Nurturing Nature

July 21, 2009

A group of scientists at the University of Iowa have made a huge announcement: it isn’t nature or nurture, it is both or neither.  My reaction: a big, fat, slightly unenthusiastic woo hoo.

While it would be nice and, in some ways, reassuring to have a clear sense of what behaviors and skills are due to nature and which are due to nurture, I have always wondered how anyone who has seen kids learning about and exploring the world could think it was as simple as one or the other.

While at first glance this may seem like a scary thing to parents- it becomes harder to blame that picky eater on your husband’s family- I think it is actually kind of a relief.  It means that we are involved in their development and growth, but that it also isn’t all on us.  We don’t have to hover all the time to make sure the environment is just perfect, but we also get to play an active role.

So I, for one, would like to thank the researchers at the University of Iowa for stating the obvious and helping to try to refocus important child development research towards a new and more complex approach.

Yet another story in the news about the rising number of food allergies among kids has got me thinking that living in sterile environments is bad, bad, bad.  While the news of the story is actually good, that exposure therapy for kids with peanut and milk allergies has promise, the part that really struck me was this: 

The reason for the [increase in the number of kids with food allergies] is the subject of intense research and debate. There are several theories, including changes in how food is processed and children’s not being exposed to certain foods early in life. Evidence has also been mounting for the “hygiene hypothesis,” which blames growing up in increasingly sterile homes, making the immune system overreact to ordinarily harmless substances, including food.

So two out of the three possible reasons on the table- not exposing them to foods and raising them in sterile environments- are tied to sheltering our kids too much.  We are hurting our kids by protecting them so much!!!

And this all goes back to the same anxiety provoking information that I have blogged about before.  When you think about what we grew up with, not to mention what our parents experienced, all of this paranoia is just laughable.  But perhaps even more importantly, all this worrying and hovering and sheltering takes up a ton of energy that we could otherwise use to enjoy time with our children.

So bring on the peanuts, the dairy, the dirt, the pets, the alcohol, and all those other things that make life fun.

Glimmers of hope?

May 5, 2009

Between the rain and the swine flu panic, my life has been seriously homebound.   It has been making me seriously grumpy and I am not alone… Over the past three rainy days M had taken to pointing towards the door and saying “ditty,” which we think means I want.  Heartbreaking.  But the rain did stop this morning.  And we did get outside for a walk.  And I have been able to set up his little jungle gym in the backyard so that we can, hopefully, play there later.  So there are glimmers of hope (and freedom) on the horizon.

I have to say, though, this whole swine flu panic needs to end.  The anxiety and all of the “what ifs” have paralyzed me and my ability to rise above the helicopter parenting pressure.  Of course I don’t want my kid to get sick, of course I want to protect him from the flu, but sometimes I feel like yelling at everyone, “IT IS JUST A FLU!!!”  But then the “what ifs” take hold and I know that I would feel excruciatingly guilty if something were to happen, and so I stay homebound in the baby bubble, betraying my post-modern parenting ethics.

So until the panic dies down I guess I will be trying to hold onto the little things- like a walk after three days of rain…  Is it dinner time yet? I am ready for a drink.

What If…

April 27, 2009

Lenore Skenazy has a great post on the Post’s parenting blog today about the power of the words, “what if.”  She describes an interaction with a police officer who tried to convince her that she had put her son in danger by letting him ride the subway alone.  The cop’s tactic?  To use a whole barrage of “what ifs”- What if he had been kidnapped? What if he had been kidnapped by two huge men and no one could save him? etc., etc.  She argues that the real danger of “what ifs” is that if we listen to them too much, we become terrified and then don’t let our kids be kids.

“What ifs” are something I have come across not only in terms of parenting but also with my belief in nonviolence.  In the case of my pacifism, people often think that the most convincing way to persuade me that I am wrong is to give me an impossible scenario in the form of a “what if”:  what if you and your child were in a dark alley, gagged so you couldn’t scream, being held at knife point, with no one around for miles, would you use violence to protect your child?  What I try to explain is that nonviolence is about doing all that you can to avoid the need for violence and that an impossible scenario isn’t the point, the point is how I live my life and what I strive towards.

And I think the same is true for post-modern parenting.  We should be doing all that we can to create the space for our children to explore and be independent, to reduce the “need” for hovering.  There is a lot we can do so that our kids are safe but are able to enjoy more independence- teaching them things they can do if they don’t feel safe, being clear about expectations and street smarts, making sure the breakables and choke-ables are out of reach, etc., etc.- by taking such steps we are then taking away many of the occasions for harm and opening new and exciting worlds to them.

When I was a tween/young adolescent we moved from the east coast to Boulder.   In the first week I headed down to the pedestrian mall to meet up with an old friend who happened to be in town.  We hung out for a while and then, when it was time to go home, I decided to walk.  Boulder is on a grid system with the mountains to the west so I figured that it would be easy to find my way home.  Little did I know, the street I wanted, 19th St., disappeared for a couple of blocks and then picked up again.  Needless to say, I got lost and ended calling my parents from a 7-11 to get picked up.  It was embarrassing, sure, but in the end it turned out that I was only a couple of blocks from home and I had learned a lot more about my new hometown. 

In my tweens going to the movies as a group, trick-or-treating without parents, walking to get pizza at the local pizza place with my buddies, excursions to the corner store to get candy with my brother were all things that I loved and are some of my best memories from those awkward-ass years.  It was how I began to feel more independent and confident about my place in the world.

That is why I was so disheartned by this post on Free-Range Kids yesterday.  Apparently a mother let her 10-year-old son walk to soccer practice on his own got in trouble with the police.  The field was only 1/3 of a mile away, he had her cell-phone just in case, he knew the way like the back of his hand, and she was going to be at the field 15 minutes after he was to arrive.  Her son did not make it 3 blocks before a cop car stopped him to find out what was wrong.  Apparently, people had been calling 911 because they saw a child walking alone.

How are our kids going to develop that ever important sense of independence and confidence in their abilities to navigate the world if we parents are constantly getting in the way?  This is true of 10-year-olds who want to walk to soccer practice and of 10-month-olds who want to crawl on the grass.  I know it is scary when we hear all the stories of kidnappings and sexual assaults of children.  But the truth is that most of those horrible things are perpetrated by people the kids know and not by strangers.

In some ways it isn’t surprising that our generation is so crazy about protecting our kids.  We were the tikes who were bombarded with messages about not talking to strangers who might be kidnappers (I’m still scared of vans), we had our finger-prints taken so we could be tracked down if we were to disappear, and we learned all about “good touch, bad touch.”  And let’s not even get started on all of the scary episodes on our favorite TV shows- Diff’rent Strokes, Punky Brewster, etc., etc.

But the truth is, we still were allowed to play in the park until dark, we were still allowed to walk to the corner store, we still took buses on our own.  And, if we want our kids to be capable and responsible adolescents and young adults, we are going to have to let our kids do those things too.