Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself?

In a Newsweek article, Paula Spencer argues that we protect our kids from everything but fear. Parents are afraid of obesity, germs, playgrounds, the sun, and numerous other things that kids encounter daily. How much fear and caution are too much? Are kids in more danger from being over-protected than from anything else paranoid minds can dream up?

Yes and no. It’s natural for moms to worry. It’s their worries and their instincts that protect their children from very real dangers. But at the same time, the media and an ever-changing world fuel the fire by adding new items to the list of potential dangers all the time. Take, for example, one mom who attends my weekly Mommy & Me classes with her three-year-old. On the wall of our classroom, there is a dispenser of hand sanitizer. This mom stopped another mom from sanitizing her two-year-old’s hands, saying, “You didn’t hear that story on the news the other night? About the child who became intoxicated by licking the hand sanitizer off their hands? That stuff isn’t safe. Look, it lists the alcohol content right there on the front.” Sure enough: 62% alcohol. Never mind that none of these children have ever licked the hand sanitizer off their hands. Never mind that their moms are right there with them to stop them should they start to lick their hands (and what a good opportunity to explain that we don’t lick hand sanitizer). The other mom quickly pulled her child away from the dispenser and used a hand wipe instead.

Spencer’s article talks about the fact that playgrounds today are built so safely that kids take more risks than ever because they’re bored. Playgrounds wouldn’t need to be quite so “safe” if kids were properly supervised. Supervision prevents more playground accidents than anything else, be it a safer climbing structure or appropriate surfacing. Proper interaction and conversation with children of all ages keeps them safe.

I work with a five-year-old boy who is very paranoid. He’s afraid of bugs, dirt, germs, loud noises, changes in his routine, and — most of all — strangers. He’s so paranoid about strangers that when we once ran into a parent on the school campus who said hello to me, he went home and told his mother than this stranger had tried to “take” him from me. Because his mom is terrified of strangers and of her children being kidnapped, she immediately met with me to find out why her son was not being “watched”. The tragedy is that this little boy will live with this fear for years and years to come. His fear holds him back from normal activities and interactions.

The fears that Spencer addresses in her article are all legitimate. Parents need to worry about sunscreen and they need to worry about obesity. But no seven-year-old should count calories. Parents need to arm their children with the information they need to be safe in the world, whether that means putting on a hat before they go outside or fastening their seat belts in the car. Before we send our kids out, we give them tools. Fear is not an appropriate tool. Awareness is. Caution is. Moderation is. It seems that especially because of the world we live in do parents need to teach empowerment and not fear.

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