‘Choose the Best Bubble You Can Find for Your Kids, Then Plant Them Firmly in It’

Forget the 'hip' notion that 'children must know the real world when they're young,' says one pediatrician

Like many of your kids, my four kids grew up in a quiet neighborhood, attended nice schools, and weren’t allowed to do harmful things in high school like drink, do drugs, or be sexually active.

My husband and I tried our hardest, at least, to keep our teens away from these things — and, for the most part, we were pretty successful.

Our small town doesn’t have a lot of crime, and diversity comes via economic, not racial, means. Our kids went to school with some extremely wealthy kids — along with kids who went to school early each morning to get free breakfast.

They went to church with us every Sunday and attended youth group on Wednesday night. Sounds kind of boring, I suppose.

Many parents have remarked, “That’s good for you but I don’t want my kids to grow up in a bubble. I want them to know what the real world is all about.”

I hear this a lot as a pediatrician, and the statement is not only illogical, but it is poorly thought out as well. Here’s why.

First, every child grows up in a bubble. The real question for parents is: What kind of bubble do you want your child to grow up in? Kids create — intentionally or via their parents’ influence — a social ecosystem. They need this in order to thrive. They find a few friends with whom they feel comfortable being themselves and study and live beside them. They seek those who are going in the direction they’d like to go, and they stick with them.

Or they gravitate toward unhealthy relationships because these are all they have known. If a child is used to being yelled at, he or she will find kids who will be mean because that is the child’s zone of familiarity.

We do this, too. I have friends who have been married a long time because I need encouragement to do the same. If I stick with these friends, I increase my chances of having a healthier marriage. The same is true with kids.

MS-13 members live in a bubble — a violent one. Inner-city kids live in bubbles that are different from those of farm kids. Private school kids, parochial school, public school and boarding school kids all live in very different ecosystems, and this is not only natural, but it is good, too.

“Like influences” support kids in the direction they are traveling, and we parents are the ones who decide which direction we want our kids to go. This is responsible parenting. Furthermore, there isn’t a parent alive who doesn’t do this. We choose the neighborhood, the schools and the churches our kids attend.

Second, the implication with this statement is that it is wrong to raise one’s children without exposing them regularly to bad influences. After all, poor kids’ parents never wonder if their kids should or shouldn’t grow up in a bubble. This is a question asked only of parents who have the means to keep their kids from unhealthy influences.

Wise parents understand that the time for children to grapple with differences in lifestyles is when they have the emotional maturity and mental fortitude to deal with them.

The underlying belief behind the question is that when a young child is exposed to swearing and bad behavior among disrespectful, tough kids, then that they will grow up to be wiser about the ways of the world. In fact, if exposing kids to bad influences is what you want, rather than allow it to happen without your being present, why not start at home?

Is it somehow OK to allow your kids to hear lewd things at school, witness violence or sex, or view porn at school or a friend’s house — and then come home where everyone does the exact opposite? This is the great irony. We don’t do these things in our homes, so why should we think that our kids will be better off seeing these things without us around? This makes no sense.

Finally, exposing kids to “real-world” bad behavior doesn’t make them stronger; it makes them act badly. Because children and teens are not adults, they filter experiences through very immature lenses. Rather than being able to discern that bad behavior should be watched and not followed, they decide to follow it. That’s what kids do.

And why not? Their parents sanctioned the bad stuff by wanting them to be exposed to it.

So, good parents, choose the very best bubble you can find for your kids — and plant them firmly in it. They will have plenty of time to figure out that getting pregnant at 15, being yelled at by a stepdad or having a run-in with the law should be avoided.

Wise parents understand that the time for children to grapple with differences in lifestyles is when they have the emotional maturity and mental fortitude to deal with them — and to make decisions about how they want to respond to them.

Dr. Meg Meeker has practiced pediatrics and adolescent medicine for 30 years. She is the author of the online course “The 12 Principles of Raising Great Kids,” which is part of The Strong Parent Project.