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Jewish World Review
Sept. 26, 2007
/ 14 Tishrei 5768
So my house is just "healthy"? That's the hopeful conclusion I've come to after reading recent news reports that a little dirt may be good for kids.
It seems allergies in children, from mild reactions to dust to life threatening responses to peanuts and other foods, have skyrocketed in recent years. Could it be, at least in part, because we are too clean for our own good?
Well, more and more evidence says "yes." As Dr. Marc McMorris of the University of Michigan explained it to me, the problem may be that our immune systems were made, generally speaking, to look for a fight. Or at least a job to do. But in an increasingly sanitized America, with ever less dirt and fewer parasites to fend off, our immune systems may be compensating by instead "fighting off" what should be benign substances, like those found in certain foods. Or way overreacting to things it has little practice appropriately managing anymore, like dust.
It's probably no accident that homes with three or more kids loaded with bacteria to keep children's immune systems busy are far less likely to have children with allergies.
Moms and Dads, it may be time to step away from the hand sanitizer.
This is welcome news for me. With one mom, 4 young kids, two cats and a dog, my home can be a mess. OK ...a germ factory. I just don't have time to flip out if my kids swipe a fallen cookie off the floor, I resolve to see through the dust when I have to, and I confess I don't typically bother to make my kids wash-up before dinner because four kids at a sink would take forever and they'd probably just start fighting anyway.
It turns out I may be accidentally doing my kids a favor.
As FoxNews put it, it's not necessarily a good thing that "some homes have become shrines to hygiene." They sure weren't talking about mine.
Anyway, while cleanliness is fine, I have to wonder is the cultural trend toward wrapping our kids in anti-germ bubble gear part of a larger move of protecting our kids in ways which might leave them more vulnerable in the end?
And so our modern, incredibly protected playgrounds are incredibly boring. And the kids know it. They naturally take greater risks to overcome the new safety measures, which is probably why playground injury reports have remained relatively constant for decades.
Meanwhile, we parents so irrationally fear child-abduction relative to real risk true stranger "kidnapping" happens a little over 100 times year and America has seventy-five million kids that we trail our children everywhere. No wonder children's free play is more and more a thing of the past and truly serious weight problems (something we don't fear nearly enough) are a thing of the present.
And when it comes to protecting our children from every conceivable disappointment or frustration, today's parents excel.
Look, I worry about my kids. I'm happy for bicycle helmets and seat belts and sex-offender laws. Yes, I know reasonable hand washing is a good way to ward off infection. I don't let my younger kids go to the neighborhood playground without an older friend or sibling to keep an eye on them (though not because I fear abduction, but because I need a "runner" to keep me informed either in the likely event my kids misbehave, or in the unlikely event they fall and actually hurt something.) I'm all for plain old common sense, which means I'm getting ready to worry a lot more during the teen years.
I also accept that life is risky. Period.
And, I believe that there is a real risk, a cost, along with all the benefits, to being so fearful, over-protective and "safety-first" when it comes to our children. In countless ways I think we modern parents, and our culture in general, are infusing into our kids a spirit of fear about their world, instead of a spirit of optimism, resilience, and joy in facing its challenges.
Now, that just can't be healthy.
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