A British researcher knighted for his 30 years of work on childhood leukemia has come up with what sounds like an amazing breakthrough -- and an amazing metaphor.
For children to contract leukemia, Mel Greaves has determined, two things need to happen: First, they have to have the genetic mutation that would trigger the disease. About 1 in 20 kids have that.
Second, they also need to have an improperly working immune system. This is something kids can develop if they are NOT EXPOSED to enough germs in their first year of life. As Greaves explains in The Guardian:
"Without that confrontation with an infection, the system is left unprimed and will not work properly.”
And this issue is becoming an increasingly worrying problem. Parents, for laudable reasons, are raising children in homes where antiseptic wipes, antibacterial soaps and disinfected floorwashes are the norm. Dirt is banished for the good of the household.
Irony alert: Our desire to keep kids safe is making them unsafe.
How familiar is that concept to readers of Let Grow?
Just as the culture has plied us with ever more germ-avoiding products (like the shopping cart liner), so it has pushed us to overprotect our kids in every other sphere. For instance, rather than just letting our kids play at the park, we have been encouraged to enroll them in structured, supervised activities so they are "protected" from bullies, boredom, and the burden of figuring out how to do something on their own.
The long-term effects?
“When such a baby is eventually exposed to common infections, his or her unprimed immune system reacts in a grossly abnormal way,” says Greaves. “It over-reacts and triggers chronic inflammation.”
What we might call "psychological inflammation" occurs when kids overreact to an unfamiliar or uncomfortable situation because they have been so sheltered from these. They feel unsafe, when actually they are only unprepared, because they haven't been allowed the chance to develop a tolerance for some fears and frustrations. That means a minor issue can be enough to set a kid off -- something we are seeing at college, where there has been a surge in mental health issues when young people are on their own, at last.
From this perspective, the disease has nothing to with power lines or nuclear fuel reprocessing stations, as has been suggested in the past, but is caused by a double whammy of interacting prenatal and environmental events.
The solution is the same one we endorse: More exposure, early on, to the mini risks and and challenges kids have faced until recently. That means stepping back and letting our kids step out into the world without us constantly there, providing "protection."
If you have been able to do just that in the interests of creating a more resilient, "immune" child -- please let us know how you started. We have been pushed to overprotect. We could use some help going "backwards." - L