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The Dirty Truth

Freeze! This is the parent police. Drop your Windex and come out with your rubber-gloved hands up.

For years you sponge-happy, spore-hunting moms have shamed the rest of us with your spotless counters and sparkling floors. We don’t know how you did it, you fiendish scrub nuts, but your houses — your very children, even — were always cleaner than ours, ever implying (silently, so silently) that our families were destined to be dingy.

But you can put down your Pledge cans, ladies. Game’s over. Those of us who define “cleaning” as “aiming a Dustbuster” refuse to feel inferior anymore. Science is on our side, baby. SCIENCE!

Researchers are saying that a little dirt in the home, on the hands, or even — gasp! — in your kids’ mouths won’t hurt them. In fact, it’s good for them. It turns out that ingesting the bacteria, viruses, and even (just go with me on this one) intestinal worms found in everyday dirt actually strengthens children’s immune systems, giving them “practice” for more serious germs.

Scientists call this the “hygiene hypothesis.” I call it the “Hallelujah-I’m-not-a-failure finding.” It’s already changed my life.

The day the news came out, I was having a minor maternal meltdown: working too hard, sleeping too little, yelling at my kids too much. Chaos was closing in. When I tried to relax and enjoy my home and family, all I could do was gaze around the house in horror at all the things that need scouring and sterilizing, polishing and purifying. How do a boy’s fingernails get to be that particular shade of grayish-brown? Why is there mud on the stairs? Who knew you had to clean window screens? (Who even knows how to clean window screens?)

My life was dirty. And not in the way I enjoy.

Then I read about Dr. Joel Weinstock of Tufts Medical Center, who told the New York Times, “Children raised in an ultraclean environment are not being exposed to organisms that help them develop appropriate immune regulatory circuits.” Studies indicate our collective Dread of Dirt may be why asthma, allergies, Type 1 diabetes, and even multiple sclerosis are on the rise in developed (i.e. neatnik) nations. Dr. Weinstock goes so far as to say that children “should be allowed to … play in the dirt, and not have to wash their hands when they come in to eat.”

Which is surprising. What’s even more surprising is how relieved I felt upon hearing this news — like a hot, humming vacuum bag collapsing when the appliance is shut off (I’m assuming here, as I don’t know from vacuums). I didn’t realize how guilty I had felt for the smudges, streaks, and spots upon our lives — and for my unwillingness to tackle them.

But no more. Let the three-year-old drop his peanut butter toast on the floor, sticky-side-down, and then proceed to eat it. Let the 10-year-old run out the door with a clump of dog hair stuck to the Velcro of his lunchbox. Let there be a streak of unidentifiable gick at the bottom of my coffee mug.

Big whoop. Bring it on. You’ll notice we have no allergies.

These days, when I visit the home of a Swiffer-clenching, Lysol-huffing friend, I just remember my dirty little secret: When I choose to ignore the occasional sand in the bathtub, when I pretend not to notice the smudged fingerprints on my fridge door, I am ensuring my children’s robust health.

And as soon as they discover that watching loads of TV makes kids smarter, well, look out. You supermoms will be eating my dust.

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Published inColumnsParenting
My columns are collected in three lovely books, which make a SPLENDID gift for wives, friends, book clubs, hostesses, and anyone who likes to laugh!
Keep Your Skirt On
Wife on the Edge
Broad Assumptions
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