A germy affair

March 6 2010 | offbeatresilience
Jenah Crump Photography
Jenah Crump Photography

Last Friday, while at drop-in gymnastics, Oliver and I had stopped at the water fountain to get a much-needed drink of water. (I am aware that any germ haters in the audience are starting to get a little squirmy here). After Oliver was done having his drink, I found myself staring into the face of a (really cute) silent child (we'll call him Timmy), who seemed to be indicating that he needed me to hold the fountain button for him. So I asked Timmy (the little imp) if this was indeed the case. Timmy nodded so dramatically that I thought he must be dying of thirst. I started to hold the button down.

Just as little Timmy was bowing his head to drink, I hear from behind me a loud and (I'm not even exaggerating here) prolonged:


I turn to see a mother-figure running towards us, practically mowing down little children in her way, a look of total and abject horror on her face. I, of course stopped what I was doing, afraid that the kid had some deathly allergy to water or something. Breathing heavily, the mother looked at little Timmy sternly: "we DON'T like water fountains," she said, before leading the little tyke a few feet away. She then pulled out a bottle of Purell and wiped little Timmy's water fountain-y hands off and gave him a sippy cup to quench his thirst. But not before looking at me like I was the most stupid and disgusting person ever to walk the planet.

The subject of germs seems to split parents into two factions. The ones who care (note here: the ones who care, generally seem to REALLY care), and the ones who are more, well, meh. You can probably already guess which camp I fall into. Meh.

I feel that I should point out here, that I know that there are germs in water fountains. Lots of 'em. Yes, I'm sure you could even get Hepatitis A, or something equally unfun. But you could also get Hepatitis A from eating in a restaurant. I like eating in restaurants. And every now and again, I like to drink from a water fountain. And so does Oliver.

While we are on the topic of germs, I also feel compelled to admit that I (and consequently my children) are lackadaisical hand washers. Yes, I'm trying to teach them to wash their hands after they pee, etc. But if we're out and about, you won't catch me wiping their hands with a bottle of Purell or diaper wipes.

I, for one, would rather my kids ingest a little park dirt (even dog poo tinged park dirt) than have them ingest say: Ethyl Alcohol, Isopropyl Alcohol, Carbomer, Tocopheryl Acetate, Glycerin, Propylene Glycol, Isopropyl Myrisate, which are the main ingredients in Purell. Or Propylene Glycol, Methylparaben, Propyl Paraben, Disodium Cocamphodiacetate, Polysorbate 20, and last but not least 2-Bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol, which are commonly found ingredients found in baby wipes.

Call me crazy, but I'm feeding my kids dirt and pond scum and yes, even dog poop, before I'm feeding them 2-Bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol. Because substances with names that have numbers and hyphens and are virtually unpronounceable do not belong in children. Hell, now that I've taken the time to write all of those ingredients down, I'm quite certain they don't even belong on my kid's asses. I'll take my chances with the dirt and grime and grossness from nature (and, I will admit somewhat sheepishly, from my house), thank you very much.

To tell you the truth, though, even if there were an all natural, perfectly edible hand sanitizer, I'd still probably let my kids eat the dirt. For one, I'd forget. I'm awfully absent minded about those sorts of things. And for another. I just don't care that much. And there it is, my dirty little secret. My kids get dirty. They probably eat dirt. They live in a usually dirty house that hasn't (and won't) see any antibacterial lotions or washes of wipes or sprays). I hose 'em down occasionally (along with the house). And you know what? They're pretty healthy little buggers. Almost never sick. So it seems to be working alright.

My partner's grandpa used to say "you gotta eat a pound of dirt before you die."

Now that's a philosophy I can get behind.

  1. I agree. I mean, I like to keep the bathroom and the kitchen counters clean, but if my kid ate a little dirt and used a water fountain, I wouldn't freak out over it.
    You need to get used to some germs in order to build up a strong immune system. I still use the water fountain at work. 🙂 I also have two dogs that live in the house. I read that if you have pets when your child is a baby, your child is less likely to develop allergies later.

