Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Dirt on Kids

Two new articles about parenting came out yesterday, verifying my suspicions about workaholic parents and dirt. The first, from England, details a study that looks at childhood well-being. The headline, Selfish adults 'damage childhood' pretty much says it all:
The aggressive pursuit of personal success by adults is now the greatest threat to British children, a major independent report on childhood says. It calls for a sea-change in social attitudes and policies to counter the damage done to children by society. Family break-up, unprincipled advertising, too much competition in education and income inequality are mentioned as big contributing factors.
The report itself is not likely to be popular, as it points out the detrimental effects that divorce, two working parents, and too much competition in education have on kids. The report's recommendations are interesting:
  • a civil birth ceremony conducted by a registrar in which parents publicly accept the responsibilities of parenthood

  • free parenting classes available around the time of birth

  • free psychological and family support if relationships struggle

  • rules making it easier for parents to stay at home to rear their children

  • abolishing sats tests and league tables in English schools

  • a ban on all advertising aimed at the under 12s and no TV commercials for alcohol or unhealthy food before the 9pm watershed

  • stopping building on any open space where children play

  • a high-quality youth centre for every 5,000 young people
I'm not sure about that last one. I think the high quality play environment ought to be in one's backyard with a parent watching out, but not too close.

This brings us to the second article, sent to me yesterday by Liz. I'm sure she was thinking of the low cost play space she and Shelagh enjoyed when they were young. We had a sandy bank in the yard, and if they begged Dad, he would bring over a shovel and loosen the sand to make a pile to play in and a hole to excavate. The "dirt pile" was a major draw in our yard; kids would get a glimpse of the dirt pile from the back seat and they were all over it, down on their knees and getting dirty before anyone could say no. Often there was a dog or a chicken helping to dig, that's how the they came up with the summer "Chicken Circus" in which chickens would ride on bike handle bars and "fly" though hula-hoops.

I'm sure some readers are clucking to themselves at the unsanitaryness of all this. The article Liz sent, Babies Know: A Little Dirt Is Good for You is provocative, but it might gross you out:
Ask mothers why babies are constantly picking things up from the floor or ground and putting them in their mouths, and chances are they’ll say that it’s instinctive — that that’s how babies explore the world. But why the mouth, when sight, hearing, touch and even scent are far better at identifying things?

When my young sons were exploring the streets of Brooklyn, I couldn’t help but wonder how good crushed rock or dried dog droppings could taste when delicious mashed potatoes were routinely rejected.

Since all instinctive behaviors have an evolutionary advantage or they would not have been retained for millions of years, chances are that this one too has helped us survive as a species. And, indeed, accumulating evidence strongly suggests that eating dirt is good for you.......

.....“What a child is doing when he puts things in his mouth is allowing his immune response to explore his environment,” Mary Ruebush, a microbiology and immunology instructor, wrote in her new book, “Why Dirt Is Good” (Kaplan). “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.”

One leading researcher, Dr. Joel V. Weinstock, the director of gastroenterology and hepatology at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, said in an interview that the immune system at birth “is like an unprogrammed computer. It needs instruction.”

He said that public health measures like cleaning up contaminated water and food have saved the lives of countless children, but they “also eliminated exposure to many organisms that are probably good for us.”

“Children raised in an ultraclean environment,” he added, “are not being exposed to organisms that help them develop appropriate immune regulatory circuits.”
I must admit that it's kind of fun to hear the "ultraclean environment" moms getting scolded for once. They should give up some cleaning and volunteer a little more.

The idea that being infected with intestinal worms conveys an immunity to disease is really new:
Immunologists now recognize a four-point response system of helper T cells: Th 1, Th 2, Th 17 and regulatory T cells. Th 1 inhibits Th 2 and Th 17; Th 2 inhibits Th 1 and Th 17; and regulatory T cells inhibit all three, Dr. Elliott said.

“A lot of inflammatory diseases — multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and asthma — are due to the activity of Th 17,” he explained. “If you infect mice with worms, Th 17 drops dramatically, and the activity of regulatory T cells is augmented.”

In answer to the question, “Are we too clean?” Dr. Elliott said: “Dirtiness comes with a price. But cleanliness comes with a price, too. We’re not proposing a return to the germ-filled environment of the 1850s. But if we properly understand how organisms in the environment protect us, maybe we can give a vaccine or mimic their effects with some innocuous stimulus.”
In the end, we weren't going to keep all of those germs out of the baby's mouth, anyway. It's nice to know that letting them out of the car seat and into the dirt was what they really needed all along.

No comments: