Inoculating Our Children Against Fear and Hatred

"Ewww. Don't do it, Patrick. Don't do it. Dogs pee here."

"Ewww. Don't do it, Patrick. Don't do it. Dogs pee here."

A woman was giving my husband a hard time because our 10-month-old son had dropped his banana on the ground. Patrick picked it up, licked it and was about to hand it back to our boy. Seamus grabbed for it eagerly and scarfed it down. A minute or two later, he was grunting for more.

The woman was disgusted. I was too. Not by Patrick, of course, but by a judgmental woman who hadn't shown any interest in our adorable boy until he was in danger of being exposed to whatever lurked in the grass on the Norwich town green.

"If we threw away everything this child dropped," I said with just a hint of heat, "he would be skin and bones. We do this kind of thing all the time. As you can see, he is the picture of health."

Seamus is the picture of health. He is fat and happy, alert and engaged, and he has seven teeth. Going anywhere with this kid requires constant chit chat with admiring strangers.

I don't want my kid to eat dog pee, for sure. But I also don't want him to live in a hermetic bubble of germophobia. I do not wipe down the carts with sanitizer at the supermarket -- that stuff smells so chemically. I do not bath him every day -- it is a twenty minute wrestling match that I usually lose. So I have been trying to only give him full baths a few times a week. I do not scrub his toys every time they fall on the floor. For the most part, I just brush them off and hand them back to him.

I do try to keep him from eating too much sand, dirt, grass and leaves. But he is a curious child and encounters the world with his hands and mouth first. He usually gets some organic matter in his mouth every time I put him down, which I do often because he weighs a solid 25 pounds and when he wants to be put down it is pretty hard not to oblige him.

He likes sitting on our lawn (no dog pee there), which is sweet because he and I are in charge of the mowing (with one of those push power mowers that require constant stick removal). He also likes exploring the ground at the community garden (lots of wood chips and dirt to taste). Through all of this, I watch him carefully, edit his choice of stick, wood chip, leaf or weed and rescue him when/if he runs into trouble.

But I do not freak out every time he puts something "dirty" in his mouth. I have learned from more seasoned parents that this just causes stress and makes moms and kids grumpy. I am also finding out that the more Seamus is exposed to now, the healthier he is likely to be as he gets older.

Dr. Thom McDade, who directs the Laboratory for Human Biology Research at Northwestern University, found that children who were exposed to more animal feces and had more cases of diarrhea before the age of 2 had less incidence of inflammation in the body as they grew into adulthood. These inflammations have been linked to chronic adulthood problems like heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer's. As Dr. McDade says, "microbial exposures early in life may be important... to keep inflammation in check in adulthood." It is called the hygiene hypothesis and it is gathering credence amongst health professionals.

In a recent Swedish study, researchers found that early exposure to parents' saliva may help stimulate a baby's immune system, and that could mean a lower risk of developing eczema, asthma and sensitivities to certain allergens. They looked at parents who lick the baby's pacifier to clean it rather than washing it with soap or sanitizing it. The Swedes weren't on the Norwich green when Patrick licked Seamus' banana, but I think they would have approved.

Of course I want to protect Seamus from what is dirty. But I am not all that concerned about the dog pee (or worse) lurking on the ground where bananas and toys fall. I want to protect him from prejudice, from racism, from hatred -- the real dirty underside of life.

While I washed the dishes recently, I listened to Snap Judgment on NPR. The host, Glynn Washington, described moving with his family from Detroit to rural Michigan when he was a little boy. On the first day of school, he got on the bus. The kids all went quiet: "See, we were the only black folk for miles around." He tries to sit in the first open seat, but a "tow-headed boy spit on the seat, right where I was going to sit. I kept walking down the aisle and every open seat had spit on it, daring me to sit in it." He finally found a seat at the very back, next to a little girl who silently moved her backpack to the floor to make room for him. They sat together every day after that.

Then the school bus route changed, so that Glenn got on the bus first. He kept sitting in the back with the girl -- Mary Jo. One day she got on the bus smelling awful. It was winter and her family's pipes had frozen, so she could not shower after doing her farm chores. She masked her unwashed body smell with perfume and when she got on the bus, the whole bus erupted, screaming about how bad she stank. Washington called it the odor of "rotting flowers pressed on top of barn filth."

At first, he wished that she would sit somewhere else. Then he was ashamed, recalling how she had been the only one who accepted him at all. He moved his backpack to the floor and Mary Jo sat down reeking of perfume and chores. They talked for the first time that day -- chatted all the way to school.

I cried into the sink thinking about how mean kids can be. I cried into the sink thinking about how kids can rise above it all and be so kind and generous.

Where would Seamus have fit into this story? Would he be a spitter? Over my dead body, I thought. No way. His father and I would see to that. No question.

But would he do more than not spit? Would he rail against his classmates' prejudice and racism; calling them out, calling them to something better? Or would he be the one to silently move his backpack to the floor? Would he be compassionate and accepting? Would he be brave and principled?

That story happened a while ago -- Glynn Washington is probably in his mid-40s (You were hoping he was in his 80s, right? And that this terrible experience could be written off as an early 20th century phenomenon?). Forty years ago. Eight years ago. And right now. Racism, sexism, homophobia, violence and good old fashioned ignorance have not disappeared from the playgrounds and yellow buses of the United States.

Isn't this the real disease? Isn't this the real dirty, ugly germ cluster that we need to inoculate our children against? Isn't protecting our kids from this disease more important than sanitizing their toys?

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