Image: A girl bursting a big bubble, indicative of growth

Busting Bubbles: Why Risk Free Environments Stifle Growth

This article by Robert Glazer originally appeared on Friday Forward.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a Friday Forward called Exposure Therapy. The post focused on the growing tendency to conflate emotional discomfort with physical danger in society today, and how this creates more physical and emotional intolerance.

I began with an anecdote about how the popular policy of banning all nut products from classrooms, while a well-meaning effort to protect children with allergies, was likely leading to more nut allergies, according to a popular study. That story was shared as an analogy about emotional intolerance, not a policy recommendation.

Exposure Therapy was easily the most popular Friday Forward of the year so far and I received many replies. While almost all of the responses were unrelated to allergies, one of my favorite replies came from a parent of a child with a nut allergy. Her response to the topic captured the essence of so many important themes of Friday Forward and the capacity building framework I regularly espouse. Here’s what she wrote:

Hi Robert,

My son has a life-threatening peanut allergy (and severe tree nut allergies) despite my efforts to expose him early.

We specifically chose a school from age 2 that was not nut free because we live in a world full of nuts and our son needed to learn to advocate for his own safety, even as a small kid. We told him that allergies are like a cliff you have to learn to walk along without falling off.

Image: A girl bursting a big bubble, indicative of growth
Source: Unsplash

By the time he was 4, my son knew not to trust adults who said food was safe without checking. By the time he was 8, he could eat in public – carefully, because he has great communication skills. At 10, he traveled internationally, with cards that explained his allergies in multiple languages. (He carried epi pens, steroids, and albuterol just in case.)

Now we’re looking at colleges and a guide at one small liberal arts college we visited went out of their way to tell us about their nut-free student dorm and a nut-free cafe on campus. We must have all rolled our eyes in unison because the poor tour guide said “Oh, sorry, I thought you had a nut allergy.” My son said, “I do, but I don’t need to live in a bubble.” I knew then that he’d be fine wherever he goes to college and in life.

We had seen other kids whose fear of nuts had generalized into fear of life, and we decided to empower our son, instead. And it worked for our child. He’s also always had great friends who have literally thrown themselves in front of peanuts for him, without being asked.

Thanks for your thought-provoking post!

-Susan

Here’s what I loved about Susan’s response.

The problem with overly accommodative parenting or leadership strategies is accommodation can’t change reality. For kids, it sucks to have an allergy. It also sucks to be teased, to be the shortest in the class, to have acne, or to be picked last for sports. Life is often unfair, and we can’t protect kids from that fact forever.

Susan had every reason to want to shield her son from the dangers of living with a peanut allergy. Instead, she accepted reality and chose to teach him what he could control, what he could not, and how to increase safety by focusing on the former. She realized keeping a bubble around her son might have long-term consequences or inconveniences that would harm his development.

We are naturally predisposed to protect ourselves and those we care about from physical or emotional harm. But it’s important that we factor in the short- and long-term effects of that protection—we gain temporary peace of mind but sacrifice resilience and problem-solving skills in the process. Accepting reality and choosing to focus on what we control are powerful tools for life and important lessons to teach, especially at a young age.

  • Bob

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Published: July 1, 2022

Robert Glazer

Content Partner

Robert Glazer is the founder and CEO of Acceleration Partners, the author of the inspirational newsletter Friday Forward, and the #1 Wall Street Journal, USA Today and international bestselling author of four books: Elevate, Friday Forward, How To Thrive In The Virtual Workplace and Performance Partnerships.  He is a sought-after speaker by companies and organizations around the world and is the host of The Elevate Podcast.

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