When I was in third grade, I got in trouble for taking off my coat at recess.
I was running full speed non-stop back and forth across the playground during our 30-minute recess, and I live in Georgia, where winter is more of an idea than an actual season. But even though I was sweating from running, my teacher was convinced I would get sick if I didn’t wrap up. She made me put on a coat.
When I complained to my mom, she wrote a note to my teacher. “Please don’t force Lisa to put a coat on,” it said. “She knows when she’s cold.”
I learned a lot about parenting from that moment, but one of the best lessons might have also been the simplest. Which was this: Just because someone is an adult doesn’t mean they’re right.
And when it comes to a topic like what makes kids sick, a lot of adults still believe things that just aren’t true.
“For many of us, the old wives’ tales of our grandparents persist,” says Dr. Gregory Germaine, MD, Associate Chair of Children’s Services at Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital. He hears them frequently from parents in his office, including the belief that going outside with wet hair or with no shoes can make you sick, or that the flu shot gives you the flu, or, of course, that cold air gives you a cold.
It’s an idea that goes back to before germs were discovered, when doctors believed that “vapors” or “bad air” caused infection. But even though viruses and bacteria were discovered in the mid-1800s, the association between colds and cold weather persists — mostly because illnesses are more common in the winter months. “Cold air causes a runny nose,” explains Germaine, “and runny noses get wiped with fingers after those fingers have touched toys, doorknobs, and other children.” Cold weather also means kids are inside and in close quarters more often, which helps germs spread more easily. But just because colds and cold weather tend to happen at the same time doesn’t mean that one causes the other.
So instead of making your kids dress warmly even if they’re not cold, follow common sense. “Tell them to dress comfortably, cough and sneeze into a tissues, and wash hands after exposure,” says Germaine.
And also? Remember you’re not always right — even if no one corrects you. When parents in Germaine’s office ask him to reinforce their insistence that kids wear coats, he doesn’t tell them they’re mistaken about what causes colds. Instead, he just tells the kids, “Listen to your parents.”
Which is great advice, but I would add: Parents, listen to your kids.