In news that will come as a huge relief to all parents whose instincts have always told them it’s not healthy for kids to try to make their lives - or them - too perfect, this week it looks a lot like the “helicopter parent” is on the way out.

That's not chocolate icing, it's actually dirt

Despite Australian recommendations released this week that children’s lives should be so sanitized they should use sterilizing gel before and after the sandpit, two big international studies have just found too much management of kids and their environment is unhealthy.

News broke this morning of a big Stanford University study which found that far from trying to shield children from germs by sanitizing everything they touch (even toys), it may be good for them to “let them eat dirt”.

Immunologist professor Mark Davis found that the body’s immune system benefits so much from being exposed to bacteria and infection that it creates “memory cells” not only to fight that germ when it encounters it again, but even for infections or viruses the body hasn’t even had.

So much for sanitation recommendations for child care centres released this week suggesting children should not even be allowed to blow out the candles on a shared birthday cake in case they spread a germ.

Turns out that birthday kid with a cold could be doing the whole class a favour. This will be music to the ears of those who prefer to hitch their parenting wagon to the most recent popular trend, “free range” parenting, in which kids are allowed to take reasonable risks in order to learn.

The Stanford study also put another nail in the coffin of hovering anti-vaccinator parents, who believe they can use a collection of boutique alternative treatments to remove the very low risk of reactions to common childhood vaccines.

Exposing your kid to vaccines also triggers this “memory cell” response, by prompting their immune response to infections similar to the one being vaccinated against—as well as the main disease itself.

And then there was the University of Missouri study that also confirmed what us muddle-through (without the rota blades pumping) parents innately felt: the children of helicopter parents resent them.

The bossier the mother is, the more unhappy the kid (research focused on mothers as it was conducted on a group of mothers interacting with their kids).

It seems a trend that has provoked British head teachers to come out and warn that ambitious, pushy mothers and fathers are “condemning children to years of stress and anxiety” has been backed by science.

In bizarre news this week, it was revealed that so hands-on and intrusive have some parents become that they don’t even let children make their own mistakes, and learn form them, when they get to uni.

“Universities have complained about parents joining their sons and daughters for freshers’ week (we call it O-week), with some even sleeping in their children’s dorms.”

At least that’s one helicopter nightmare we haven’t yet seen here.

Comments on this post will close at 8pm AEDT.

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    • Richard says:

      10:01am | 08/02/13

      Finally , common sense prevails. To paraphrase a quote from the West Wing “Let children be children.”

    • vox says:

      11:28am | 08/02/13

      Common sense? Just on the candles example, which in my view is a very valid and sensible example of what we should not let our children do, are you suggesting that if the waiter brought you a hot meal and then stood there blowing on it for you that you would eat it? Not send it back? Not reprimand or report the waiter?
      Now, do you still think it okay for a child, who may have any mouth disease, any virus, or any other problem which that waiter might have, to blow their possibly fetid breath all over food that my child is then given to eat.
      Perhaps you are to be given more consideration than you are prepared to give to your, or someone else’s child. Or perhaps your knee just jerks in rhythm with your brain.

    • Meph says:

      11:56am | 08/02/13


      Did you even read the article before commenting?

    • Bob says:

      12:08pm | 08/02/13

      Vox: That would be more consistent, the refusal to eat it would be more cultural (and concerning in a restaurant). I’m assuming you’ve had birthday cake more than a few times in your life. Have you ever refused it because the disgusting birthday boy/girl blew on it? Also keep in mind that childhood is the best time for them to get in contact with these diseases. So many diseases that are minor for children as crippling for adults.

      We have immune systems for a reason and sooner or later they will be in a world where they’ll need it (I’m writing this from Northern China. The restaurant I went to last night had rather more mold covering the walls than I’m really comfortable with in a restaurant. In addition to the myriad other extremely dodgy hygiene practices here) let it grow strong while they’re kids and they can use it while adults.

      I also emigrated to the UK in 2011 and spent the first half of 2012 catching every bug going. Things would have been much worse for me if I had an immune system that had never been allowed to develop while I was a child.

