“Get that child some shoes!”
A random grandmother shouted at me across the parking lot at the grocery store. She was concerned at the apparent neglect of my child — the fact that she wasn’t wearing shoes.
That’s probably the thought of many of the people who pass us by, but only the old, withering grandmother is fed up enough to say something.
So, am I neglectful?
Actually, I’m well versed in the damaging effects of modern footwear. And by neglecting to put shoes on my child, I’m actually doing her a huge favor.
To be clear, she does wear minimalist shoes when conditions call for it, when there are obvious hazards. But that’s very infrequent. Whatever risks there are in not wearing shoes, they pale in comparison to the risks of wearing them often.
I hope to get you and your children on the same page. So here’s five convincing reasons to let your kids be barefoot.
1. Shoes destroy feet.
The human foot is one of the most complex skeletal-muscular systems in the body. And it works perfectly for what it was designed for.
Without dragging you back to biology class, here’s what you need to know: putting shoes on feet completely changes how they function. And over time, it causes permanent damage to the feet, ankles, knees, hips, and low back.
That’s what shoes do to adults — people who have fully developed feet. When you put shoes on children with developing feet, the outcome is hopeless.
There are four main problems with shoes:
Toe Spread. Most shoes have a tapering toe box that prevent the toes from spreading to their natural width. This causes a physical deformation of the feet (which is so prevalent that almost all feet in modern society are deformed when compared to hunter-gatherers or native tribes disconnected from civilization) and interferes with healthy foot function.
Toe Spring. Many shoes have a toe box that’s elevated above the ball of the foot. When the toes are artificially elevated from years of shoe wearing, the tendons on the top get a bit of a pulling advantage over the tendons pulling on the bottom and sides of the toes. This causes further deformation of the foot and interferes with proper function.
Heel Elevation. The cushioning in the heel of the shoe raises the heel and causes a shortening of the muscles and tendons in the back of the leg. This shortening affects arch function and causes significant pronation — a fault that leads to the majority of injuries in the foot and lower leg.
Torsional Rigidity of the Sole. Modern shoes don’t bend or twist. This is in complete contradiction to how the human foot is supposed to work.
These aren’t minor details, they’re major issues. If you want to dive deeper, check out my interview with foot expert Dr. Ray McClanahan on Rebooted Body Podcast Episode 66 (click here for iTunes | click here for Stitcher Radio).
2. Shoes prevent proper movement development.
Besides physical deformation, shoes cause kids to move in unnatural ways. It’s well known that modern shoes promote damaging heel striking during running. But it goes way beyond that.
During my 15 years as a martial arts instructor, I watched child after child come in and display massive movement faults. In layman’s terms, that means they move in ways that are counter to how their body was designed.
Some of these faults are due to the fact that nobody around them (including the majority of sports coaches) knows how to teach proper movement or correct faults. But a main reason is likely due to the deformation and manipulation we talked about with shoes being a root cause — they can’t physically get into the right positions to move correctly because of limitations.
One movement most of my students couldn’t perform is a butt-to-heel squat (with feet straight or nearly straight). This is the squat you’ll see common in asian cultures and hunter-gatherer tribes. It’s a range of motion that humans are born with (babies do it naturally).
This range of motion is murdered in just a few short years of shoe wearing (and pathological sedentism and excessive sitting). Kids go from squatting this way naturally to being completely unable to squat by the age of 5 or 6.
These are just two of dozens of examples of movement faults that are extremely common now. It’s tragic because it’s limiting kids and leading to a skyrocketing injury rate (especially with knee injuries, which are always due to movement faults outside of freak accidents).
3. Going barefoot enhances proprioception.
One of the greatest benefits to going barefoot is the direct connection between kids and their environment. There’s no longer a buffer that prevents them from feeling the ground beneath them.
The nerves in the feet are sensitive for a reason. It makes you more aware. It makes you more careful. It makes you focus and keep yourself safe. When the ground shifts or you step on something that requires rapid adjustment, it’s easy to adapt when barefoot.
Shoes block all this from happening and inhibit other movements like safe climbing, cuts, and pivots.
Now think about how active kids are and how often they’re in these situations. They’re missing out on one of the most primal aspects of life and failing to develop sensory pathways that program healthy movement function.
Shoes are setting them up for failure. Going barefoot is setting them up for success.
4. Going barefoot makes the feet stronger and the body more agile and less prone to injury.
Recently, Vibram — a minimalist shoe company that makes the popular FiveFingers shoes — settled a class action lawsuit waged by people who claim that FiveFingers led to injuries.
What was the problem? Runners who wore traditional running shoes for thousands of miles and dozens of years of life switched to Vibram FiveFingers and kept up their running and got injured.
That’s not Vibram’s fault, it’s the fault of the traditional shoes these runners were wearing! Because the shoe tries to do many of the jobs the foot is designed to do, the foot stops doing work in many ways. This leads to a massive loss of strength and agility.
Couple that with all the deformation and movements faults I’ve already talked about and of course the outcome is injury. It’s a no-brainer.
Vibram FiveFingers are basically a cover for the foot. They don’t manipulate the function. It’s like being barefoot, but protected.
Only in this day and age can we sue a company for our feet not working the way they were designed! Why aren’t we suing the traditional shoe manufacturers for messing up our feet in the first place?
This is the culture your children are growing up in. And you have the ability to save them from it while raising them to have an evolutionary advantage over every other human being stuck in the shod-is-great mentality.
5. Small scrapes and cuts build their awareness (and their immune system).
I alluded to this earlier: when kids are barefoot, they pay more attention. They’re more aware of their surroundings and their body. They’re less likely to injure themselves.
Of course, if you take a child who has worn shoes for years and have them go barefoot, it’s going to be uncomfortable for them. They won’t know how to navigate properly.
But over time, they’ll get the hang of it. The cuts and scrapes they get will be minimized. And they’ll enjoy all the benefits of barefoot life.
Besides, the cuts and scrapes aren’t a big problem. Kids need to experience these things. Their immune system is built to be strong precisely because of this type of interaction with their environment.
It’s also a built in safety feature. Kids won’t run full speed on concrete when barefoot because it’s not comfortable. Thus, they won’t fall when running full speed on concrete (like they do in shoes).
When it’s grass, they’ll run full speed and if they fall it naturally won’t be as bad. Plus, they’re less likely to trip and fall when barefoot in the first place. Climbing is safer when barefoot too.
Want to adopt a barefoot lifestyle for your kids?
You can easily transition your kids to a barefoot lifestyle. However, the longer they’ve been wearing shoes, the slower I’d ease them into it. Start in very safe areas (indoors, grass in parks, your yard, etc.) and then slowly migrate to more complex situations (concrete, the woods, etc.)
Yes, they’ll have less protection from “the elements” but I promise that’s nothing compared to the consequences I just told you about. When you get down to it, the human foot is not supposed to have anything on it — it’s simply a return to the way life was intended to be lived.
When your kids must wear shoes (like to conform to society’s standards in certain situations or when circumstances are obviously dangerous), I’d highly recommend getting minimalist shoes from companies like Lems, SoftStar, Merrell, and Vibram.
I’d also recommend that you transition yourself — just do it with patience and the understanding that your feet are no longer look or behave like they’re supposed to — take it slow. A barefoot family is a healthier family.