November 5, 2013

Sanitizing, skin allergies, anti-scratch mittens... hand deformities?

My dad posted a picture of me as a newborn on Facebook, and my sister-in-law left a comment about "Back before every child wore mittens to prevent them from scratching their face." I thought I'd heard about or seen all of the ways that helicopter parents have been bubble-wrapping their kids these days, but apparently not.

That was my first thought anyway -- more paranoid, pointless shock absorption. Still, it didn't sound like the rest of the examples, where kids used to get exposed to some shock that made their bodies and minds respond by becoming stronger. Scratching at your face wasn't something that "kids used to do" in the good old days. I asked my parents, and they confirmed that none of us clawed at our own faces when we were little.

Amazon sells a wide variety of no-scratch mittens for babies, such as these. One customer review says that her baby "tends to scratch his face a lot and I never seem to be able to keep his nails short enough." And from the comments section to a post on the topic at "My kids have all scratched themselves to bleeding at some point! It happens so fast."

Why do such a large fraction of babies today scratch themselves bad enough and frequently enough that there could be a thriving industry selling no-scratch mittens?

My hunch is that the worse itching is part of the rise in skin allergies and of overly sensitive skin that doesn't meet the clinical definition of allergy, sensitivity vs. robustness being a continuum. The CDC has been collecting data on childhood allergies since 1997, and skin allergies show the greatest increase, from 7.4% to 12.5% around 2010. Treating skin sensitivity as a normal distribution, that translates into a rise in the average by 0.3 standard deviations -- a huge change for less than 15 years. It's as though the average kid had shrunk in height by 9/10 of an inch during that brief period.

Here is the CDC's report, and here is a US News article with quotes from doctors saying, Yeah, this rise in allergies is real, we see it every day. Such widespread skin allergies do not extend far into the past; the fact that the CDC only started collecting data in 1997 suggests that the epidemic began in the early or mid-1990s.

That was right when the society in general, and parents in particular, began to show severe symptoms of hygiene-focused OCD, in a note-for-note revival of the mid-century and Victorian periods. Suddenly antibacterial soap was the norm, hand sanitizer was everywhere, and housebound women took out their disinfectant arsenal and began conducting daily napalm raids on all surfaces in the home (as well as expecting -- and hence receiving -- the same treatment of surfaces in the public spaces that they patronized).

Locking kids indoors all day and requiring shoes outside also kept them from reaping the health benefits of normal human skin contact with grass, dirt, leaves, tree bark, and so on. It's not as though there was an epidemic of hookworm in white suburban front yards during the '90s; it was pure paranoia.

So these no-scratch mittens may be responding to a real, new need, but it is a problem that the helicopter parents created themselves. Of course, setting up yet another barrier between the kid's skin and the environment will only worsen the problem of over-sanitization as they age.

Not to mention deforming their hands in subtle or perhaps gross ways -- no way to know until it's too late. Wearing mittens prevents you from gripping, holding, lifting, manipulating, probing / exploring... well, just about everything your hands and fingers were meant to do, other than striking. Preventing such fundamental activities during the sensitive window of childhood development will likely have the same effects as forcing kids to wear shoes all throughout childhood -- namely, flatfoot. Barefoot children never have flat feet, while shod children do (at high rates if the shoes are close-toed and ill-fitting).

Getting banged up a little bit is good for your bones. Otherwise your body assumes they don't need to be strong and doesn't invest much resources in maintaining their strength. And sure enough, the data show that children's bones became tougher against accidents from 1970 to 1990, then got weaker in 2000, and presumably worse still by 2010. Kids these days can easily shatter both hands by taking a simple fall -- it's pathetic.

Their parents could have saved the costs of treating broken hands and wrists by just letting their kids be kids. A scrape here and a bruise there go away by themselves, no costs at all to the parents. That is, unless the parents are the type who can't stand the psychological pain of witnessing their kid take a hard fall. Get over it, I don't know what else to say. Stop blubbering like a hysterical woman about protecting them from harm. You took plenty of hard falls yourself when you were growing up, and you're not only still here, you were stronger than your wimpy kids are at the same age.

Prudent parenting says don't change the regime to the total opposite of what you had, if that seemed to work just fine. It's possible, even likely, that an opposite upbringing will have the opposite effect.

Helicopter parenting is therefore an extreme form of the Progressive, blank slate, engineering approach to human development. There is nothing conservative about it whatsoever,. It emphasizes harm avoidance over everything else (Haidt), and it presumes to know better than God's plan, Mother Nature, adaptation by natural selection, the wisdom of tradition, or whatever else you want to call it.

In the view from the '80s, a child was a new person with their own internal nature who had to be accommodated within the family and integrated into the wider community (socialization). Their nature would see to altering their personality and behavior as they worked their way through this process. In the new view, he's just a hunk of raw material to be micro-sculpted by the technocratic parents, and who needs to be regularly dusted and sterilized like a dinner table, as though his nature had no way of responding to and building up resistance to foreign debris.


  1. It could be that some helecopter parents had lousy parents and, in their desire to be better, are overcompensating. Others don't want their children to make the same youthful mistakes that they made before becoming parents and smother their children as a result.

  2. What about precisely scheduled baby feedings?

  3. Locking your kids away from the outside world is way beyond the norm, perhaps only 5% of parents let their kids have a normal childhood like they had.

    No way that 95% of today's parents had abusive, traumatic, etc., households when they were young. It's overblown hysteria.

  4. The phenomenon is not confined to the United States. Canada is going through the same thing,

  5. Yeah, my nephew's kindergarten has a strict "no touch" policy for the children too.

    It comes from the same hysteria that says:

    I was spanked as a child and felt pain =>

    Spanking my child could break his spine and put him in a wheelchair =>

    I'll never spank my child.

  6. This whole complicated coordination would be a lot simpler if they just sawed off the children's hands. No nose-picking, no pinching... is it too late to include this in the necessary coverage for Obamacare?

  7. What does explain why parents raise children in different ways?


  8. Strauss and Howe believed that each generation reacted against the way they themselves were raised.

    I don't know if that is true, though. Parenting styles may be influenced by the social environment.



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