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Problems With Overprotective Parents: Why Letting Children Play In Dirt Is Healthy

As a pediatrician, I am very aware of the dangers for children. Over time, however, I have come to the conclusion that we are doing our kids a disservice by being hyper aware of all the dangers in our society.
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An article by Carine Nadel on "America's Worst Mom," Lenore Skenazy, recently caught my attention. Skenazy's book: Free-Range Kids, Giving Our Kids the Freedom We Enjoyed Without Going Nuts With Worry, details a great model for parenting.

As a pediatrician, I am very aware of the dangers and safety concerns when it comes to our children. Over time, however, I have come to the conclusion that we are doing our kids a disservice by being hyper aware of all the dangers in our society.

Instead, the over-concerned parent presents the greatest danger! We have managed to make prisoners of our children in their own homes. We don't let them venture anywhere out of our sight. How are they going to learn if mom is always watching? How are they going to learn to handle a situation if it is always handled for them? In residency training, we learned faster when the professors kept their distance. When they were at our sides, we always deferred to their expertise and didn't trust in our own abilities. Kids respond the same way.

Because mom or dad is always there to take over if there is even the slightest sign of failure, kids never need to do anything for themselves. If, rather, children learn by failing, their persistence will push them to keep trying until they succeed.

Recently, I wrote an article (August 3, 2009, Huffington Post) regarding childhood obesity. I think one of the leading causes of childhood obesity is lack of freedom for children. They learn to be entertained by television while they live a sedentary existence. They are trapped inside the house because the parents are afraid to let them roam

Lenore's comment, "We need to let our kids be kids" is important. Kids need the freedom from parents to learn and experience adventures on their own. They need to explore. They need to torment an ant hill and learn the consequences. They need to climb rocks and trees, to fall down, and to get right back up and try again.

I have stressed for years that a "little dirt never hurt anyone." I have tried to convince parents to relax and understand that kids will get hurt no matter how diligent they are. I have tried to make them understand that the chances of their child being abducted are less then one in a million. Unfortunately, shows such as Nancy Grace make kidnapping and murder seem to be a far more common experience. These shows may be helpful in some regard, but the overall effect is that it promotes a lock-down mentality which is more harmful in the long run.

I see so many parents in my practice who are so obsessed with making their children's lives stress and danger free that they drive themselves and their kids crazy. I see more depressed children today then ever before. I see kids with anxiety disorders which were very uncommon decades ago. I see a tremendous increase in childhood obesity. I see parents who can't enjoy being parents because of their fixation with making sure their house is 100% child proof.

If things are meant to be, they will happen. I had one case where the parents brought in a seven month old baby girl because they were afraid she had been bitten by a spider. I took it very lightly as the baby was happy and alert and seemed in perfect health. I asked why they thought she had been bitten and they said because they found her holding a big black shiny spider. My immediate thought was of a black widow, but I knew that if she had been bitten, she would be very ill and yet here she was smiling at me. I informed them the spider was more then likely harmless. They produced a plastic bag with a black widow spider, and they added that she had even put the spider in her mouth! Somehow the spider did not strike.

Danger lurks in every corner, but fate determines the outcome 999,999 times out of a million. Parents can do much to ensure the health and well-being of their children, but being over protective won't often prevent catastrophe. Instead, it will prevent your children from leading the type of normal and healthy lives which will allow them to grow into more independent adults down the line.

Relax and enjoy life.

Protect against the obvious, and leave the rest to nature.

Set your anxiety aside or else watch your kids become neurotic with worry.

Most of all, remember the fun times you had as a kid, out on an adventure, and give your own kids the same opportunity to be free.