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Last Updated: 02/01/2018

 Article of Interest - Parenting

Safe, but sorry
Today's kids are more secure than ever, but their parents are more worried than ever. Are we 'protecting' our children to death?
by Laura Sessions Stepp, The State & The Washington Post, January 4, 2003
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Bubble babies. We're raising a generation of bubble babies.

From the moment our children are conceived, we try to wrap them in plastic packing. An Arlington, Va., woman stops drinking coffee when she's pregnant. A dad in Fairfax, Va., installs computer spyware to check the Web sites his daughter visits.

Lisa and Danny Stone live in the Charles County, Md., house where Danny grew up. They know all the other residents on the cul-de-sac. When 7-year-old Danielle wanted to sell cookie dough for her school door-to-door, Lisa Stone asked each neighbor to call her as Danielle left for the next house.

"Where I live, there's no reason for that," she admits. "If I went out on the front porch, I could see her. But it made me feel safe. I needed to know she was someplace."

Stone remembers the day she started feeling uneasy. She was holding baby Danielle and watching an ABC broadcast about a day-care provider hitting the children in her charge. "I sat there with a 6-week-old, crying, 'I'm never going to work again. I can't put my baby in day care.' " And still, experts, educators, media doomsayers, politicians and marketing gurus tell us we aren't doing enough.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission orders the recall of teddy bears stuffed with beans because if beans popped out at the seams, young children could inhale them. (No such accidents have been reported, but the possibility exists.) Baby gates and electrical-outlet protectors are supplemented by toilet-lid locks and animal-shaped abduction alarms to be worn by children. Only $19.95 buys a 71-piece child-safety kit that includes sponge tape to be installed on the sharp edges of furniture. The accompanying description reminds us that "accidents are the (No.) 1 killer of children today." Public Agenda, a New York foundation, polled parents last summer, prior to the Washington-area sniper shootings, and discovered startlingly high levels of anxiety. Parents worried more about demons outside the home - drugs, kidnappers, their children's friends - than the ordinary devils of mortgage payments and not enough family time.


A Cleveland mother told the surveyors: "We never once in our lives hired a babysitter. Because of things that go on these days, you would worry. There's babysitters that are raping your kids, murdering your kids." "We were all struck by the pervasiveness of these attitudes and the intensity of them," Public Agenda President Deborah Wadsworth says. "Parents have always been concerned about their kids, but now they feel as if they're fighting a war and have no allies." 'STRESS EPIDEMIC' U.S. parents are not the only ones who feel this way. The Brits talk about "wrapping a child in cotton wool" and their newspapers are filled with examples: Yo-yos banned on British playgrounds, children told not to climb trees, three-day programs to teach college-bound 18-year-olds how to shop, cook meals and manage a budget, "to combat the stress epidemic in Britain's colleges and universities."

In the past, writes Frank Furedi, a British sociologist, Mom or Dad might have worried about one or two little things - a child's stutter, perhaps, or a particularly troublesome friend.

Today's parents on both sides of the Atlantic worry about "every little issue." How worried should we be about our worries? A lot, says Furedi: "Our obsession with our children is likely to be more damaging to them than the risks they encounter in their daily interactions with the world."

This fierce protectiveness comes from a good place. It is a universal instinct among mammals that is necessary for species survival. But after sterilizing, purifying, deodorizing and scrubbing everything your offspring may inhale, swallow or touch, think about this: Recent research suggests that children who live on farms develop immunities to allergies that other kids do not. It turns out that some exposure to bacteria strengthens a developing immune system.

Furedi, author of a new book, "Paranoid Parenting," writes: "In a loving environment, even a traumatic episode need not prevent a child from bouncing back and developing into a confident adult. However, if parents stifle their children with their obsessions and restrict their scope to explore, then the young generation will become socialized to believe that vulnerability is the natural state of affairs."

Translation: Some parents say they want their children to grow up to be independent, even courageous. But their behavior actually tells kids the reverse. 'SAFE AND SECURE' Enrollment in private day schools has jumped 24 percent in the past decade, according to the National Association of Independent Schools. Nancy Spencer, admissions director at the Bullis School in Potomac, Md., says "feeling safe and secure" is one reason parents choose schools like hers over large public schools. Spencer's two young daughters are enrolled in another private school. "I have no qualms putting them in a sheltered environment," she says. "The real world will always be there."


Children only blocks away from their schools are driven to class and reminded regularly by teachers that there will be zero tolerance for boisterous behavior. They can't play dodge ball at recess because someone might get hurt. After school, they don't race home to play pickup football or roam the neighborhood. Parents schedule homework time, TV, play dates, ballet, supervised soccer. As a result, this generation has 15 percent less free time than their parents enjoyed, according to research at the University of Michigan.

Everybody grew up with a bubble child in the neighborhood. He or she was the one taking all those lessons. Now 7 out of 10 students in middle school and high school are enrolled in after-school programs for, on average, two hours a day, according to a Harris Interactive poll.


Sports programs are the most popular, with a result both ironic and troubling: The number of "overuse injuries" among youths as young as 8 and 9 - including stress fractures, sore heels, and tendinitis - is on the rise.


When kids do escape the clutches of grown-ups, the playgrounds they head toward hardly resemble playgrounds at all. Gone are old-fashioned monkey bars, seesaws, big slides, big swings and "fire poles" - the metal and wood structures installed in mid-century to attract children off city streets. They have been deemed unsafe by liability-anxious officials and in their place are what some recreation experts call "dumbed-down" playgrounds: colorful plastic pipes with few movable parts. Sand, gravel and dirt have been replaced by rubber mats and wood chips, making it difficult to shape mud pies and dig holes. Fewer than half of today's teen-agers work at paying jobs, according to the Department of Labor, the smallest proportion since 1970. Discovering real-world capabilities and limits has been devalued as parents focus on schoolwork as the be-all and end-all for college-bound students. And who isn't college-bound these days?