    • Ando says:

      12:10pm | 08/02/13


      At birthday parties as an adult do you refuse to eat any cake on which the candles have been blown out.

    • Jeremy says:

      12:31pm | 08/02/13

      @Vox - the immune systems developmental needs of young children and adults are completely different, as are the types of germs and bacteria you are most likely to encounter from each.
      Humans are born with a remarkably adaptive immune response, but it requires programming to work. Over sterilizing a childs environment not only diminishes the chances of the immune system programming properly, it also encourages the evolution of stronger, cleaner-resistant forms of whatever pathogens are present in each locality.

    • Tell It Like It Is says:

      01:34pm | 08/02/13

      Could not agree more @Jeremy. And to which   “mouth disease” are you referring @Vox? 

      All little people are really very dirty people. All very well to insist they wash their hands - as they most certainly should! - after going to the toilet. But littlies are constantly touching things/ EVERYTHING and then their hands end up in their mouths or they touch a toy which ends up in their mouth, or shove something into their - yes dirty as all of ours are, essentially - mouths. I still struggle with the hygiene level of my 12 year old grandson but he’s survived quite well/fantastically in fact, despite my worries.

    • James of Hong Kong says:

      01:47pm | 08/02/13

      @Vox: Quick, everyone run, another helicopter hovering menacingly. Quick everyone to your electric wheelchairs, research has just found walking on legs is dangerous, in fact science and the minority have advised it is best to just stay at home, don’t move and sit there motionless until you simply wither away and die, unnoticed and unhappy. The helicopters will be full of fuel though and happily hovering overhead noddinh heads together in agreement with that outcome.

      I think I just spied some candles, a birhtday cake and a birthday party at McDonalds, my God am I gonna give Ronald a serve and let fly on the manager. No candles for YOU!!!.

      Geez, the work of keeping an eye on everyone is never finished. Sorry all, am off I see someone who needs a finger wagged at. Time to put my best disapproving pursed lips on display

    • glenm says:

      01:55pm | 08/02/13

      Well put James, if its is to be regulated in childcare centres then the next step is to ensure that any Birthday cake eaten in public and shared by a group of unrelated persons must be done so using the cupcake method. I imaging kate ellis will be out on the weekend policing local parks and Mc Donalds play rooms.

    • Richard says:

      05:13pm | 08/02/13

      Vox Common sense in that the children are not wrapped in cotton wool. As a dad with 2 kids I am not a “Free range” or “Helicopter parent” I an a dad. Vox where do you stand on vaccination of children.

    • Tarzmahal says:

      10:05am | 08/02/13

      I think it’s bizarre that we have all these labels for parents. If you’re not a ‘helicopter parent’ then you’re a ‘free range’ parent. We are not raising chickens! I think sometimes we forget that children are individuals with rights that should be encouraged to make decisions about their lives. While kids thrive in the presence of structure and routine, that doesn’t mean we should be sheltering them from life. Kids need to take on responsibility and be independent in order to grow as a person, just like adults. So maybe we should stop with the ‘but won’t somebody please think of the children’ mentaility and let them think for themselves.

    • Pattem says:

      12:35pm | 08/02/13

      @Tarzmahal, you stated: “I think sometimes we forget that children are individuals with rights that should be encouraged to make decisions about their lives.”

      Really?  As an ‘almost’ middle-aged man, I once had a six year girl come up to me and say “I want to marry you.”

      So what, I should encourage her to stand by that decision?

    • L. says:

      01:14pm | 08/02/13

      “So what, I should encourage her to stand by that decision?”

      Only if you want the conducted in Saudi Arabia.

    • Tarzmahal says:

      02:37pm | 08/02/13

      The participation rights of children can not be dismissed on the basis of an argument that they may make bad decisions. If that were so, many adults could also not be trusted to make decisions about their lives. A child’s ability to make decisions about their life needs to be scaffolded from a young age. I am not saying that they should be thrown in the deep en to make decisions such as the one you suggested.

      You seem to have conveniently neglected to address the section of my comment that acknowledges that children require structure and routine.

      As a teacher I am aware that children often need guidance, that does not mean that all decisions that impact their lies should be made on their behalf without their consultation. I am well aware that children (and adults) often make bad choices. But it is from making those choices (under the supervision of an adult) that they learn and grow.

