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.