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Mark Kennedy

When I was growing up, being an over-protective parent was considered a no-no. So-called "sheltered" kids were thought to be ill-prepared for a life filled with hard knocks.

Being "over-protective," in mid-century parlance, usually meant that parents would not let their kids do something physically demanding (such as contact sports) or emotionally risky (such as adolescent dating).

I haven't heard the term "over-protective parents" used in decades, which makes me think that exposing children to measured risks for the sake of straightening their spines is no longer considered a virtue. The "sticks and stones" ethos seems to have evaporated.

I'm guilty, too. Just the other day, as I was watching the network news, I felt an urgent impulse to hustle my 9-year-old son out of the room. Two stories sent me into a mild panic.

One was a report about two police officers in Louisiana who have been charged with second-degree murder in connection with the shooting of a 6-year-old boy. The child was killed when the police shot at an SUV driven by the child's unarmed father after a high-speed pursuit.

My 9-year-old wandered into the room and immediately went slack-jawed as he absorbed the fact that policemen somewhere had shot and killed a kid.

"What happened?" he asked, his eyes wide.

"Why don't you go get your watercolor painting to show me?" I said, trying to create a diversion.

"OK," he said, backing out of the room.

"Crisis averted," I thought. "I don't want him thinking that policemen are dangerous."

In retrospect, I think I was guilty of over-sheltering. I was also lazy. To explain the story (which frankly has some inexplicable elements) would have taken some time and might still have left my son confused. But I should have tried anyway.

If I could rewind, I would tell him this: "I'm not sure how this shooting happened, son, but I'm sure the policemen didn't mean to hurt the little boy. Sometimes life is not fair and bad things happen, even to innocent kids. But that doesn't mean you should worry all the time about really rare things you can't control."

Minutes later, he returned with his artwork, just in time to see a bunch of kid-sized crash-test dummies on a school bus fly across the TV screen in slow motion. The news report was about a new government recommendation that school buses be equipped with three-point seat belts.

"Here we go again," I thought as I asked him to step out.

I think I was still in a defensive crouch over the police shooting story. Actually, the school bus piece would have been easier to explain.

In retrospect, I should have said: "Son, that's why we wear seat beats. Those dummies you see flying around have on no seat beats at all. Our car has three-point belts and lots of other safety features. Still, accidents happen and even seat belts don't always help."

Instead of taking time to explain, I chose to preserve our family room as a fear-free zone for reasons that have more to do with habit than actual consequences. As I've thought about those episodes this week, I wonder if we are not guilty of raising a generation of fearful, overstressed kids.

I'm pretty sure we are doing them no favors by letting them walk around in a worry-free bubble, then turning them loose into the world as helpless as declawed kittens. That's why they get to college thinking they need "safe zones" to protect them from unpleasant thoughts. How fragile.

I am resolved to do better.

It is time — at least once in awhile — to invite anxiety in for a chat.

Contact Mark Kennedy at or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at