    • Nick says:

      04:13pm | 08/02/13

      I gagged at the “free-range” tag too.  Why can’t I just be a dad without some kind of noxious label being applied to me.

    • fml says:

      10:09am | 08/02/13

      “Immunologist professor Mark Davis found that the body’s immune system benefits so much from being exposed to bacteria and infection that it creates “memory cells” not only to fight that germ when it encounters it again, but even for infections or viruses the body hasn’t even had.”

      It’s true, although try telling that to a germophobe…

    • TJ says:

      10:15am | 08/02/13

      So why are we bothering to teach our kids to cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze.?

    • Sync says:

      11:34am | 08/02/13

      Because it’s polite. If you can’t understand that, then the next time I have a cold I’ll find you and sneeze all over you, and you can later tell me whether it was a good idea.

    • Bob says:

      12:10pm | 08/02/13

      Because they grow up. Kids who grow up without being taught that have a habit of turning into adults (when it’s far more serious) who don’t do that.

    • SAm says:

      10:19am | 08/02/13

      this was the result of a study? Known this for years havnt we? All you have to do is ignore the lunatics with their little bottles of sterilizing stuff.
      PS havnt washed my coffee cup in months

    • I hate pies says:

      12:14pm | 08/02/13

      I haven’t washed in months

    • St. Michael says:

      01:11pm | 08/02/13

      “PS havnt washed my coffee cup in months”

      Finally something you and I agree on.  I’m waiting to see if the e.coli in there develop into an enlightened civilisation first, then I’ll wash it. wink

    • Matt says:

      10:25am | 08/02/13

      Now lets wait for the Anti Vaccine brigade to jump on this and claim victory..

    • Al says:

      11:30am | 08/02/13

      Matt - nah, too easy too shot them down as : ““Immunologist professor Mark Davis found that the body’s immune system benefits so much from being exposed to bacteria and infection that it creates “memory cells” not only to fight that germ when it encounters it again, but even for infections or viruses the body hasn’t even had.”
      Is basicly a natural form of immunisation. And to do so without the danger of getting a full blown infection is simply a reasonable action when it comes to the more dangerous ones.
      It is not advocating going out and exposing kids to highly dangerous and potentialy lethal infections, just that over clean lifestyles reduce the bodies immunity to those things.

    • glenm says:

      01:50pm | 08/02/13

      It is crystal clear that the policy release by the federal government is yet another poorly thought out top down response to minority interest groups. If our government had any spine the report/policy would have made it mandatory for all those in childcare to be immunised prior to recieving any government funding. Instead we are talking about germs spread by door handles and birthday cake.

    • TJ says:

      10:26am | 08/02/13

      Just one example in favor of vacinations. If chidren aren’t vacinated for German Measels, pregnant teachers and child-care workers are in great danger of having a Rubella birth, and we all know what that can mean.

    • Peter says:

      10:29am | 08/02/13

      (In anticipation of the inevitable parent-bashing that will fill the comment section) let’s just go a bit easier on the parents, guys, ok?  We are honestly trying our best.  Some, perhaps, are a little OTT, but the vast majority of us are still good people, doing a reasonably good job of raising the future citizens of Australia.  I honestly dont’ know any “helicopter parents’ of the kind you are describing.  They are the exception, not the norm, in my experience.  But I guess you gotta sell papers…

    • Rose says:

      10:33am | 08/02/13

      Unfortunately there was a parent who used to attend Flinders University campus with her daughter a couple of years ago. It always broke my heart to see this young adult in her mother’s shadow all day, she didn’t seem to have any friends amongst the other students and was always solely in the company of her mother. It was some of the most unhealthy parenting I’ve ever had the misfortune of witnessing

    • Kung_Fu Kimba says:

      02:13pm | 08/02/13

      Were you aware of any extenuating circumstances that may have been the reason for her mother accompanying her - like a medical condition or something? Do you know it was her mother, or is that just an assumption?

      There are plenty of people who require the care of others to go about their daily lives…I just want to make sure that you aren’t making an assumption about who was accompanying her and why they were doing so.

