In an age where many of us are germ-phobic, what's the deal with day to day childhood illness? I'm not talking measles, mumps and rubella here. Of course, when it comes to arguments for and against herd immunity, there are far more serious issues at play. I'm talking about the colds and viruses that spread faster than you can say "cover your mouth!"
Should we be keeping our small people at home if they're ill? Should we keep them away from events if we know someone attending is ill? Or should we be accepting these bugs as part of growing up?
And once we've settled on our own views, what if the parents in our kids' circle of friends don't share them? It seems that when our little ones are sick, there's a whole new set of norms to navigate.
My darling Mum once cheerfully told me of the chicken pox parties they used to have. I imagined the invite...
Pox Party at our Place
12.00 pm Saturday
BYO Chamomile and Glycerine
Turns out it wasn't quite as relaxed an attitude as all that. They decided as a group that if one of the kids had what they then thought of as a 'standard childhood sickness', then at some point they will likely give it to the others.
Prior to mass vaccinations, and all living in close proximity, playing together and all attending the same primary school, the thought was: We might as well take them to this birthday party and all the kids will get sick at roughly the same time, and so get it over with at the same time, and as parents we'll all be out of social circulation at the same time, and then back at the same time.
Because someone is always sick at this age, so if we always avoided it then they'd never leave the house, and we'd all be very, very sick of each other.
On mentioning it to my friends of a similar or older age, many remembered a very similar approach, regardless of their country of origin. Some spoke of it with frank disbelief -- sort of, "weren't our parents crazy? Probably all the weed they smoked in the sixties", and some with what I interpreted as a wistful yearning for a simpler time.
Now, with the benefit of almost 30 years hindsight and its associated leaps in immunisations and medical opinion, it does seem a somewhat dangerous approach. But I'll freely admit that the logistics of it appeal to my OCD side. When our daughter catches the latest viral or bacterial infection doing the rounds, I'm torn.
When symptoms appear and a GP visit confirms it as a contagious infection, I load up with the diagnosis, timeline and medicine. Looking at her grumpy little face, I feel so sad for my little one -- all those school and social things she'll be missing out on. Sometimes, I get proper cross about the unfairness and thoughtlessness of it, and decide to have words with the parents of the other small person who I suspect she caught it from.
But something holds me back. Before I go charging in, I take stock and run through my thought process. Do I know it was definitely the child I thought it was? No. Do I know that their parents deliberately sent an infectious child out into the world? No. And even if they did, is it my place to make it a drama? Probably no. So can I in good conscience blame them for my child being ill? No.
What strikes me is perhaps a bigger question: why do we need someone to blame? Getting sick is normal, and there is some evidenceto suggest that exposure to some common illnesses can create a stronger immune system, possibly even resulting in a healthier adult life.
So maybe our parents were on to something. Some sort of less dramatic, less life-threatening version of what doesn't kill you makes you (or your immune system) stronger. But, despite all its logistical attractiveness, I won't be sending out invites to a Disease Disco any time soon.
I reckon there's a good path between the way my Mum's generation did things and the general wisdom of today. I'm not going to deliberately infect the kids. While it apparently worked well at the time, a little bit of me wonders if it wasn't just as much about the parent's social lives as it was our health. And there's no doubt that some kids didn't fare well from that approach. But nor will I deliberately hold them back to avoid illness.
Aside from the potential immune boost, being ill for a few days helps them learn the power of a good imagination -- screen-free mornings mean my little one vastly improves her reading when she gets sick. Hearing her play imaginary games and explain her illness to her toys makes me realise how smart she is. And littlies get to learn that there are events in life outside our control, and how to behave when one of them happens.
And of course, for me, it does come a bit down to logistics too. Because someone is always sick at this age, so if we always avoided it then they'd never leave the house, and we'd all be very, very sick of each other.