Is Over-Sanitizing Dangerous For Your Children?

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Protecting your children from germs may do much more harm than good.

This Ugly Yet Beautiful World

We live in a filthy world. Germs, chemicals, and general nastiness are everywhere, though sometimes not observable by the human eye. The media constantly bombards us with an onslaught of threats to our health. Each year, we wait to see what kind of flu will pop up next, or what the latest "designer disease" is wreaking havoc in some third-world country. Of course, we all like to be safe and healthy (or, most of us, I assume). Even more so, we want our children to be healthy. They are our little time capsules, carrying our genetic code into the future, so that a little piece of us might live on throughout the centuries. This being the case, we parents, in general, tend to get extremely protective and obsessive over the well-being of our children. So, it stands to reason that we should do everything we can to shield our children from this dirty world, right? Well, maybe not. I say let your kids play in the dirt and eat mud pies if they so desire, and don't stress too much about disinfecting your counters… you may be doing your children more harm than good.

Early Artillery

Think of it this way: do you ever remember hearing that it was better to get chicken pox when you were younger instead of older? Chicken pox in children is nothing more than a minor annoyance. You stay home from school for a week, itch like crazy, and use lots and lots of calamine lotion. However, the older you get without having chicken pox, the more serious it becomes, and in adults it can even be fatal. The reason behind this is simple: children's immune systems are far stronger than a fully-grown adult's. I'm sure you have heard that children do more learning in their first 6 years than they do in the rest of their lives combined (and if you haven't heard that, it's a good thing to know). The same is true with our immune systems. We come into this world in super defense mode, our immune systems waiting to take on all challengers. It is during these early stages of life that we build up our immunities. We're ready for just about anything, and can pretty much fend of all but the most grievous of illnesses given the time and the care to allow our bodies to do so, and once we have gotten sick from one germ or virus and survive, we can never be affected by it again. This consumes a lot of energy, though, as does growing (hence why kids are like cute little black holes for anything remotely edible). So, at some point, our bodies decide that we've pretty much got all the immunities we'll ever need, and downgrade into permanent respond-only-if-threatened mode. So, from this angle, by shielding your kid by obsessively disinfecting everything, you are actually robbing their immune systems of that chance to grow strong. No one likes when their child is sick, but would you rather deal with the whiny sniffles now, or a life-threatening illness later? In short, the compulsive urge to protect your child from germs can very easily produce the opposite effect of giving them a weak immune system for the rest of their lives.

The Fear Factor

There is another lasting effect of this kind of behavior, as well: fear. It's probably easily noticeable that the media, and many businesses, thrive on fear. Germs are everywhere, so you must keep stocked up on the disinfectants and antibacterial soaps. Criminals are lurking around every corner, so we must have burglar alarms and car alarms. Our children learn about the world by watching us. If they see us running around frantically trying to stave off the hoards of terrible things that seemingly loom around every corner, they are going to learn to fear everything. They will perpetuate the fear-mongering behavior so prevalent in society today, and in some cases this can even cause them to not even be able to enjoy life much at all because they are simply afraid of everything, and in the author's opinion, that's a terrible burden to bestow upon your progeny.

Pass it Along

If you really want something scary to think about, consider this: not only are you harming your children, but your children's children, and the continued survival of our species as a whole. Sound extreme? Well, not really. Think of it this way: if you are responsible for your child having a weak immune system, he will pass this weakness along to his children, and so on and so forth, negatively impacting future generations. Not only that, but as we are gradually making our immune systems weaker, those germs and viruses are getting stronger. We know that life evolves to fit its surroundings. So, by throwing all these disinfectants and antibiotics at these germs, we force them to mutate and adapt. They quickly become stronger and immune to everything we throw at them (just like WE do as children), penetrating all our defenses (which continue to weaken) with relentless attacks (which continue to get stronger). Granted, bacteria and such will always evolve even if we let our bodies take care of the defenses themselves, but at a far slower rate, and a rate that we can keep up with.

Let Them Eat Mud Cake

We must keep in mind that life, like all systems, strives towards equilibrium and balance. If we freak out and tip the scales too far in one direction, nature will push back just as strongly. If we continue to tip the scales, life will continue to push back, and in the end, for all our genius, we will be destroyed, either by ourselves or by nature. This could all too easily be the price we pay for worrying too much about our kids eating a piece of macaroni that dropped on the floor. As a personal testament, the author used to eat out of garbage cans when he was younger, and while he would never wish this on anyone, he can say that his immune system is iron-clad. And as a father, the author never worried about washing his hands a thousand times a day or boiling bottles, and at almost 3 years of age, his son has yet to catch so much as the sniffles or a fever. So, the next time you turn on the TV and see the breaking news about the new "Alaskan Platypus Flu that's cutting a bloody swath across the Mid-West", the author suggests you turn it off, eat some pizza that's been sitting out on the counter all night, and go out in the yard and play in the mud with your kids.


Posted on Nov 30, 2011
Posted on Dec 19, 2010
James R. Coffey
Posted on Nov 29, 2010