    • Jack says:

      10:35am | 08/02/13

      Let them eat dirt!
      The Stanford study ......the University of Missouri study than we have the Canberra kindergarten with all the spin doctors should be the ones .

      In a direct democracy they woudn’t believed that way in a meantime we the voters are treated as dirt…..Am I out of tune???

    • MaryM says:

      10:36am | 08/02/13

      Amazing that we need science to prove common sense these days. I just don’t understand when good parenting stopped being providing good role models and a stable home, and started to mean doing enough extra-curricular activities to drive any normal kid insane.

    • JT says:

      10:39am | 08/02/13

      There are thousand of children with various diseases and are suseptible to lung infections who really don’t need the added risk of inhaling other chindrens germs. A bit of common-sense hygiene goes along way.

    • Rose says:

      01:39pm | 08/02/13

      And, in the event that such a child is at kindy or school then the staff would know about it, have a health care plan in place and can adapt practices to suit. There’s still no reason to alter practices for the rest of the time to a state of overly hygienic paranoia.
      Let kids be kids, as long as you have a washing machine/trough and a bathtub/shower to clean up the kids at the end of the day, let them get as dirty as they please smile

    • Pattem says:

      02:16pm | 08/02/13

      @Rose, you stated: “Let kids be kids, as long as you have a washing machine/trough…”

      What, you want to throw the kids in a washing machine?  They might end up clean, and if not drowned, then at least battered and bruised from the spin cycle.


    • Kerryn says:

      10:41am | 08/02/13

      Common sense prevails!

      Now if we could only stop this growing up thing that we apparently all need to do….

    • AFR says:

      10:44am | 08/02/13

      Fir enough, but I’m still not interested in eating others’ saliva.

    • spitswapper says:

      01:03pm | 08/02/13

      Don’t kiss your partner then.

    • St. Michael says:

      01:14pm | 08/02/13

      Guess you won’t be giving anyone the tongue kiss in the near future, then?

    • confused about the number of venom spitters in aus says:

      10:48am | 08/02/13

      WELL NOW, “THE COMMITTEE OF PUBLIC SAFETY”,WHICH AS YOU ALL KNOW, IS EVERY SECOND BLOGGER AND I MAY BE THE SECOND, ON THIS TOPIC, USUALLY HAS THE FINAL SAY…Let the games begin, take your seat please! The world biggest show is about to start, with the emphasis on you, the general public .The next venomous topic will be decided, after the majority of lifeless bloggers vent their spleen, good luck..As for eating dirt what harm can a little dirt do,eh?

    • Ex-child care worker says:

      10:50am | 08/02/13

      I used to work in child care in a previous life and some children are sick constantly due to our obsessive need to sterilise everything. I played in the dirt as a child and was rarely ill. At the same time, I can see some sense in the proposal put forward in regards to birthday cakes, if you’ve seen a two year old blow out candles you’ll know what I mean, spit everywhere! There needs to be a balance, some general common sense, but not obsession, with health, hygiene, and children’s independence.

    • John says:

      10:58am | 08/02/13

      Great to read that waht most people know from the application of common sense is backed up by science.

    • NSS says:

      11:04am | 08/02/13

      Who the hell would want to go to O week with their (most likely almost adult) kid? Now I’ve heard absolutely everything! Let, go, you ninnies (or is that nannies?) Thank god, only in America.

      And Yay! for science, finally proving what most parents already knew, that our immune systems function best by exposure to microbes, not living in sterility and that over-protective parents actually stress their kids more than those who are sensible about the occasional risk.

      Great news!

    • Don Paul says:

      11:06am | 08/02/13

      Common sense. Far too uncommon.

    • Keith Hammersmith says:

      11:18am | 08/02/13

      Trying to create a germ free childhood, is adding to the problem of increasing allergies as well. Let the dog lick your kid, dont freak out if there is some cat hair on their clothes, and that coin they put in their mouth? - well yeah they might choke on that - dont let them eat coins.

