I’m coming up for air after sending all of the kids off to school today. We’ve just finished round two of our battle with Hand, Foot and Mouth disease and are waiting with bated breath for the third child to go down.
(In related news, coxsackievirus, you can suck it.)
As often happens when school returns in the fall, the parenting Facebook groups and listservs I frequent are lighting up with news about what’s going around (besides Hand, Foot, and Mouth, evidently there’s a lot of strep and a miserable norovirus making the rounds in my neck of the woods) accompanied by impassioned pleas for help in avoiding these nasties.
A recurrent theme that emerges in a lot of these posts and in real life conversations I’ve had with other parents is that if our child falls ill, we have somehow done something wrong.
Think about it. How many time have you heard or said things like, “But I breastfeed him?” “We are super strict about bedtime?” “We always wash our hands really well?” Followed up with a, “How could this have happened?”
Your child gets sick because his or her immune system is still developing. In “Why Do My Kids Get Sick So Much?” Dr. Vincent Iannelli explains:
It is normal for young children to have six to eight upper respiratory tract infections and two or three gastrointestinal infections each year. Children in school and day care can often have more (often called day care syndrome). As your child gets older, his immune system will strengthen and he will build up immunity to many common infections and he will get sick less often.
He goes on to offer up the standard measures to avoid illness, such as hand washing, but then adds,
Other tips to help avoid catching infections include avoiding close contact with other people who are sick. Make sure that your day care has a strict policy about excluding children with contagious illnesses. This does not always help though, because most illnesses are contagious for a day or two before you even have symptoms. Once your child develops symptoms, he has probably already infected other people he has been in contact with.
Well, right, Dr. Iannelli. He probably already has infected all the other kids.
So, really, beyond the basic stuff that we should all do anyway – eat wholesome foods, sleep solidly on a good schedule, let your body move more than it sits, and maintain basic hygiene – there’s not a lot we can do to keep our kids from contracting these viruses.
And, while it would seem that the thinking around the “hygiene hypothesis” has moved away from assuming it’s just childhood infections that are protective of future autoimmunity, asthma and allergy towards more of a childhood infection plus “old friends” / microbial diversity framework, the proposition that childhood infection can be protective against future autoimmune and allergic issues seems to be supported by evidence of many kinds. (If this kind of thing fascinates you, stop what you’re doing and get An Epidemic of Absence : A New Way of Understanding Allergies and Autoimmune Disease by Moises Valesquez-Manoff.)
Given that all of the above is well-established and likely not news to anyone reading today, I’m utterly fascinated by our inclination to blame ourselves or feel like bad parents when our kids get sick. And I, in full disclosure, completely count myself among these ranks.
Why do we, as parents, think that we have such control over our kids’ lives that we have the power — if we were only “better parents” — to keep them from getting sick? What about our cultural mindset plants that seed in our collective head? Going further still, do we think it’s our responsibility to make their way in the world as easy and pain-free as possible? Because that sounds an awful lot like that whole helicopter parenting gig that all of us say we want no part of.
And, yet, still … kid falls ill … we are hit with self-blame.
I’m so curious what you guys think about this tendency. Where does it come from? My half-baked answer is that it stems from all the hundreds of articles that crop up around this time of year telling parents all the different ways we can keep our kids from getting sick. Again, it suggests that keeping them from falling ill is desirable and within our power.
But am I too quick to blame the media? Are they just reflecting some underlying cultural zeitgeist that I’m not properly identifying?