Everyone seems to recognize that overprotective parenting is obnoxious. Most agree that it is probably not good for children. And yet, the trend toward so-called “helicopter parenting” grows stronger each year.
As recently reported on Vox, the “cult of kiddie danger” has so completely consumed some parents and government officials that even swings – yes, SWINGS – are now considered too dangerous for some playgrounds. Despite the patent absurdity of such a belief, most of us respond with a sigh and a roll of our eyes, because we’ve seen this coming.
If you were to tell a parent in the 1970s or even 1980s that swings were too dangerous for kids, they’d probably look at you like you have two heads. Nowadays, the removal of swings from playgrounds has an air of inevitability to it.
We know it’s stupid, but we recognize that it is the next logical step in this mindless march toward… wait, where are we marching again? And why?
On the other hand, what is wrong with being cautious? If children can be hurt, doesn’t it make sense to err on the side of safety? Sure, swings are fun, but it’s not like taking them down will actually hurt anyone, right? Shouldn’t safety concerns trump fun and games? After all, the main job of parents and school is to keep their children safe, right?
There are two types of stress. Short-term/acute stress, and sustained/chronic stress. Everyone agrees that chronic stress is very bad. In children, chronic stress comes from things like abuse, neglect, sensory deprivation, excessive worry, regular exposure to violence, and so forth. A great deal of research confirms that a chronically stressful childhood often lead to an adult with anxiety, depression, and other mood and adjustment disorders. Or worse. Everyone agrees that children should be protected from chronic stress.
Acute stress, on the other hand, is the response to a frightening, competitive, or dangerous stimulus that is completely resolved within seconds or minutes. It’s a short burst of stress, then it’s done. Many forms of play, especially physical play, involve some level of acute stress. Sports, video games, and other competitions and contests are strong inducers of acute stress. That’s part of why we enjoy them. Evidence is mounting that acute stress is not just fun, but beneficial, even necessary for childhood development.
Scientists have recently found that episodes of acute (brief) stress had positive effects on brain development in rats. Rats regularly subjected to acute minor stress had more neurons, neural stem cells, and connections in their hippocampus, the brain area noted for its role in converting short-term memory to long-term memory. (The hippocampus is usually the first casualty of Alzheimer’s disease.)
In another study, rats that were denied the ability to engage in the normal rough and tumble play-fighting as juveniles showed serious social problems as adults. These stress-deprived rats grew up to be hyper-aggressive and even anti-social.
Further, rats that are deprived of playful stress grow into adults that completely freeze when faced with stressful situations. Rats conditioned for stress during childhood, on the other hand, gain the ability to navigate stressful situations without locking up.
Light acute stress even helps rats learn proper fear responses as adults.
These studies do not stand alone. Stress has been studied in a variety of animals and the general conclusion is that acute mild stress is beneficial for brain development, social skills and behaviors, and even intelligence. It has even been shown that acute stress, unlike chronic stress, is good for the immune system!