    • Tarzmahal says:

      12:25pm | 08/02/13

      I definitely agree with this. This compulsion to sterilise children and their enviornments seems to directly correlate with the increasing incidence of childhood allergies. How are children supposed to develop an immunity to something if they’re never exposed to it?

    • Jeff says:

      11:19am | 08/02/13

      So the minute your child comes home from childcare with gastro from a shared birthday cake you’ll be ringing the center to congratulate them on the strengthening of their immune system?  There’s a difference between allowing exposure to environmental bacteria and infection control between children.  But anyhow, that’s obviously a bit complex to portray in this setting.

    • philip says:

      11:58am | 08/02/13

      big difference is gastro could come from anything even from foods and fluids within your own house so I wouldnt exactly be blaming the children jeff.

    • Paul says:

      12:06pm | 08/02/13

      @ Jeff: I’m wondering how many child care centres would allow a kid with gastro to stay in care, let alone celebrate their birthday blowing out candles and allowing all the other kids to eat the cake?

    • NSS says:

      12:19pm | 08/02/13

      Infection control is important, granted, but that’s why immunisation against the diseases which are apt to cause the most damage is vital. The occasional bout of gastro or cough, though unpleasant and uncomfortable for the child, and inconvenient or upsetting for the parents is not going to kill or do lasting damage a healthy child, rather the opposite, as the studies have proven.

    • NSS says:

      12:24pm | 08/02/13

      I would add, as long as the gastro is treated correctlyor the cough correctly diagnosed, all should be well, which takes some responsibility on the parents’ part.

    • NSS says:

      02:27pm | 08/02/13

      @ Jeff. “Allowing” a child with gastro into a centre is not recommended, no. I know a couple of child-care workers and they frequently complain that parents know their child is ill, yet send them to daycare anyway because of work commitments (or not wanting to care for them). Blame employers and irresponsible parents for their attitudes, not the child-care centre.

    • Jeff says:

      03:23pm | 08/02/13

      You assume the obvious presentation of the gastro before the birthday party.  Of course any reputable centre will separate obviously sick kids.  An outbreak of a viral disease is easily traced, and in small children and the elderly not something to take lightly.

    • NSS says:

      05:14pm | 08/02/13

      @ Jeff. No, it’s not some thing to take lightly at all, but neither is it a reason to panic about a few birthday cakes.

      Responsible parents keep their sick kids at home, isolated from other family members and the rest of the community, once the disease presents.  Childcare workers/teachers call parents to take their kids home, isolating them in the meantime. However, since most viral illnesses are transmissable before florid symptoms are seen, (on this we agree) unless your kids are going to live in a hermetically sealed bubble you take the risk. They could catch anything walking down the street, or touching a table.  It’s called belonging to a community.

    • Modern Primitive says:

      11:27am | 08/02/13

      We managed to survive for 100,000 years without worrying all that much about sanitising all the time, I’m sure we’ll be fine.

    • Chucky says:

      12:22pm | 08/02/13

      Of course infant mortality ran around 20% during much of that time.

      Probably a coincidence though.

    • Collett Smart says:

      11:33am | 08/02/13

      Music to my ears are these studies.

    • Sync says:

      11:46am | 08/02/13

      Immune systems benefit from exposure to germs - whether that exposure come from vaccinations or dirt is immaterial. What should be most important is the end result - our children live.

      IMO - those who take the “vaccinations are evil” approach are being hugely irresponsible towards their children’s lives.

    • Sickemrex says:

      12:00pm | 08/02/13

      Why must this issue be so polarised? My 3yo has free range of our yard with 2 big, exclusively outside dogs, who probably don’t get washed or wormed as often as they should. She gardens with us without gloves, and I spotted her recently sharing a drink of water with the mutts. We also have inside free range cockatiel. But I’m afraid I can’t see a problem with handwashing after the toilet or playing with animals, or before eating. I don’t have a problem with random kids not blowing their hand, foot and mouth disease over a communal cake, either. It’s not a pleasant experience for kids to go through, and I sure workplaces would prefer parents were actually at work rather than home on special responsibility leave. But as usual, the media stupidify a complex issue to create controversy.

