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Let the Children Eat Dirt

Some of us have vivid childhood memories of our parents standing at the front door, holding it wide open, and saying, “Kids, go out and play! Be back in time for dinner.”

That’s how scores of us grew up in the suburbs, along with the rest of the neighborhood. We zigzagged all over the place with virtually no parental supervision — and not only survived but thrived. We played tag, ball, hide and seek. We dug in the sandbox and in the yard. We went on the swings. We rode bikes. Healthy, free and fearless, we probably got smeared with dirt along the way. Who cared? On nice days before the sun went down, we played so many games with other kids that many of us could spend the next 10 minutes at least talking about it — and the word “dirt” or “dirty” would never be mentioned.

“Life for our ancestors involved massive exposure to microbes from the environment, food, water, and many other diverse sources.”

Kids today don’t have this — for a host of reasons. Young kids rarely play outside to begin with, and if they do, they do so under strict supervision. They’re either having playdates with other kids as parents watch every move — or they’re at sports practices or games as coaches direct them. Heaven forbid, too, if a kid should rub his face with a dirt-covered hand — in no time, a parent or caregiver would swoop down and clean him up.

If little Jeremy falls down, he’s instantly coddled and taken inside to “make sure he’s OK.” If little Jennifer happens to get a speck of dirt under her fingernails, oh my goodness — call in the troops.

Never mind helicopter parenting or uber housekeeping. We have over-sanitized our kids and overlooked their well-being in the process.

A new book aims to share perspective and advice about healthy microbes for kids and much more. In “Let Them Eat Dirt,” authors B. Brett Finlay, Ph.D., and Marie-Claire Arrieta, Ph.D., experts on bacterial infections, reject the super-sanitized world our kids live in. A few microbes here or there are not only OK, they write — they’re necessary.

“A critical part of the development of the immune system occurs in the first years of life,” they write. “Asthma, characterized by a hyper immune system, seems to have a higher chance of developing in a child with a limited exposure to these immune stimulants, because without them, the immune system does not have all the tools for proper development.”

Related: For Dads, It’s Nature AND Nurture [1]

They add, “By cleaning up our children’s environments, we prevent their immune systems from maturing in the way they have for millions of years before us: with lots and lots of microbes. Life for our ancestors involved massive exposure to microbes from the environment, food, water, feces, and many other diverse sources. Compare that to our current way of life, where meat comes on sterile Styrofoam pans wrapped in plastic wrap, and our water is treated and processed until it’s free of nearly all microbes.”

LifeZette spoke with Arrieta, a postdoctoral scientist based in Canada who has two young children herself, to share essentials of their work:

Question: Why are so parents so overprotective of their kids today when it comes to outdoor play?

Answer: It’s tricky and has to do with the way society works now compared to years ago. A lot more parents have to work, so kids have to spend time indoors just because of that. People are more wary of their kids playing outside by themselves. When I grew up [in Costa Rica], we were all outside with no parental supervision — there were 15 or 20 of us, and we kids knew we had to get home in time for dinner. Things have dramatically changed. Now it’s up to the parents to make the effort to take their kids outside, and they would never leave them there by themselves, in most cases. I have two young kids myself and two dogs — I do it all at once.

Also, a lot more children grow up today without backyards. They live in apartment buildings. They’re growing up without their own outdoor space.

Related: Adventureless Kids Aren’t Kids [2]

Q: But when a child is outside and is digging in the dirt, getting covered with mud and bugs and having a great time, why are so many parents worried? What’s at work?

A: They should not worry. They should let it happen — they should promote it. Kids are so used to being clean now. Parents should bring a bucket of water outside so the child can play with it. Kids love to play with dirt and water and mud — it’s a good thing. There’s really no danger in this. We don’t live in a country where there are dangerous parasites in the ground. We’re OK. A little bit of dirt and mud is good for the kids.

“If our immune systems were so frail that exposure to a supermarket cart would get us sick, the human race would have been wiped out a long time ago.”

Q: Why do American parents think kids should never get dirty? This goes beyond helicopter parenting.

A: The messages from the health industry and health policy is that good hygiene is very important to prevent disease, and that’s true. But I think the message came across as: “You’re going to get sick if you get dirty.” That’s not the case. Not all germs are under the same umbrella. Of course, some are dangerous and we should be using good hygiene measures to prevent the spread — but most germs are not dangerous or contagious. Most germs will not cause disease; some have very significant benefits. The message got mixed up and the market followed — there are so now many products out there with anti-microbial properties.

Q: Taking small children to the supermarket, let’s say, and plopping them into a shopping cart without any sort of protective cover or blanket — that’s OK? Some of those carts seem so grimy and unpleasant. Or are we all just germaphobes now?

A: We should relax about this kind of thing. We don’t need to go to the extreme of using covers and such. If our immune system were so frail that exposure to a supermarket cart would get us sick, I think the human race would have been wiped out a long time ago. But that doesn’t mean that if you’re out all day shopping in crowded places you shouldn’t wash your hands with regular soap and water as soon as you get home. But you do not need to go to extremes. Take commonsense measures — but don’t keep your kids in a bubble when they go to these common places. The immune system can take some of this.

Related: Kids, Germs, and Common Sense [3]

Q: What about inside the home — we’ve all seen homes that are almost clinically spotless. How clean do people need to be when they have children?

A: What we’re learning is that cleaning with super harsh cleaning agents — for example, bleach — does not seem to be very good for you — or necessary. You’re cleaning too much. That’s not to say you shouldn’t clean your home. But your home is not normally a crowded place — you’re not surrounded by scores of people as you are in a subway station, let’s say, or some other vast public place where there are hundreds or even thousands of people milling around or passing through. So you can be a little more relaxed at home. You can trust your environment more. Your concern should be disease conception — and you don’t normally have that in your own house.

Take commonsense measures — but don’t keep kids in a bubble when they go to common places.

Q: How much do parents need to worry about what their kids might pick up at school?

A: The schools are pretty good about sanitizing the rooms to prevent the spread of germs or disease. But even though we — my co-author and I — promote a healthy exposure to microbes, we do not advocate that parents expose their sick children to other children. That does not drive health, or future health. The message is slightly different in schools than it is for private homes — you want to prevent disease. If you know your kid is sick, keep him or her home! That will prevent the spread of disease.

Q: Your parting words for living as healthfully as possible while also raising well-adjusted, healthy kids?

A:  Parents, watch an overuse of antibiotics — that’s a harsh drug. Use them only when you have to. The other thing is diet. It really doesn’t matter how well-exposed to microbes your kids are. If their diet isn’t right, the rest doesn’t matter much. Get rid of all the refined flours and sugars — substitute those with foods that have plenty of fiber. Make sure your kids eat a variety of healthy foods — vegetables and fruits and fermented foods, too. Diet is key when it comes to gut health.

Related: Who Can Afford to Eat Well? [4]

And if you’re someone who’s on the run — try to find 20 minutes in the morning to make oatmeal for the kids. This might be about time and organizational skills more than anything. Fiber is not that hard to get in our diets — it comes in cereals, in oatmeal. How easy is it to prepare that every morning! And it’s in yogurt. Mix that with a little fruit. Even a granola bar has more fiber than, say, an English muffin. There are options. The hardest thing is wrapping your mind around going for the healthy choices.