Is your environment too clean? Every time you apply a little elbow grease to rid your home of nastiness, do you endanger your family’s health? When you stay home from a get-together because someone in your family has the sniffles or a cough, do you do a disservice to the people who showed up? Do you think these questions aren’t really worth considering, and maybe I’ve lost my marbles? After all, how could cleaning your house and keeping your germs to yourself ever be a bad thing?
The answer just might lie in the “hygiene hypothesis.”
In a nutshell, there’s a school of thought out there suggesting that chronic ailments such as allergies and autoimmune diseases are on the rise because we’re too concerned with hygiene. The hypothesis is that children are healthier, stronger, and better able to deal with whatever life brings their way when they’re exposed to a wide variety of microorganisms. I didn’t have a clue that this theory even existed, but then I came across an interesting NPR report. It cited a Swedish study proposing that a little thing like ditching our dishwashers for the good ol’ days of washing by hand could move us closer to optimal health.
Huh. It all makes sense to me. Growing up on the farm, my siblings and I were exposed to all sorts of things our city slicker friends would have steered clear of at all costs. My sis, Pam, and I never thought twice about kicking cow poo at each other. We thought the aroma of dead things we came across was intriguing. If it wasn’t too ripe, we’d poke at it with the longest stick we could find for no particular reason. Not to be mean or disrespectful—we were simply curious. We’d also let a hungry calf suck on our hand because…well, I don’t know exactly why, but I do know we wouldn’t go running to a sink to wash away the grime. We’d just wipe most of the slobber on our barn pants and go about our day. Yes, I said “barn pants.” It’s a farm kid thing.
Despite this—or much more likely because of it—we Phillips kids were a healthy bunch. It would be interesting to look back at school records from our formative years to see how many days as a whole we missed because of illness. I’d be willing to bet it wasn’t very many. Could this be because we were free to explore the microorganism-infested world around us without a parent hovering over us to make sure we got anti-bacterial-ed on a regular basis? It’s a compelling concept for sure.
I’ve continued the tradition of non-spotless living with my own kids. Unless their hands are obviously filthy or they just rid the backyard of dog droppings, I’m not always the best about reminding them to wash their hands. While our house is far from grungy, I’m not the mom who sweeps and washes the floor every day or sanitizes the sink after every meal. Has this harmed my kids any? When I look at their track record of wellness, I don’t think so. Typically, they don’t get ill very often, and when they do it doesn’t stick around for long. Of course, clean eating and healthy gut flora certainly help their immune system ward off the undesirables. I guess my hubby and I have a handle on at least one of the tricks of parenting—for the moment.
Is it worth “becoming one” with the grime around you and your kids? As long as you don’t take it to an extreme, it seems it just might be. So go ahead, use this as an excuse to occasionally slack a little bit on your household chores. Instead, put that time to better use and go explore the microorganism-infested neighborhood with your kids.
Do you see grime in your world as friend or foe?
Photo by Joe Thorn