I read a fascinating article this morning on the benefits of letting kids get a little dirty now and then. The article Can Dirt Do a Little Good? appears in the Wall Street Journal and examines the relative health of children in “third-world” nations where hyper-sanitation has not taken hold and kids in Western countries. The article echoes and affirms what I have been thinking for some time.
I fear that in trying to insulate our kids from every possible pathogen we are creating a generation of people who will live to unprecedented ages but will simultaneously live with all manner of health ailments during their lifetimes. From the article…
Allergies and autoimmune diseases were virtually unknown in the U.S. before the turn of the last century, but they began to emerge as modern sanitation, decontaminated water, food refrigeration and antibiotics became more widespread. "There's a whole series of diseases that just emerged in the 20th century," says Dr. Weinstock.
In 1998, about 1 in 5 children in industrialized countries suffered from allergic diseases such as asthma, allergies and rashes, according to the International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood, a global research initiative. The incidence of peanut allergy in the U.S. tripled between 1997 and 2008, according to a report from Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.
But such diseases are still relatively rare in Africa and rural Asia, as are Type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis.
In our hyper-sensitivity to keep any dirt, scraped knees, germs, etc. away from our kids, have we created a dangerous atmosphere where we are technically “healthier” but suffer more health problems? It is apparent to me that we are seeing far more people with allergies and asthma than when I was younger.
You aren’t a failure as a parent if your kids are not slathered in sunscreen and hand sanitizer at all times, or if you don’t rush them to the doctor to get an antibiotic every time they get a sniffle. Childhood is messy and dirty and when we try to insulate our kids from the merest whiff of a germ, it appears to have long term health consequences.
Isn’t there a happy medium? We certainly can and should embrace modern sanitation and medicine but the tendency towards using the nuclear option for every sniffle and the attempt to “de-germ” every square inch of our living space is going too far. Let kids be kids. That means dirt and scraped knees, it means runny noses and occasionally eating a little sand. I am not a scientist or doctor, but I think that common sense should be employed here. I am afraid that in our crusade against germs we are going to raise up a generation that will have such weak immune systems that it will be vulnerable to the exact sorts of catastrophic diseases that killed so many in centuries past.
Childhood is supposed to be messy. Embrace the dirt!