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Keeping kids clean is overrated – Here’s why you should let them eat dirt

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4 ways to let go and help your children develop healthier immune systems.

It’s a rarity, but occasionally someone asks me what it takes to be a good parent. Quickly, I fish around in my brain for something that makes me sound like a responsible adult. “Patience is important. And, um, don’t lose anyone when you’re on a family trip.” After a long pause, I follow up with, “Kicking them outside to play in the dirt works great for me, and hopefully keeps on working for the next 18 years. It’s four against two around here.”

Thankfully, it turns out the last piece of advice is actually pretty sound. According to an article by Brandie Weikle, our kids need to get dirty. She gets the scoop from Marie-Claire Arrieta, a microbiologist and author of the new book, Let Them Eat Dirt: Saving Our Children from an Oversanitized World, who believes over-sanitizing kids isn’t doing them any good.

When it comes to constantly cleaning your little ones, Arrieta says, “When we’re born we do not have any microbes. Our immune system is underdeveloped. But as soon as microbes come into the picture, they kick-start our immune system to work properly. Without microbes our immune system can’t fight infections well.”

This works out fantastically for parents like me, who aren’t particularly quick on the draw when it comes to wiping peanut butter off the baby before it hardens into a PB&J facial mask, and lets the preschooler pick LEGOs out of the refuse pulled from under the refrigerator. These new findings should be a welcome respite to parents who push bath time just one more day (because, let’s be honest, it’s freaking exhausting), and the rest of us who wait for the pool to open so we can forego bathing altogether.

Still, old habits die hard, and, for most of us, constantly wiping off hands and dousing tiny people in sanitizer is second nature. Over the last eight years, my husband I have involuntarily come up with a system of exposing our four hooligans to less than squeaky clean environments, without feeling too much guilt. Here are just a few tips from me and other dirt gurus to help the average parent relax, kick back, and take that caked-on filth in stride.

1. Get a nice, dirty pet

I was hesitant to get a dog. Why? Hair on the sheets. Hair on the baby. Hair everywhere. My husband told me it was a great thing that our dryer’s lint trap was full of Labrador. Turns out, he was right. A recent study in Finland found that kids who grow up in homes with a pet are less likely to get sick. Dr. Eija Bergroth, who helped run the study said, “We think the exposure to pets somehow matures the immune system so when the child meets the microbes, he might be better prepared for them.” So do like the Kellermans do and let your kids get covered in dog hair so they’ll stay out of yours.

2. Look at their faces, not their clothes

Kim Bongiornio is no stranger to messy kids. A busy blogger and freelance writer at Let Me Start By Saying, she also works full time cleaning up after her son and daughter. But she’s cool as a cucumber about the chaos because she knows having happy kids is more important than over-sanitized ones. She says, “I’ve noticed that the messier my kids are, the happier they are. When my son is coated in turf filth after soccer and my daughter is coating the ever-present paint smears on her arms with mulch dust in the garden, their smiles are never bigger. And that’s way more important to me than unstained clothes and chasing them down with hand sanitizer all the time!”

3. Remember that you survived your childhood

Meredith Spidel, blogger at The Mom of the Year and mother of two, relaxes around her little dirt-makers by reminding herself that sometimes the messiest activities make the best memories. Yesterday my gal was playing with the neighbor girl, asking for multiple cups so they could make “snow mud.” I was cringing, big time, and had some fun dishes to wash this morning, BUT worked hard to remember how I did the same stuff when I was her 5-year-old age—and how priceless a playtme it was. Mudpies for the win!

4. Trash the 5-second rule

When I was a brand-new parent, letting my babies eat something off the ground was unthinkable. Now? We don’t even have a 5-second rule. The fourth child regularly waddles over and pops questionable toys and pieces of food in her mouth, and what do I do? Nothing. Well, I usually keep drinking my coffee and reading articles on Pinterest about how to be a better parent. But that’s it. Mary Ruebush is a microbiology immunology instructor who wrote the book, Why Dirt Is Good. Her findings back up the idea that it’s okay to let our kids nosh on the less than savory. She writes, “What a child is doing when he puts things in his mouth is allowing his immune response to explore his environment. Not only does this allow for ‘practice’ of immune responses, which will be necessary for protection, but it also plays a critical role in teaching the immature immune response what is best ignored.”

So there you have it parents. Kick those kids outside and let them eat a little dirt. It’s the responsible thing to do.

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