It is a warm summer day, and we’ve gone to our favorite stomping ground—the river. The little boys make for the shallows just as fast as they can, and it isn’t long before they’re kicking away in the water. I enjoy the chance to get some clothes clean with that unlimited water the river provides, and soon a bright array of little tshirts, dresses, and pants are spread out to dry on the grass.
A herd of horses wander by, stirring up mud as they go. The children stop their play for a few minutes to watch and speculate on them; when one draws particularly close to baby, sitting on the bank stuffing mud into her mouth, she begins to cry. I leave my basin of washing and come running to her; together, we sit on the bank and laugh at the horses. When they start to move away, I go back to my basin, and baby continues her mud lunch.
It is time to go home, and they’ve had a lovely day. The clothes are washed, the children are all a shade darker, and the baby will have some new textures in her diaper tomorrow. We all have filled in lots of pages of the memory books in our minds, and the children will have good dreams tonight.
Later, we’ll send pictures to Grandma and Grandpa, and to some friends. In one of them, baby is sitting there in the muddy bank, sticking dirty fingers straight into her mouth. I got a reaction from that one. It doesn’t look like something good mothers let their children do.
But it isn’t that I’m lazy.
It isn’t that I want her to eat dirt, precisely; but it is more that I feel the benefit she gets from being allowed to sit in that dirt, explore it to her hearts content, and put it where she wants—even if that might be her mouth—far outweigh the negative side effects of putting questionable material inside her body.
Baby’s afternoon in the mudbank was far more educational than any expensive learning session at a world class Early Learning Center could possibly be. She exercised her mind, imagination and body, all to the utmost; and she was gently stimulated into new growth in a way that couldn’t have happened in any canned setting.
Her immune system was exercised too; and contrary to what it might seem, that’s actually a good thing, not a bad one. New research shows that modern children who grow up in carefully bleached houses, watched over by careful parents who make sure that everything that they reach for is carefully clean, are both very susceptible to infection as well as at high risk for auto-immune diseases simply because their immune systems haven’t had any chance to grow properly.
What’s more, hypervigilant cleanliness upsets the natural balance of microbes in your child’s body. Put simply, good plain dirt contains lots of microbes that are either good for your child or else harmless. These microbes aren’t all that iron-clad; sprinkle a little of your hand sanitizer on them and watch them disappear into nothingness. But nature hates a vacuum; if you don’t give the good bacteria a chance to colonize the inside of your child’s gut, bad bacteria—some of which don’t respond so nicely to the Lysol—have free reign, and you end up with far worse than you were killing.
So let them make mudpies. Let them stomp in the dirt, sit in the dirt, even eat the dirt. Turn your back on a sterile, chlorinated childhood and let your child learn to love the smell of good, clean earth on his or her fingertips.