Hygiene hypothesis: let children eat dirt
Rise up, parents, and rub your kids’ faces in a bit of dirt.
Let them eat snails, and snot, and have their cheese sandwiches without washing their hands.
Because your hyper-vigilant cleanliness could, literally, be killing them.
The “hygiene hypothesis” has been bandied about for a while now. It’s one of those “shit, that makes sense” kind of theories.
The main thrust of it is that by cocooning children through disinfecting their entire lives you stop the proper development of their immune system. The more sterile the environment, the less the immune system has to do.
So the more it overreacts to foreign substances. Hence rising asthma and allergy rates*.
Ergo, all that frenzied wiping in the name of mollycoddling could actually be doing much more harm than good.
The hypothesis (and it is still just a hypothesis, although plenty of published, peer-reviewed studies have shown strong epidemiological links) got an additional boost this week.
A University of Michigan study linked the use of triclosan, a chemical used in anti-bacterial soaps, with allergies.
It’s not conclusive proof, as the American Cleaning Institute (formerly the Soap and Detergent Association) was quick to point out.
But it is a strong link. And of course it’s hardly surprising the ACI took it hard.
Obsessive-compulsive cleanliness has become a multi-billion dollar industry that preys on the public’s fear and parents’ guilt.
There are shiny white television ads for hands-free soap dispensers, for disinfectant-impregnated wipes, for pine-forest sprays to kill 99.9% of germs.
There are dramatic re-enactments of microbes multiplying, taking over bathrooms and kitchens and minds.
All these ads have the implicit message that bugs are out there trying to get your children and you are the sole, brave warrior who can protect the vulnerable little moppets with just a squirt of floral freshness.
And the marketing works. I’ve found myself pushing doors open with my elbows, churning through the alcohol-based hand gels.
I have a pop-up pack of Pine-O-Cleen wet wipes in my desk drawer.
And yet, and yet. There’s a vindictive delight in knowing that it might just all be a crock. And more, that all this sterility is really not very good for children at all.
I think this very specific and bitter pleasure comes from having evidence that “helicopter parenting” is bad.
It’s the same schadenfreude you get from hearing that kids are getting rickets because they are kept entirely out of the sun; or that their teeth are rotting because their parents only allow them spring water, so they don’t get the extra fluoride.
That they are going to struggle as adults because they never got to take risks as children. Never fell off a jungle gym or got in a scrap.
They missed out on initiation rites like sleeping on your parents’friend’s bed with two other kids, surrounded by jackets and handbags as the adults outside got pissed on cask wine, so they won’t be adaptable people when they grow up.
This is not a noble feeling, but it’s one plenty of us have. At a guess it’s spawned by defensive thinking that we were not that protected.
Our parents never worried about us that much and we’re just fine thank-you-very-much.
Parenting now is a competition sport. Marketers know that, and use it to increase the guilt motherlode and sell more and more products.
Way too many of us fall for their patter. Add to that the spruiking of sweet, sugary and salty, fatty foods and we will have, some demographers say, the first generation to suffer a shorter lifespan than their parents.
What’s the answer? Well; kidlets must stop eating such crap, and ingest some more microbes.
In other words; let them eat dirt.
* Apologies for over-simplifying what is, in reality, quite a complex theory.
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