Mary Ruebush, Ph.D., author of Why Dirt is Good: 5 Ways to Make Germs Your Friends, gives us the lowdown on how parents can embrace germs again.
When you see your child covered in dirt, do you cringe and reach for the anti-bacterial wipes or smile and recall happy childhood memories? Kids used to spend countless hours making mud pies, rolling in dusty fields and basically getting down and dirty but it seems times have changed. "Unfortunately, that’s a sight parents don’t see much these days — and when they do see it, they’re often horrified," says Dr. Ruebush in her aforementioned book. "Parents, relax. Kids who play outdoors and get dirty are healthier. They get plenty of physical exercise, and just as important, they get plenty of immunological exercise. Dirt is good for kids."
Dirt, in all of its grimy glory, tends to get a bad rap from a parenting perspective. Yes, it can increase the laundry burden, turn the carpets a lovely shade of mud and transform once presentable children into almost unrecognizable swirls of dust, but it also has its benefits. Take, for example, dirt’s ability to strengthen a child’s immune system. Turns out, all of that scrubbing and fussing over first-born children may just be a waste of time. "The child in this family constellation who will have the strongest immune response is the one who saw the most dirt in his early life," writes Dr. Ruebush. "The first and most ‘perfectly’ reared child will be the weakest one immunologically."
While you shouldn’t encourage your kids to literally eat soil by the spoonful, regular exposure to dirt stimulates the immune system and reduces a child’s likelihood of developing allergies. "When your immune system doesn’t get the sort of constant stimulation it has evolved to expect, it doesn’t function well," writes Dr. Ruebush. "It may get hyperactive and confused. That’s when your immune system starts mistaking harmless pollen or food proteins for dangerous invaders, causing allergies, or mistaking your body’s own cells for invaders, causing autoimmune diseases." Perhaps the artificially sterile environments we create with incessant disinfecting are truly causing more harm than good.
The easiest way to help your children reap the benefits of dirt is to change your attitude toward it. Consider letting your parenting guard down just a bit when it comes to letting kids get dirty. The rule of moderation certainly applies here but excessive use of antibacterial soaps, wipes, sprays and lotions may be creating unhealthy environments for your kids. Introduce your child to the joy of mud pies or help her explore the microcosm of life that exists within a single square foot of soil. Perhaps a little dirt will do you some good as well. As you get your hands dirty, remember Dr. Ruebush’s advice: "A strong immune system gets built up by plenty of exercise — that’s why you need a lifetime of exposure to plenty of dirt."
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