Germ theory was a huge advance in human health—but we’ve overlearned the lesson. Thanks to air filters, airtight homes, and antibacterial everything, our environments have been so thoroughly scrubbed that our systems are losing the ability to deal with the germs and irritants that abound in the world outside our doors. The result has been a spike in serious allergies, infections and immune disorders, especially in kids. As an NPR story put it, “An emphasis on hygiene means we are no longer exposing children to enough bacteria to help trigger their natural immune systems.”

With the best of intentions, we so thoroughly protect our kids from an admittedly bad thing that we risk doing them harm.

The same idea can be applied to many areas of parenting. When we hover too much around our kids on the monkey bars, coaching and warning and extending our arms beneath them—which was totally me with the first child, by the way—the constant safety net can keep them from learning to recognize and anticipate risks and keep themselves safe. Allowing a few bumps and bruises can keep them safer in the long run.

The same thing applies to critical thinking.

Critical thinking is the immune system of our minds. And like any immune system, it needs the occasional irritant to keep it in shape. Many nonreligious parents, in the admirable name of high integrity, set themselves up as infallible authorities. And since (like it or not) we are the first and most potent authority figures in our kids’ lives, turning ourselves into benevolent oracles of truth can teach our kids to passively receive the pronouncements of authority. I would rather, in a low-key and fun fashion, encourage them to constantly take whatever I say and run it through the baloney meter.

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Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...

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