You can tell the children who never get their hands dirty … or the ones who are made to wash their hands as soon as any stain breaks the illusion of cleanliness. When, in preschool, kids are making hand prints for some holiday, a card to bring home to mom or dad, there are those who have no hesitation about getting paint (or clay, or glitter, or whatever) slathered on their hands–they don’t even need a reason to do it. But there are also children who recoil at it … because it feels somehow to them like breaking a rule about keeping their hands clean.

As parents, we’ve passed through all the stages of dirt-worry, from anti-bacterial-wash-everything anxiety to let-them-eat-dirt laissez-faire, embrace-the-biome relaxation. We remember hearing that by age three, it’s estimated that a child has consumed 3 pounds of dirt, just eaten it up. You can’t stop it. They’ve swallowed, digested, and eliminated things you would absolutely want to wash off your hands if you could see it there. And, they’ve survived it. That simple fact was compelling to us as parents. It helped us to realize that dirt is a part of the world and kids are in it for the duration. Certainly, they are going to grow out of picking up things and putting them in their mouths. But historically, we’ve never been able to purify the environment–even we adults eat plenty of things we can’t see (and wouldn’t want to). The more we attempt to isolate children from germs, the greater the potential shock to their system when they finally leave the care of the home and begin to socialize in a more diversely dirty environment.

But we are just parents, not doctors. We don’t really understand how the microscopic parts of the environment work: germs, bugs, and our children’s health. But as parents we can see that our culture has gone through a kind of clean-everything trip, with the rise of anti-bacterial soaps and the ubiquitous pump-bottles filled with germ-killer, and this impulse to purify remains a challenge. The word from the scientific community has been pretty consistent in warning that the more bacteria we kill, the more vulnerable we are to superbugs, of the kind that learn to resist our super-soaps, and the more likely it is that that we are changing the environment in ways that we can’t anticipate. We hear, in fact, that we are helped by the microscopic buggies in our environment more than we are hurt by them. The talk has turned to “healthy biomes” to describe the life-mix in and around each person: the sharing of germs, catching a little sickness to build resistance, and yes, the eating of dirt by young children. The more exposed we are, it seems (remember we are parents, not doctors), the more equipped we are to live in the world.

With dirt, the health question is only part of the equation. Kids who come to preschool with dirt-anxiety are afraid, often, even to play. They are hesitant to “get their hands dirty” even when the opportunity is simply to paint something for mom with their fingers. And this, we think, is almost the greater tragedy. By putting our fear of dirt, such as it is, into our children, we may be scaring them away from more than a risk of disease. We may be scaring them away from life.


[This post originally appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog]

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