleaner environments for the children they're teaching. We've attempted to remove hindrances to their growth and all roadblocks to their self-esteem. And those are noble goals.
Our problem is we may have just gone about it wrong.
The new research was published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, and it's all about cockroaches and other critters. It says that while there's no reason to stop exterminating cockroaches around your house, evidence now supports a new "hygiene hypothesis," suggesting that allergies might be increasing in children because many grow up in relatively sterile environments. Immune systems that don't have to fight off many germs end up doing battle with harmless pollens, dust mites or animal danger instead. The immune system doesn't get strong enough to fight off the elements it needs to conquer. In other words, we're so good to our kids, we prevent them from developing the strengths they desperately need later in life. When life is completely safe from all harm, we "domesticate" our kids, keeping them from being prepared for the world that awaits them.
I think it's a picture of a principle we must learn as caring adults.
The study involved 467 children and was a little unpleasant in its findings. For instance, children exposed to mouse or cat dander, cockroach droppings and certain bacteria by age 1 actually grew stronger and benefited from the exposure. Ugh. This sounds repugnant, but consider the reality for a moment. Co-author John Wood from Johns Hopkins Children's Center confirmed: "This is the very first study to show the equivalent of the 'farm effect' in urban children."
What should we do?
Our response, of course, should not be to become negligent or careless. But I have argued for years we've become "too careful" with our children, to the point that they are fragile as they entered adulthood. For too often, they are:
- Unable to move away from home (a full one-third of males between 22-34 still live at home with their parents).
- Ill-equipped to do that big job interview alone (almost two in 10 involve their parents to negotiate with an employer).
- Unfit for the military (75 percent don't qualify due to obesity, criminal records or failure to graduate).
The fact is, millions are unable or unwilling to live independently when it should be in their power to do so. Their bodies and minds have the capacity to mature, but we've been so busy protecting them that we have failed to prepare them for the future.
Our job as teachers, coaches, youth workers and parents is to care deeply for the kids growing up on our watch. This does not mean we do so much for them that they cannot do things for themselves. It means we see the big picture, we see the future impact of our leadership and we prepare them for what's ahead.
In short, we probably should:
- Relax a bit on the "germ" thing and let them get dirty
- Allow them to resolve conflict with friends instead of doing it for them
- Encourage them to work a job, not just work at video games all summer
- Equip them to get good at face-to-face interaction, not just screen-to-screen
- Expose them to people who will challenge them, not just praise them
- Stop rescuing them when they forget school projects or responsibilities
- Help them actually try and fail at something -- then learn from it
- Enable them to see the long-term impact of their decisions today
- No longer do things for them that they should do for themselves
- Push them to solve their own problems, especially ones they neglect
- Let them face the consequences of poor choices they make so they'll learn how to do it better in the future
If our kids are going to be thriving adults -- and even leaders -- we must begin to lead them differently today.