Stress is good. Toxic stress is bad. Find the right balance between stress load and resources, and our capacity for future resilience is enhanced.
It makes sense, then, to find the most resource-rich environment we can. The odd thing is that we tend to do exactly the opposite of what is good for us. Rather than give our children an environment stockpiled with opportunities to ensure their successful physical and psychological development, we are hell-bent on keeping them away from the experiences they need. There is plenty of good science showing that when children get outdoors and get dirty their physical and mental well-being improves for a lifetime.
KIDS NEED TO EAT DIRT
As I am writing this, it is a drizzly April day with wonderfully enticing puddles everywhere. I loved walking to school on days like this, black rubber boots slapping against my calves. Each puddle was an opportunity to make the biggest splash possible. The cars that whizzed by doused me and the other kids in gritty cold showers. Little did we know that these antics were beneficial, especially from the point of view of immunology. Kids, it seems, need to eat dirt.
A well-known article by Thomas McDade and his colleagues at Northwestern University demonstrates that people exposed to lower levels of microbes during their infancy were much more sensitive to the pro-inflammatory effects of stress as adults. In practical terms, the more germs we experience as children the better our immune systems will handle stress later in life. Dirt makes us stronger and more resilient.
If we think about this like a preventative immunization, giving kids a chance to get dirty may be just what the doctor ordered for long-term resistance to stress. Contrast that advice with the growing number of grocery stores that provide sanitary wipes next to the shopping carts. While I sympathize with parents who are concerned for their children’s well-being, I think the microbiologists would say that all that wiping is making our children sickly. The best thing we can do is to let our children lick those grocery cart handles (unless you know for certain there has been an outbreak of SARS or a similar deadly disease in your neighborhood).
RISK AND RESPONSIBILITY BUILDS IMMUNITY
If children today seem to us vulnerable or unable to look after themselves, we need to stop blaming them and start pointing the finger where it belongs: to caregivers, to an alarmist media, to politicians, school authorities, and law enforcers who exaggerate threats and frighten us into believing that the world is hostile to children. Perfectly healthy and loving environments are turned toxic by withholding from children manageable amounts of risk and responsibility.
Our children also need the psychological immunity that comes from an environment that occasionally forces them to self-regulate. Once again, even an individual quality like self-regulation depends much more on demands from our environment than from individual effort. It is an easy pattern to see if one looks for it.
On a recent flight back from Florida I encountered a four-year-old girl coming home from Disneyland who fussed for hours because her parents had stowed her headphones in their checked luggage. Her parents started by offering her earbuds provided by the flight attendant, then they tried distracting her with games, and finally when the screams became louder, they blamed each other for the girl’s bad behavior. This unfortunate child had been so indulged that she could not cope with a small inconvenience and amuse herself for a couple of hours. The more her parents tried to make her perfect, the less perfect it was.
RESILIENCY REQUIRES OVERCOMING CHALLENGES
To be resilient is not about having our every need met. It is about being given the right amount of stress and the right resources to overcome manageable challenges for healthy biological and neurological development. If those same parents were wise, they would offer their girl opportunities to be uncomfortable more often. Rather than Disney, I would suggest a long drive to someplace with low stimulation and no electricity. That might help the little girl learn the self-regulation skills she will need to deal with problems later in life. Change the little girl’s environment and she will change her behavior.
To be fair, parenting under any circumstance is a tough job. There is no manual. But changing environments changes kids (and adults).
Excerpted from Change Your World: The Science of Resilience and the Path to Success (Sutherland House Books, May 2019).
Michael Ungar, PhD, author Change Your World: The Science of Resilience and the Path to Success is a Family Therapist and the Canada Research Chair in Child, Family and Community Resilience at Dalhousie University. Dr. Ungar is also the founder and Director of the Resilience Research Centre Dr. Michael Ungar is among the best known writers and researchers on the topic of resilience in the world. His work has changed the way resilience is understood, shifting the focus from individual traits to the interactions between people and their families, schools, workplaces, and communities. He is the author of 15 books that have been translated into five languages, numerous manuals for parents, educators, and employers, as well as more than 170 scientific papers. His blog Nurturing Resilience appears on Psychology Today’s website.