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Yes, I Let My Kids Play in the Dirt When They Were Little — And I’d Do It Again Today

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When I had children beginning in my early 20s, I carried on my mother’s tradition of having absolutely, positively no reservations about letting my kids get dirty to the bones. 

As a child growing up in rural New Hampshire, I ran barefoot all summer over gravel roads, swam in a river that also was home to bullfrogs, turtles and eels, and slept in the woods in a sleeping bag under the stars amidst buzzing mosquitos and the occasional slug. 

I kept close contact with pets that went far beyond the average cat or dog and often had to be ridded of fleas, played in mud puddles after rain storms, and drank freely from the hose fed by an untreated well on our property. 

No doubt a much larger percentage of children were allowed to wander freely and get good and filthy back when I was growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But since that time the gravitation toward extreme sanitization has been dramatic. 

Today’s kids automatically look for hand-sanitizing dispensers in the bathrooms and lobbies of public buildings. Moms and dads not only rinse off, but sterilize dropped binkies and toys that have been played with. The “five-second” rule for eating food off the floor has all but been abandoned.  Guess what? As it turns out if you are one those germ-phobic parents, you may be doing your children a disservice with all that cleanliness.

For this discovery, I’m happy to give a shout-out to University of Chicago scientist Jack Gilbert, who specializes in microbial ecosystems — or, in terms for people like you and me — dirt. 

He says that all that work parents are putting into creating a barricade between their kids and bacteria is not doing their immune systems any favors – and in fact, is giving rise to problems like food allergies, asthma, and eczema. He details his findings in his book, Dirt Is Good: The Advantage of Germs for Your Child’s Developing Immune System. 

“You have these little soldier cells in your body called neutrophils, and when they spend too long going around looking for something to do, they become grumpy and pro-inflammatory,” Gilbert writes. “When they finally see something that’s foreign, like a piece of pollen, they become explosively inflammatory. They go crazy. That’s what triggers asthma and eczema and often times, food allergies.”

What this means is that when your child’s body is confused by bacteria, it triggers off trouble, whereas when it is accustomed to it, it’s no big deal. (Hallelujah. I’m off the hook.)

Like my mom, I didn’t obsess over germs when my children were growing up in the ‘80s, ‘90s and into the millennium. I “cleaned” their pacifiers by sticking them in my mouth. I only washed stuffed animals when they smelled. I let my kids jump in the hay and muck out horse stalls. A chore was cleaning the bathroom. And they dug in the garden and swam in that same river I frolicked in decades earlier. 

My husband used to complain how unbathed and tired they were when they returned from visits with my parents. But if you talk to them today — they’re 19, 29 and 32, and two have children of their own — they will describe with great nostalgia what those visits were like. Mom would cook bacon on a fork over the open fire in the wood stove and have cookouts on an ancient grill that inevitably resulted in burned hotdogs and burgers. 

“A little bit of charcoal is good for your digestive system,” she’d tell them. 

They remember swimming to the sounds of bullfrogs and drinking iron-tinged water from the hose, too. They recall sleeping on the floor on an old, germ-ridden braided rug, and gorging on penny candy and popcorn while playing ferociously competitive Monopoly games. And yes, they most certainly dropped some of those snacks on the floor, probably for more than five seconds.  These are some of their favorite memories. 

My kids were hardly ever sick. They have no allergies. And while they did get many bug bites and bumps and scratches, I didn’t even know what eczema was until I was an adult with a case of my own.

And so to you Mr. Gilbert, I say thank you for this gratifying information. My mom was onto something and so was I. But then, I didn’t really need a book to confirm this.

You don’t either. Relax. They’re going to be fine.  

This essay was written by Tracey Dee Rauh.

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