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When I was a kid, I had never heard of someone with a peanut allergy. The first time I encountered the condition I was in college, and it wasn’t someone I knew. It was the friend of a friend of a friend. Enough removed that these days you’d wonder, upon first hearing of it, if the condition was made up. But those were more credulous times, and I never doubted that someone could be so allergic to something that if they ate it they would die. But it did seem fantastic. These days I’m sure you know someone with a peanut allergy. My daughter isn’t allergic to peanuts, she’s allergic to tree nuts, and carries an epipen with her wherever she goes.
The primary theory for this change, how we went from no allergies of this sort to lots of them, is the hygiene hypothesis. The idea is that in the “olden days” children were exposed to enough pathogens, parasites and microorganisms that their immune system had plenty to keep it occupied, but now we live in an environment which is so sterile that the immune system, lacking actual pathogens, overreacts to things like peanuts. (Obviously this is a vast oversimplification.)
As the parent of someone who suffers from a dangerous allergy, I feel guilty. I don’t think we went overboard on cleanliness. Certainly we weren’t constantly spraying down surfaces with disinfectant, or repeatedly washing with antibacterial soap. Nevertheless, it appears that we failed to stress her immune system in the way it needed to be—that somewhere in the course of trying to make her safer we actually made her life more dangerous.
Does this idea—that certain amounts of stress are necessary for healthy development—need to be applied more broadly? Do we need to add a psychological hygiene hypothesis to the physical one? I would argue that we do. That it’s not just children’s immune systems which are designed around certain stressors, but that everything involved in their development needs a certain amount of risk to mature properly.
We see a dawning acknowledgement of this idea in things like the Free-Range Parenting movement, which, among other things, wants to make sure kids can walk, unaccompanied, to and from school, and the local park, without having child protective services called. The free-range argument is that kids need to get out and experience the world. Which presumably means experiencing some danger. If you want to get more technical, the theory underlying all of these efforts is that kids are antifragile and they get stronger when exposed to stress, up to a point. But is having them walk alone to school enough “stress”? When I was 8 I wasn’t just walking to school alone I was wandering for hours in the foothills, and climbing cliffs. These days I’m not sure that would be labeled “free-range parenting”, I think it might still be labeled neglect. It wasn’t, but where do you draw the line?
In the past a parent could do everything in their power to protect their kids, and they would still experience an abundance of suffering, danger, and stress, enough that no one ever worried whether they might be getting “enough”. But after centuries of progress we’ve finally reached the point where it’s reasonable to ask if we’ve gone too far. Particularly when we have young adults who, historically, would have been raising families or fighting in wars instead declaring that certain ideas are so harmful that they should not be uttered.
For those parenting in a modern, developed country, this problem is one of the central paradoxes of parenting, perhaps THE central paradox. And it’s not just parents that face this paradox, educators and even employers are facing it as well. Unfortunately I don’t have any easy solutions to offer.
As I mentioned I was wandering in the foothills of Utah when I was 8, but it’s not as if this experience made me into some kind of superman. I’m still at best only half the man my father is, and he’d probably tell you he’s only half the man his father was. All of which is to say, if this is indeed the trend, I’m unconvinced that a small amount of stress, or a few challenges, or a small course correction is all that’s required to fix the problem.
This would leave us with a very difficult problem: We’ve demonstrated the power to eliminate suffering, do we have the wisdom to bring it back?
The punchline of me wandering in the foothills when I was 8, is that I was nearly always accompanied by my cousin who would have been 5 or 6. So if stories of brave kindergartners is your thing, consider donating, I might have more of them.