Elaine Tyler May, a professor of American studies at the University of Minnesota, says she has an 11-year-old niece who is "already frantic about getting into college." And why wouldn't she be?


"We're told that college is going to make or break their future. Schools are into this, especially private schools," May says.



Neurologist Richard Restak, author of the book accompanying the PBS series "The Secret Life of the Brain," says children raised by anxious adults become anxious themselves. Psychologist Frans deWaal, who works at Emory University's Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta, has observed this in chimpanzees. When juvenile chimps play together and start quarreling, some of the youngsters inevitably squeal, he says. Some mothers, sitting several yards away, simply watch, but others go over right away to comfort their particular chimp.


The babies whose mothers get involved become crybabies, deWaal says, and over time the other young chimps won't play with them. Jean Twenge, an assistant psychology professor at San Diego State University, reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that levels of anxiety among college students have risen significantly since the 1950s.


In the Harris poll of teen-agers, almost three out of four kids said they felt nervous or stressed at least some of the time, with half saying they felt that way often. The National Institute of Mental Health says that first-time depression is being reported at an earlier age. Some effects of the bubbles are well documented: Today's indoor generation of children is three times as fat as it was 20 years ago, according to a report by former surgeon general David Satcher.

Other effects are more subtle. Brad Inman, a journalist and teacher at the University of California, Berkeley, says he and his friends talk about kids they know who were guided along the fast track from preschool through Princeton, having neither the time nor the encouragement for real-world jobs. Now these golden young men and women are waiting tables, unsure where to go with their lives or how to get there.


Teachers talk about students who are adept at saying what they know adults expect them to say but are stumped when asked to expand on their comments. "They are passive in a weird sort of way," Inman says. "It's like they've withdrawn under pressure. I don't see the insane ambition I saw 10 years ago."

Joan Keller, who graduated this year from Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md., has noticed a lack of self-confidence among her friends who "have never been in a strange situation where they really had to see what they could do." An everyday example: She drives a car with a stick shift "and all my friends ask me, 'How do you do that?' "Wadsworth, of Public Agenda, tells of a friend in New York whose daughter refused to run cross-country in high school. She would have to wear shorts, she told her mom, and was afraid she'd pick up ticks. Ticks, her mother had taught her years earlier, carry Lyme disease.


Just as parents are hard-wired to protect, children are driven to take risks and many will find a way to do so, as either rebels or adventurers or both. Significant numbers of young adults are joining the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, its domestic version. Extreme sports are on the rise: snowboard acrobatics, wakeboarding on rivers and lakes, luge racing on city streets at 80 miles an hour, mountain biking, bungee jumping, and wild stunts on MTV. Even the fictional Jimmy Livingston in last year's comedy "Bubble Boy," encased in plastic because of a deficient immune system, managed to find a way to Niagara Falls in pursuit of his one true love. Perhaps these young people have found an antidote to the bubble trend, but do we really want them to be like the "jackasses" of the movie and TV series, flipping golf carts and riding mattresses down ski slopes? The parents interviewed for Public Agenda said it was critical that their children learn to take control of their own lives. But only one-third thought they had successfully taught their youngsters how to do that.




How to break through the bubbles?

Say a child runs into a problem or asks to do something out of the ordinary. Sociologist Furedi, father of a 7- year-old, says it's OK to ask what can go wrong but then follow with this: "If the worst happens, does it matter, and what might my child learn from the experience?"


We can all remember lessons in childhood that, though painful or scary at the time, taught us something useful: standing up to bullies, testing physical endurance, refusing to lie, risking failure in a tough course, getting back on the bicycle after a fall, learning how to handle a dictatorial teacher, acquiring the knowledge that life is not fair, easy, logical or as happy as Americans think it should be. Those big decisions were preceded by smaller ones. That's why in the Kellers' Glen Echo, Md., home, school lunches that were forgotten stayed on the kitchen counter. It's why Joan Keller, diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and needing more sleep than she sometimes got, was still allowed to set her own bedtime. "Every once in a while I'd stay up late and pay the price," she says. In high school, Laurie Keller stopped waking Joan on school days, and when Joan was late to school refused to write a note for her unexcused absences. When one of Joan's best friends committed suicide near the end of Joan's junior year, her parents took her to a couple of counseling sessions, then pulled her aside. "You have to decide to get over this," her mother said. "You need to start thinking about happy things, not sad things." Joan remembers her first reaction: "How can you say that?" She didn't release her grief easily. She was accepted into the University of Maryland but decided to postpone college for a year. She took a job at a bagel cafe, helped her dad at his law office. Her mom was right, Joan now says. Recently a friend was involved in a late-night car accident that killed the other car's driver. Joan drove to Towson, Md., at midnight to see her friend, concerned but not shaken. "These sort of experiences make me confident," she says. She's now training to become an emergency medical technician at a firehouse in Bethesda, Md. Why that particular one?


"Because they get a lot more calls."


Neurologist Richard Restak, author of the book accompanying the PBS series "The Secret Life of the Brain," says what Americans are feeling these days is more anxiety than fear. Fear, he says, is based on facts. So let's look at the facts. . A child born today in the United States will live, on average, into his or her mid-70s, or almost 30 years longer than a child born 100 years ago, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. The chance that a child will die before 24 is half what it was in 1950. Fewer young people are killing each other or themselves since the mid-1990s, and fewer are dying in car crashes.


Abductions by strangers have dropped dramatically since the 1980s, according to the FBI, and even then the odds of being abducted were extremely low. Most missing children are returned. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the chance of a child being killed at school is 1 in 1 million.


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