It Is Not Possible to Shelter Children Too Much

Maple leaves in Autumn.

Once in a while, I say something that ruffles a few feathers, disturbs tender souls and cuts against the grain of common assumptions. I did all this the other day with a single tweet. I wrote:

The incensed comments began flowing in. It is possible to shelter children too much, they insisted. I was regaled with tales of children who are not allowed to play outdoors, of adults who don’t know where babies come from. All this was presented as evidence of the negative effects of sheltering children more than is appropriate. I remain unconvinced.

Those who took issue with my assertion, I submit, are confused about the nature of the sheltering function of the home. They are especially confused about the role of sheltering children in light of the family’s larger mission.

This confusion stems, as confusions so often do, from mixed up metaphors. Let’s consider a couple. A tree shelters, and so does a prison cell. Both offer protection from the intense rays of a hot sun and from a soaking rain. You can nap and eat your meals within the protection of each. Yet, no one confuses a pleasant picnic in the shade with a prison term. Everyone knows one is good, the other to be avoided.

The difference between the shelter of a tree and the shelter of a prison cell lies in their purposes. The shelter a functional family offers to its children is more like that of the tree than of the prison cell. The purpose of a picnic in the shade, or ducking under the branches to escape the worst of the summer rain is for pleasure and safety, the kind of pleasure and safety that foster trust, growth and love.

The cell, on the other hand is for punishment and confinement. It too shelters you from the heat of the day, but only by blotting out the sun. No one spends his whole life in the shade of a single tree. Cells can hold you until death. The difference between the two is not one of degree, but of kind and purpose. No one who has found shelter from a storm beneath the big branches of an ancient oak thinks the tree shelters him “too much.” While criminals may think prison cells deny them too much freedom, victims and juries don’t.

The purpose of sheltering in a family is similar to the purpose of sheltering under a tree: to experience the comfort, safety and joy that makes possible the full flowering of a human personality. It is not possible to have too much of this sheltering.

Because the goal of a healthy family is the flourishing of its members, the family must not adopt the methods or attitude of the prison cell. Some, unfortunately, do. Someone sent me a link to this article to prove the point. In the article, “Ralph” tells the “truth about sheltering your kids”. Except, of course, he doesn’t. Not the whole truth anyway.

“Ralph” grew up in a family that was part of the Gothard cult. His family was confused about whether it was supposed to be a tree or a cell. It erred on the side of the cell. “Ralph’s” story is spectacular, but not the norm. “Ralph’s” situation is the exception, not the rule, and generalizing from exceptions is a certain road to wrong conclusions.

So, in spite of “Ralph” or even in spite of a thousand “Ralphs”, I maintain that it is impossible to shelter a child too much. The sheltering of a child is the foundation from which he or she grows into a mature adult. When a family is functioning as it should and is in line with its purpose, the sheltering of a child is one of the few good things there simply cannot be too much of.


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