Even though I don’t have any children of my own, I have a pretty keen sense that parenting today is a lot different than when I was growing up. At a recent professional gathering, my suspicions were confirmed. A colleague was sharing her fears about allowing her small children to play outside due to the increase in ticks. While that might sound somewhat rational, it turned out her mommy instincts also told her that just playing outside came with too many risks — sunburns, bug bites, and getting dirty. My comments suggesting that exposure to such things came with health benefits fell on deaf ears.
But my remarks were based on a bunch of research showing that farm kids are usually healthier than their non-farm counterparts.
For example, In a 2014 study performed by the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, researchers found that children raised on a dairy farm have one-tenth the risk of developing allergies. Children today are exposed to less microorganisms and infections, which delays the maturation of the immune system. As a result, more children today have allergies. But kids on dairy farms are exposed to microorganisms that help their immune system develop.
Likewise, according to an ABC News report, even just exposing children to family pets, can have benefits. A baby exposed to a pet cat is likely to have 6 percent fewer colds, coughs, and ear infections. If the family pet is a dog, that number jumps to 31 percent. Researchers believe that exposure to family pets will help a child’s immune system mature faster. It is no wonder then that farm kids, especially those operations with animals, are generally healthier than their non-farm counterparts.
In his new book, “Dirt is Good,” Dr. Jack Gilbert takes a closer look at how exposure to the world helps children’s immune systems. Gilbert is the director of the Microbiome Center at The University of Chicago and also a dad of two kids. In an interview with NPR, Gilbert explained that the worst thing parents can do is try to sterilize their children’s environment. He advocates for allowing kids to play in mud, and not freaking out if a dog licks them on the face. Gilbert blames our sanitation of everything with an increase in allergies.
Although moms today would probably be appalled by the things that we did as kids on the farm, I can’t help but think that Gilbert would think we had a great childhood.
We planted treated seeds into dirt trays. We transplanted them into the field and usually ended up covered in mud. We played with the barn kittens born to cats that had never been to the vet. We always had a dog on the farm, and our puppy slept with us. We used to eat cantaloupe right in the field, cut open by my grandpa’s pocket knife. We didn’t always wash our vegetables. We had an outdoor (gasp!) pool in the sunshine. We made mud pies with our friends. And yes, I occasionally found a tick on me.
We spent a lot of time outside as farm kids, and we were exposed to a lot of things. Now, almost none of us have allergies.
I fully recognize my colleague was probably more extreme than most, but it represents a general trend for a nation obsessed with having everything clean. Social media is littered with suggestions for keeping your children from whatever harm exists in our germy world. I am inundated with these messages and I don’t even have kids. Instead of trying to keep our children as sterile as the operating room, we need to lighten up.
Let your kids play outside. Let them get dirty. Let them explore. Let them have pets. Let them make mud pies. Let them enjoy a more carefree childhood.
Not only will they become better humans when they grow up, they may also be healthier for it.
Amanda Zaluckyj blogs under the name The Farmer’s Daughter USA. Her goal is to promote farmers and tackle the misinformation swirling around the U.S. food industry.