The Literal Metaphor of Sickness

I’ve written about Lenore Skenazy before. She is one of my mom’s favorite writers and so she likes to share the articles with me. Skenazy has a another piece about her usual topic, helicopter parents and their captive children. Today’s column, in the local newspaper (The Gazette), has the title “The irony of overprotection” (you can find it on the Creators website or from the GazetteXtra). She begins with a metaphor. In studying how leukemia is contracted, scientist Mel Greaves found that two conditions were required. The first is a genetic susceptibility, which exists only in a certain number of kids, although far from uncommon. But that alone isn’t sufficient without the second factor.

There has to be an underdeveloped or compromised immune system. And sadly this also has become far from uncommon. Further evidence of the hygiene hypothesis keeps accumulating (should be called the hygiene theory at this point). Basically, it is only by being exposed to germs that a child’s immune system experiences healthy stress that activates the immune system into normal development. Without this, many are left plagued by ongoing sickness, allergies, and autoimmune conditions for the rest of their lives.

Parents have not only protected their children from the larger dangers and infinite risks of normal childhood: skinned knees from roughhousing, broken limbs from falling from trees, hurt feelings from bullies, trauma from child molesters, murder from the roving bands of psychotic kidnappers who will sell your children on the black market, etc. Beyond such everyday fears, parents have also protected their kids from minor infections, with endless application of anti-bacterial products and cocooning them in sterile spaces that have been liberally doused with chemicals that kill all known microbial life forms. That is not a good thing for the consequences are dire.

This is where the metaphor kicks in. Skenazy writes:

The long-term effects? Regarding leukemia, “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 overreacts and triggers chronic inflammation.”

Regarding plain old emotional resilience, 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 young people are at last on their own. There has been a surge in mental health issues on campuses.

It’s no surprise that anxiety would be spiking in an era when kids have had less chance to deal with minor risks from childhood on up.

There is only a minor detail of disagreement I’d throw out. There is nothing metaphorical about this. Because of an antiseptic world and other causes (leaky gut, high-carb diet, sugar addiction, food additives, chemical exposure, etc), the immune systems of so many modern Americans are so dysfunctional and overreactive that it wreaks havoc on the body. Chronic inflammation has been directly linked to or otherwise associated with about every major health issue you can think of.

This includes, by the way, neurocognitive conditions such as depression and anxiety, but much worse as well. Schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, etc also often involve inflammation. When inflammation gets into the brain, gut-brain axis, and/or nervous system, major problems follow with a diversity of symptoms that can be severe and life threatening, but they can also be problematic on a social and psychological level as well. This new generation of children are literally being brain damaged, psychologically maimed, and left in a fragile state. For many of them, their bodies and minds are not fully prepared to deal with the real world with normal healthy responses. It is hard to manage the stresses of life when one is in a constant state of low-grade sickness that permanently sets the immune system on high, when even the most minor risks could endanger one’s well being.

The least of our worries is the fact that diseases like type 2 diabetes, what used to be called adult onset diabetes because it was unknown among children, is now increasing among children. Sure, adult illnesses will find their way earlier and earlier into young adulthood and childhood and the diseases of the elderly will hit people in middle age or younger. This will be a health crisis that could bankrupt and cripple our society. But worse than that is the human cost of sickness and pain, struggle and suffering. We are forcing this fate onto the young generations. That is cruel beyond comprehension. We can barely imagine what this will mean across the entire society when it finally erupts as a crisis.

We’ve done this out of ignorant good intentions of wanting to protect our children from anything that could touch them. It makes us feel better that we have created a bubble world of innocence where children won’t have to learn from the mistakes and failures, harms and difficulties we experienced in growing up. So instead, we’ve created something far worse for them.

5 thoughts on “The Literal Metaphor of Sickness

  1. In San Francisco, during the War Years (WWII), I lived mostly free and wild between the end of a school day and time for the funny papers while listening to the radio serials (15 minutes each) as Mom prepared dinner. Then we moved to Brooklyn, a slum, where the streets were dirty and there were no trees, My parents did not deny me access to the streets and the bullies (I was small, with glasses, and the smart kid). I was injured a few times (still have the scars) but I have survived to age 82, in good health. Part of this was luck, part of it genetic, but I feel a lot of it was being exposed to all the elements as you suggest here. I studied public health in university and learned that kids in Egypt, once they got past a certain age, had strong immune systems, for the reasons you put forth.

    • There are downsides to early infections. My younger self had much familiarity with this topic. Squeezing pus out of infected wounds was a favorite hobby of mine back then. My childhood was the opposite of hygienic, no fault of my parents. I was just a filthy child who loved to play in muck and mud. An injury, even involving blood, was no reason to stop playing, assuming that I even noticed the injury.

      I had a knee infection when I was a kid, probably from my playing in filthy creeks and getting those cuts that were rarely cleaned out. If my knee infection hadn’t been treated, it could have caused harm such as stunted growth in that leg. Kids even can die from otherwise minor infections. That is what is seen in tribal societies with higher rates of infant and childhood mortality, mostly from infections. But going to the opposite extreme is as bad, if not worse.

      Like tribal, rural and those Egyptians you speak of, as with your own experience, I’m now a proud owner of a strong immune system. Damn! My immune system got a healthy workout in my early years. Now I rarely get sick. But my brothers, less filthy than I was, get sick more often. And their children, typically protected as kids are these days, are constantly sick and suffering from all kinds of ailments: food sensitivities, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, autism, etc.

      Maybe these are all connected. Recent studies would suggest this is the case. It is saddening that this is now seen as normal in our society, as if being plagued by sickness is an inevitable part of life, including childhood. But it is not normal. In traditional societies with healthy environments and diets, and where children run free, the normal course of life is to remain vibrant and well functioning until at some point one gets sick and dies quickly. Ignoring early mortality, these traditional people have lifespans about the same as ours, with the main difference being that they remain mentally and physically active into old age.

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