Protecting People Doesn’t Make Them Safer

Last Tuesday’s front page of The Register-Guard featured two stories that don’t seem related, but they are.

Our community grappled with tragedy after three young children were hit by a truck and killed while crossing Main Street in east Springfield. Below the fold, scientists have shown that children exposed to small amounts of peanuts are less likely to develop a life-threatening peanut allergy.

Now a study published in the March issue of “Pediatrics” has shown that children are half as likely to develop allergies of any sort if their family washes dishes by hand. The so-called “hygiene hypothesis” contends that high-temperature dishwashers deny children the exposure to bacteria and viruses that allow their immune systems to develop healthy tolerances.

In all three cases, we’re faced with a heart-breaking conundrum. It is this. Protecting people may not make them safer — at least not for very long.

We’re powerfully adaptive creatures. When environmental changes occur, we take note. If there’s a crosswalk painted on the pavement and a warning light flashing, we feel safer. As we feel safer, we naturally become less careful.

The details of that deadly crossing in Springfield are still being determined and nobody wants to believe that the deaths of three children under the age of ten couldn’t have been prevented. Slower speeds could help. Safer crossings are always welcome.

But we must also let go of the idea that anything can guarantee our safety every minute in every circumstance. Indeed, what these two scientific studies have demonstrated is that children — on a molecular level! — can be imperiled by the protections we sometimes give them.

My grandmother grew up on a farm. She had a certain disdain for the suburban cult of cleanliness that grew up in the 1960s. “Ah,” she would proclaim dismissively, “you eat a peck of dirt before you die.” She said it with such confidence that you could be certain she heard it from her mother or grandmother first.

And now there’s science to back her up.

Fitting this conundrum into our lifestyle choices is very hard work, especially if we’re raising children. Who wouldn’t want to protect their child from every possible harm imaginable? Knowing the danger of overprotection doesn’t change how it feels.

A Facebook friend started a post recently with the words, “So it’s happened,” as if to convey the story’s inevitability. He and his wife are part of a nationwide movement to raise “Free-Range Kids.” Rather than imbuing their children with a pervasive “stranger danger” fear, they are purposely and carefully encouraging their children to explore their neighborhood.

The “so it’s happened” incident occurred when a neighbor’s concern was misinterpreted by their daughter. She thought she was in trouble for walking down the block alone. In Virginia and in other states, parents are being arrested for negligence under similar circumstances.

The workaround they’ve developed is to give their kids walkie talkies to carry when they are out — sort of a mobile version the baby monitor that parents install near cribs.

Others have taken on the task of raising public awareness among their neighbors. Nobody has suggested taping “Not Lost” flyers to telephone poles, but maybe that’s next. Children learn to be afraid. We teach them.

I remember playing hide-and-seek across an entire neighborhood, riding in a car without seat belts to slake our thirst with root beer floats, and then sleeping under front-yard bushes. Hindsight can be beneficial, but can you spot the greatest danger?

Most would answer the lack of seat belts, but statistically, it’s the root beer. Obesity is projected to shorten the lives of more than half of America’s young people.

The Free-Range Kids movement acknowledges that we’ll never be able to protect our children as much as we would like. Certain dangers, like Springfield’s tragedy two weeks ago, are startling and upsetting. But others, like childhood obesity and allergies, are more pervasive and more preventable.

We can start by allowing our children (and our neighbors’ children) a bit more freedom, making it easier for them to exercise their bodies, minds and immune systems.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs