Tonight I held an 8-year-old boy on my lap and rocked him to sleep while he sobbed.

He was having a rough day. A rough year, really. And being growled at by me for messing around at bedtime was the straw that broke the camel's back. The tears came, and came, and came.

And so I held him.

His legs are long and his body is heavy. The body of a big kid, who runs and climbs and plays sports. He wasn't sure where to put his head, the instinct lost.

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Some would say that I'm soft, that I'm spoiling him, that he's too old, that I'm wrapping him in cotton wool.

Our boys, especially, are praised on being tough, "walking it off", and pushing through pain.

The "she'll be 'right" attitude that Kiwis pride themselves on has turned the phrase "cotton wool" into a slur. It seems the worst thing a parent can do in New Zealand is to wrap their child in cotton wool.

When we look at where that idea comes from, it's useful to think of the cotton wound dressings used readily during World War I, which was quickly followed by the Spanish Flu epidemic that killed almost 100 million people (5 per cent of the world's population at that time).

Cotton wool itself made its appearance in 1937, just before World War II. To people of these generations, hardened by atrocities, cotton dressings were used to save humanity when it was at its worst. They wrapped people in cotton wool to protect them from death.

And then, postwar with memories of death in the collective consciousness, the idea of wrapping anything other than a lifesaving injury in cotton wool became absurd. In a time of peace and prosperity, technology increased and accidental deaths became less and less likely.

Instead of seeing bloodied limbs and gunshot wounds bandaged in cotton wool, it was now used for skinned knees and cut fingers. What an absurd juxtaposition that would have been.

You can almost imagine your great-grandfather shaking his head in disbelief as he wraps cotton wool around the knee of his son. Simultaneously feeling a pang of relief that his son will never see what he has seen.

Dani Lebo Photo / File
Dani Lebo Photo / File

And so, when these folks then told their children (our parents or grandparents) that they didn't need to be wrapped in cotton wool, they were really comparing it to the worst of the worst.

And our grandparents and parents internalised this message. We don't need to be wrapped in cotton wool. We are safe now, our injuries are not as bad as the previous generation, we have nothing to complain about.

And somehow it became a mantra. Not only do we not need to wrap children in cotton wool, to protect them, it is wrong to do so, and will make them weak and helpless. Today the idea of wrapping something, someone in cotton wool is synonymous with over-the-top protection.

In some ways our grandparents are right. We live in the safest time ever in human history. We have the longest life expectancy of any humans ever, and the least chance of being involved in an accident. In fact, for the first time, our men are more likely to die by suicide than by road accident or any other form of injury. Let's take a moment to let that sink in.

Our men are living through a mental health epidemic caused by the ingrained message to harden up. If we want our sons to grow up differently we need to help them connect with their emotions instead of suppressing them. This means we need to hold them, cuddle them, and talk to them, even after the instinct to do so is lost.

We have internalised the message that wrapping our sons in cotton wool will harm them. But cotton wool in itself isn't the problem, just how much and when it is used.

I like to think that our great-grandparents would look at these boys and say, "Please wrap their wounds in cotton wool. Wrap them in cotton wool to protect them from death."


Cotton wool is good. It is lifesaving. We are at a moment in history where we need to be rethinking how we use our cotton wool.

Our sons' hearts and minds are a taonga, and we would be foolish not to wrap them in cotton wool to protect them.