"Babies Know: A Little Dirt is Good for You" writes Jane Brody in the New York Times (10/27/2009). She means it literally. It actually helps strengthen their immune system (and removes a certain pressure applied to overwhelmed mothers by their germ phobic friends!).
But I think it is true metaphorically as well.
A little dirt is good for children -- to eat, to fall on, even to get their faces rubbed in. In moderation of course.
Life is complicated. We face many challenges. And our job as parents is to give our children the tools they need so that they will be able to meet life's challenges in healthy and appropriate ways.
Although the instinct is to protect, we do our children no favors if we rescue them from all conflicts and insulate them from all unpleasantness. We can't anyway – but we should let go of the strong desire to do so.
It goes without saying (but if you read warning labels nothing goes without saying these days!) that I don't mean we should expose our children to serious physical danger or emotional abuse.
I'm referring to the ups and downs of "normal" life. They won't always have perfect teachers, teachers who will love them just like we do and see and appreciate their good just like we do. And while we can't allow a year to be wasted and we should always aim for the best, we can certainly appreciate the growth opportunities available for our children who have less than ideal teachers. To speak respectfully to a teacher who may lose her temper too frequently or criticize you or your homework too mercilessly is a valuable life lesson -- to be practiced on many future employers.
To learn how to cope when not the center of attention is a crucial skill. And, conversely, to learn how to cope – especially socially – when you are the center of attention, when you hold the ambiguous position of teacher's pet is also a crucial skill.
If there's no serious risk of physical danger and likewise no risk of serious emotional damage, stay out of it.
If we let our children fall in the playground and don't overreact, they will learn to pick themselves up and try again. If we keep them away from the high slide and the monkey bars, they'll never know their true potential. To play any sport without falling probably means you haven't tried very hard. This applies as well to all of our accomplishments. Don't we want our kids to do their best?
And our children are going to have conflict with their siblings and their peers, lots of it. This is their laboratory for working out interpersonal relationships. Every time that we interfere we are stunting their ability to work it out for themselves and undermining their confidence. Some families have the "no blood" rule. If there's no blood, leave them alone. I think I would broaden it slightly. If there's no serious risk of physical danger and likewise no risk of serious emotional damage, stay out of it. Otherwise we will be referees our whole lives and our children will never be fully adult.
We grow through our experiences. While we certainly want to exercise some control over the parameters of our children's experiences, we definitely want them to eat a little dirt. They'll be more successful adults because of it.