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Are You Overprotecting Your Child?

You probably remember Charlie Brown's Valentine's Day trauma: Would he get any valentines? Could he even dare to dream of one from the object of his affections, the Little Red-Haired Girl? Well, if Charlie Brown went to elementary school with my children, he wouldn't have to worry. Anyone who wants to bring in valentines is required to bring in exactly one card for exactly every child in the class. No fair giving the kindergartner you like best a nicer card than the kid you'd like to feed to the class gerbil, either.

And did I mention the birthday-party rule? No inviting classmates to a birthday party unless you invite them all. You are allowed to invite just the boys or just the girls, once you get to what is termed the cootie phase, but you are not permitted to draw any finer distinctions.

These days, most 5-year-olds are pretty safe from the moments  -- and, oh, how we parents cringe at the idea of those moments  -- when they might come face-to-face with another child's preferences. When they might be officially Left Out. I went to an elementary school where gym class involved the fully sanctioned ritual of choosing up sides, with two team captains picking off their choices from a long line of girls, while the unchosen stood and stood, waited and suffered. Today even high school-age kids are tactfully assigned to the A squad or the B squad by officials; the lists are posted, but there is no sense of personal rejection.

I'm not here to argue that all this cushioning is a bad idea, that we are creating little namby-pambies who will never be able to stand up to the rough-and-tumble of the great big playground that is real life  -- at least, not exactly. I have no desire to put the tension back into kindergarten Valentine's Day, thank you very much.

But are we protecting our children more than necessary?

Compare their carefully shielded existences to the way most of us grew up  -- and after all, jokes about the Dark Ages aside, most of us grew up in the perfectly civilized, enlightened era after Dr. Spock, vaccinations, and Sesame Street. Still, our children are more protected: Their playgrounds are set on padding, not concrete. As they grow, we hover closely. Gone are the days when grade-schoolers ranged in informal packs around the neighborhood, untracked by any parental global positioning system. Am I saying I miss those days? Good heavens, no-I want to know where my children are, and with whom, and I want to be sure they aren't playing ball in the street (as I did). I'm a pediatrician. You'll get no nostalgia from me for playgrounds that engender serious head trauma, or ball games that pause briefly for traffic. I don't for a minute long for the dear old adventurous days before car seats, bike helmets, or childproof caps on medication bottles. On the other hand, I think there are times when we extend our desire to protect our children from harm past all reason, sense, or hope of success.

So how do we know when we're going too far, and what the pitfalls are? There's the desire many parents seem to feel for complete control over what happens to their children. These parents worry about everything a child is "exposed to," whether it's a few moments of questionable content or a bad word on TV, or some pernicious artificial sweetener in a particularly noxious candy. It's as if they believe that years of careful nurturing and supportive parenting can be undone in that one toxic minute. All those hours and hours of watching with your child those videos that promote good values, creative thinking, and brain development  -- all of it gone because the movie had an unexpected scene of profane mayhem; all of those organic no-sugar-added treats washed away by one taste of fluorescent marshmallow crunchies.

But if you actually succeed in keeping your child pure and unexposed, you face a much more potent risk: a child who grows up without learning how to evaluate, handle, and get past the occasional unexpected dose of one kind of junk or another.

Other parents fall into the overidentification trap. The thought of your child's not being invited to a party or standing unwanted on the kickball field touches something inside you  -- a memory, a fear  -- and you just cannot tolerate the idea. You will demand legislation at the school. You will lodge formal complaints against other children you feel are mistreating your own. You will make a complete fool of yourself at soccer games. You will do anything, anything, to spare your child the agony.

The problem, of course, is that your child could pick up on your anxiety, and instead of regarding sitting out a soccer game as a minor irritation, he'll be deeply concerned that you're so hurt and disappointed. And this overidentification problem extends right up through high school. It can be sad not to be invited to the prom, but it's infinitely worse if you know that your mother, who spent her own prom sick to her stomach in the ladies' bathroom, has been fantasizing for years about how perfect her daughter's would be. Similarly, it's disappointing when you don't get into your first-choice college, but it's five times as tough when your parent is crushed because of it. Over and above all this anxiety, there's the issue of accepting risk. As part of that desire for control, hand in hand with overidentifi-cation, many parents metaphorically clutch their precious children close and insist that anything carrying a hazard, however small, however remote, is completely unacceptable.

As a pediatrician, I sometimes see this when parents are truly terrified by the tiny risks associated with immunizations (but are somehow unable to understand the much bigger and very real risks of the diseases they prevent). It's frightening to find yourself a parent, charged with a whole new level of responsibility, suffused with a whole new intensity of love and affection. Sometimes it's actually paralyzing  -- you feel such a commitment to finding out the one best, safest, surest option that you are immobilized.

Here's the paradox: If we protect our children too absolutely, we actually end up exposing them to other risks. And we leave them without the skills, experiences, and minor life lessons that they'll need to handle the big challenges as they grow up. Somehow, you have to learn that everyone doesn't like you best and want your company. You even have to learn, perhaps, that you aren't particularly good at one sport or another and therefore won't be leading off the inning or playing offense during the critical game. And the parent who helps you behave like a good sport (and sets the example) may be doing you more good for life than the one who gets ejected from the girls' peewee soccer league games for threatening your coach (yes, I've seen it happen!).

Of course, we'd all like to keep our children shielded from everything that's ugly in the world, and, of course, children shouldn't be forced to watch upsetting images. But as you grow, you have to learn how to cope with things you don't want to watch or wish you didn't know because they scare you or make you sad. And one way that you learn this is from the occasional too-strong dose of something or other, and from the help your parents give you in coping with your fear or sadness.

We owe our children love and protection. We also owe them a certain amount of wisdom as they grow. It's not our job to protect them so completely that they grow up without knowing disappointment, pain, fear, or frustration. It is our job to run interference when necessary in a sane and age-appropriate manner (I mean appropriate to the age of the child, though I have to say that at girls' peewee soccer, you sometimes see parents behaving in ways that are highly inappropriate to the age of the parents!).

And, above all, it's our job to help them learn the lessons  -- even the slightly painful ones  -- that will give them the skills, defenses, self-knowledge, and sense of humor to cope with a world that contains risk and is not under parental control. Immunization is a good metaphor: Some of the small, nonserious lumps and bumps in life  -- spiritual, emotional, and even physical  -- help inoculate you and build your defenses so you can handle the bigger problems that, despite your parents' best intentions, may someday come your way.