I’m not the kind of mom who really cares whether her kids get dirty (most of the time), but even I struggle some days when their clothes are spotted before we even make it out of the house.
If you’re the opposite type of parent, read on – because according to science, a little (or a lot) of dirt could actually be good for your kids.
Dr. Jack Gilbert, one of the authors of Dirt Is Good: The Advantage of Germs for Your Child’s Developing Immune System, explains that not only is dirt not all that harmful in itself, but it could actually be good for your child’s immune system. And in an age when children spend less and less time outside in favor of over-sterilized indoor spaces, a little dirt could go a long way in preventing things like allergies, eczema, and asthma.
“Your child’s immune system needs to see foreign antigens, including those on bacteria and viruses. You really don’t need to carry a sanitizer around with you, just make them wash their hands before they eat dinner – it’s only polite.”
And listen, you don’t even need to make them wash their hands consistently, because that could undo all the benefits the lovely dirt has delivered.
“Washing hands too much breaks down the skin’s barrier and can make their skin damaged, and more susceptible to infections and allergic reactions. So use common sense.”
When it comes to cleaning your house, you should only be using harsh, chemical sanitizers like bleach around the toilet bowl and other places that might smell bad without it – you don’t really want a sterilized home.
“The key thing is to ensure that your home is not sterilized from top to bottom. Open windows (if you don’t live in an overly polluted area) as often as possible (dependent on the temperature), or just make sure your kids get a lot of outdoor exposure. Let them get dirty in the woods.”
For extra exposure? Get a dog or cat!
“Just being physically around animals is good – dogs appear to be better than cats, but it is hard to quantify. We think our immune systems actually evolved to best interact with furry pets, so pet rodents, rabbits, dogs, and cats are likely all good. Again, no problem washing their hands, when they interact with the animal they are breathing in millions of microbial cells which are all doing good things for their immune response.”
The bottom line, according to Gilbert, is to use common sense. Of course you don’t want to let your kid eat poop from the yard or lick the floor of a public bathroom, but most things they get into in the course of the day are going to make them healthier, not sicker.
“They have a greater probability of dying in a car accident on the way to the pizzeria than they ever would of being the one kid in America to get an infection off the floor. It is far more likely that a chef in the restaurant has an infection and doesn’t wash his hands and infects the child with a food borne pathogen.”
So, lick away, kids. Explore to your little heart’s content.
I hope this means my kids won’t have allergies, because those are a pain to deal with, for sure.