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Kids must run a muck

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I turned the corner in Prospect Park with a funny feeling. My instinct was right, like it is when the kids get a little too quiet, when you know they must be up to something. My little one, Oscar, had run ahead with his friends and, as I’d guessed, they’d followed the dog into the little pond. The murky water held who-knows-what, but I laughed and shrugged when I saw my son and his friends smiling and laughing, playing happily.

I took out my Blackberry and held it up for a photo to document the giddy grossness.

“Say ‘Giardia!’ ” I joked, more for the adults looking on in disgust and judgment than for the kids, who would have no idea about parasites swimming around them.

A man walked up and stopped next to me. “You should be careful,” he said, concerned. “Dogs poop in there. They shouldn’t drink it.”

I had already told them not to drink it — and, frankly, didn’t need his advice. But still I smiled.

“Well, you know,” I said, “it’s the city, and they love to swim, and the water seems so fresh…”

I laughed, adding, “And whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

That last comment I made was actually not a joke, but something I wholeheartedly believe: exposure to bad things is often a good thing. Believing this to be true is the reason I could smile at the kids in the Prospect Park cesspool in the same way I smiled in Costa Rica when we discovered the stream they were gliding through had been contaminated recently with sewage, or the way I did when Oscar used to lick the pole in the subway. (I did draw the line when he picked up candy off the subway floor and wanted to eat it.)

There is a growing body of research that shows a correlation between going head-to-head with germs and building one’s immune system. Such research suggests that over-protecting kids from coming into contact with little amoebas is actually what’s creating the overwhelming surge of allergies and illness among kids today. I cringe when I see people, especially my progeny, slathering themselves with astringent hand sanitizers. The Benzene in it will likely get them long before whatever germ they’re trying to kill off.

I am not alone in this theory. In his book, “Losing Our Cool, Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World,” Stan Cox offers up a warning far more dire than a little dirty water.

He blames parental over-reactions to exposing children to bacteria, fungi, nematodes and/or other tiny organisms for actually predisposing kids to allergies and asthma. Keeping kids inside, in sterile air-conditioned environments, “rather than out in the backyard making mud pies,” he says, is depriving their little immune systems of essential training.

So I guess I needn’t have felt like a bad parent for letting the kids bathe in the dog pond. But the germs-are-good theory is not just a salve to make me feel better for being irresponsible. I need no better evidence than that my kids are rarely sick, that they manage to weather things well despite — or maybe because — of their mother’s insistent intent on not worrying.

Last year, I called the doctor only once, to make their annual well-visit appointment. Knock on wood, but I think it takes more than luck: it takes letting your kids sometimes run slightly amok (or, more accurately, in the muck).

Stephanie Thompson is a Park Slope mom of two. This is her second column since succeeding the legendary Smartmom, Louise Crawford.

Updated 5:20 pm, July 9, 2018
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Reasonable discourse

Lamama from Brooklyn says:
What a pleasure to read a parenting column in our local paper that is personal and at the same time full of fact-based, helpful information. Yes, it's an opinion piece, and it's about one family, but it's, well, professional -- well written with streamlined sentences, nice range of vocabulary, verb-noun agreement and, perhaps best of all, it's in the first person. Not too much to ask. Welcome!
Sept. 14, 2010, 6:10 am
James from Cobble Hill says:
What a refreshing change! A non-narcissistic piece with a rational well thought point of absolute truth. I look forward to more of the same.
Sept. 14, 2010, 6:50 am
Barb from Costa Rica says:
This article is ridiculous. While I can, and do agree with the basic sentiment and principle, there is a line where a child's health is at risk, and playing in a stagnant pond that is populated by dogs, or rolling in sewage contaminated water should not be allowed.

The diseases that can easily be contracted by entering polluted water are not the type of 2-day sniffles that boost the immune system in the end. They can be long term health compromisers such as hepatitis.

I strongly suggest that their doctor be notified and they are screened for possible infections and parasites.
Sept. 14, 2010, 7:08 am
Not Goish from Prospect Heights says:
Just two columns by this woman and it's like the windows are opened and a new, fresh voice spilled out. Thank you for writing like an adult about children.
Sept. 14, 2010, 8:29 am
Chris from Boerum Hill says:
I see no hard evidence printed to support this 'hypothesis' (it's not a theory ... a theory is a fact that still accepts challenges). I looked up Stan Cox and got this:

"Stan Cox is a plant breeder and writer in Salina, Kansas." That's the guy who's telling me how to live my life? A plant breeder from Kansas? Pardon me for not being impressed. That's almost as bad as a linguist lecturing me on politics.

Does Stan Cox know that people used to die a lot younger than they do now? One reason is the industrial revolution. It reduced violent death dramatically in modern, civilized society. The other is the cultural explosion of hand-washing.

That's right ... people didn't use to wash their hands, and they died a lot younger because of it. Perhaps they had fewer allergies (I'm skeptical, though, and think people just didn't complain as much a hundred years ago as they do now, because most of them didn't expect anything great from life) but one thing is for sure, they dropped dead a whole lot sooner than they do now. Hand washing drastically reduced deaths from the cold and flu, much the way fluoridated water gave Americans better teeth than the rest of the world.

Is it possible that some people can 'over-wash' and reduce some immuno-response in certain instances? Possibly, but I'd like to see empirical evidence, gleaned from double-blind testing, before I'd buy into anything that Stan Cox, or anyone else, prints in a book or on a web page.

Maybe I'll write a book called, 'Eat Your Own Poop. It's Good for You!' and someone will just buy into it sight unseen because it supports a belief they already had.

Do many parents overreact to their children picking up roadkill and flinging it around gleefully? Of course they do. But remember, getting bad bacteria or a virus on your hands, and then putting same hands into mouth, nose, eyes, ears, or open wound, will make you a hell of a lot sicker than the ethyl alcohol in hand sanitizer (I don't know of any hand wash that uses benzine, btw) Some childhood viruses can cause lifelong impairment. I'd rather risk having to pop Claritin every day than be blind or unable to walk, thanks.

That aside, why doesn't this author use pet names to annoyingly describe everyone in her life? 'Hepatits Cat', anyone?
Sept. 14, 2010, 1:35 pm
K. from ArKady says:
Ironically, it's your fellow primates that are principally responsible for your perennial contagious illnesses. It's the guy who contracted TB in the hospital or prison you need to worry about, not a racoon or goose at the park. Poster makes a good point that the immune system works by stimulation; if you raise your children in a bubble they'll have all kinds of odd autoimmune diseases later on.

This obsession with animal feces really came out in the discussions on this site about geese and other wildlife. Again, it's ironic that no one seems too concerned about the _human_ feces,urine, and vomit one finds so often on the streets in Brooklyn and Manhattan. I use horse and chicken feces to feed my vegetables, as does the person that grows your expensive organic heirloom fruits and vegetables.
Sept. 14, 2010, 2:04 pm

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