    • mikem says:

      12:13pm | 08/02/13

      When I was a child we all played in the dirt.  We rode our pushbikes for miles, had bush to play and build cubbys in, fruit trees to raid, creeks to yabby in etc. and we got very dirty.  Scrubbing ones hand, elbows and knees at bath time was a nightly ritual and yes we all used the same bath water.  You know what though I can’t recall anyone ever having a food allergy or even an allergy of any kind.

      One difference between now and then though is that we were taught basic hygiene and the need to to wash your hands properly in soap and water was drilled into us.  These days kids think waving their hands under water for 2 seconds is washing your hands or worse still using one of the ‘sanitising’ products is good enough.

    • Gezz says:

      12:52pm | 08/02/13

      My four children grew up playing in the dirt, a bath everynight got rid of the germs, skinning knees on bikes ..a bit of detol and a kiss cured that and between them went to hundreds of birthday parties and probably ate plenty of saliva from birthday cakes. They are all alive and healthy and so are my 6 grandchildren, all being raised the same way.
      By the way I attended my daughters 2nd year “O” week at her request. Yes I stayed in the dorm with her…she wanted me to meet her friends and we saw all the sights of Bendigo including every nightclub. Lol. I even attended a couple of lectures. We had a great week. She is now working in Saudi Arabia in charge of Childrens Cardiac surgery with three children of her own. I feel sorry for parents who dont have great relationships with their kids, although if I had a parent who wouldnt let me do anything in case I caught a germ, I would probably run away from home at the earliest opportunity.

    • Tanya says:

      12:55pm | 08/02/13

      When my son was a baby I religiously used a bottle sterilizing kit that you needed a pharmacy degree to operate. The last time it was ever in use, I went to feed him the bottle and found him delightedly teething on his pram wheels.

    • Spell checks on the Post says:

      03:06pm | 08/02/13

      Classic! The marketing gurus do try and make us buy everything when we start out with the first child.

      My little bloke puts so much stuff in his mouth from the floor that I am thinking of using him as the vacuum and save on my power bills.

    • Justme says:

      03:54pm | 08/02/13

      I know! We are told to sterilize everything. Then you whack ‘em on the floor so they can practice “tummy time”.  Ah there’s nothing like a bit of carpet or cat fur or dead fly to make you realize the futility of Milton’s solution.

    • Anubis says:

      01:00pm | 08/02/13

      Pretty much says exactly what I said yesterday (except they have referred to Scientific research) Ah - Vindication is so sweet

    • T says:

      01:24pm | 08/02/13

      In year 2 & 6 we played a game called ‘the chocolate game’ instead of bringing in cake our teacher brought in a block of chocolate, a die with a plate, a butter knife and fork. The Birthday Bor or Girl would chose a number on the dice and we would all sit around in a cirlce and role that damn dice until we rolled the number. And then you would go into the middle of the cirlce and start cutting off a peice of chocolate (without stabing it) with the knife and fork.  The chocolate was put in the fridge to make it cold.

      I swear blind I saw a kid drool with antisipation onto one of those blocks of chocolate! I still ate that chocolate and I turned out ok.

      If a kid goes to Pre-school or where ever and has a cold, I don’t think not blowing out the candles will stop the petri dish from spreading it around another way.

    • St. Michael says:

      04:58pm | 08/02/13

      Ah, but chocolate is worth a death by flesh-eating bacteria.

    • Tell It Like It Is says:

      01:37pm | 08/02/13

      What a pity. Probably a helluva lot of money spent on this BREAKTHROUGH research to find out what they used to say when I was a kid: “You have to eat a peck [now I’m giving my age away, aren’t I!] of dirt before you die. And so it should still be. And survive I and all my siblings did and a lot better than most kids today would.

    • stephen says:

      06:08pm | 08/02/13

      No Wendy ... let them have their cake, and they can eat dirt too.

      Actually, I think that it is the boys who need to brush up on their scuffles and sweat ; the girls, I reckon, are doing OK.

    • BC says:

      06:37pm | 08/02/13

      My mother-in-law says, “They need their pound of dirt”.
      Still trying to get my 6 year old to remember to flush the toilet and wash her hands after a poo. I think that’s reasonable. Isn’t it? Isn’t it???


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