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  2. It has now been suggested that we get sick more frequently and more severely because of the increased use of antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizer. Our tolerance to simple everyday bacteria has decreased due to lessened exposure. A secondary effect is that some bacteria has evolved to be more resistant to our antibacterial products creating "super bugs." A perfect example of this is MRSA which is simply an antibiotic resistant Staphlococcus aureus strain. This is a bacteria that is normally on our skin.

    Another side effect of the antibacterial products out there is that they kill everything, including our normal "good" bacteria that we need to survive which then causes our bodies to go out of balance. This is why some women experience yeast infections when they take antibiotics. The absolute fear and anal-retentive hand scrubbing that some parents force on their children, like the mother above, may actually be harming their children more than "saving" them from infection. Sorry didn't mean to write a novel but the soap and lotion companies have pushed their antibacterial lines so heavily that they've caused some kind of mass panic about bacteria.

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    • I've read the same thing and it even goes as far as hospitals and that the superbugs are due to too much antibacterials used there too! Like you said, we need bacteria!

    • I was going to mention this. I took some medical classes in college and it's quite the debate! People don't realize that germs can be good and actually DO something positive in the craziness we call homeostatic bodies! 🙂

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    • EXACTLY! If you use something that kills 99.9% of germs, that 0.01% that survives, survives because it's the strongest. Then, that 0.01% BREEDS and makes SUPERGERMS!


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    • Not to nitpick, but MRSA and other antibiotic resistant bacteria came from the misuse of ANTIBIOTICS, not from hand sanitizer or antibacterial soap use.

      I do agree however, that it is not necessary to fear drinking fountains or eating dirt. Scientists are researching why Western countries have so many more people with autoimmune diseases and allergies. They think it may be because we are too clean and not exposed to normal levels of bacteria and parasites.

      But not ALL hand washing is bad. Hand washing with regular soap is the number one way to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, which can be dangerous to our kids. I work in a hospital and we wash our hands to protect our patients and to keep from bringing diseases home to our families.

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  3. Finally! I have an exceptionally healthy child and I am the least vigilant hand washer EVER. I also mostly clean my house with baking soda, and the occasional splash of vinegar if I'm really ambitious. Anti-bacterial stuff is a waste of money.

  4. Here here to the chill mama's. God knows I licked a fair number of inappropriate surfaces as a child. I am ever facinated by the extreme germ-a-phobe mama's and in talking to a few I know, I think they really have their kids best interests at heart. One mama told me she just remembers her son being born and hearing the doctor's advice about crowds etc after he was born and she just thought about how precious he was and how she wanted to protect him.

    As a nurse though, I thoroughly advocate washing your hands. Wash those little suckers, especially during cold and flu season. Your little ones may have a strong immune system but they may pass those germies to someone who does not. You don't have to use antibacterial soap. Shoot, I use the homemade stuff!

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    • well, only for the first few months. in the long run there aren't any studies that prove that it's any more beneficial than formula feeding. good news for those with limited reserves!

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  5. I'm with you. My 6-month old and I spent a few good hours in the garden yesterday, me planting some berries, her eating grass and dirt.

  6. I actually read a study that water cooler spouts contain more bacteria than fountains. Also they have found remnants of rat feces on the caps of bottled water.

  7. amen!!! there's common sense about germs (like hand washing), but then there's overkill!
    my daughter plays with our two cats, and frequently eats food she has just dropped and picked up, as did my brother, sister and I. we're all fine, healthy adults, and she's only ever been really sick once in her 18 month life!

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  8. Great post. I'm not a mother yet, but I will certainly have the same attitude as you. I dont see any benefit of wrapping our kids up in cotton wool and "protecting" them from every day, generally harmless germs,

  9. My mother still remarks on the difference between my cousin and I healthwise when we were growing up. My mother had too much life going on to much more than once a week laundry day and give the house what she referred to as "a lick and a promise" Not an actual lick you understand, though the photos of me as a baby licking the floor might dispute that.
    I was a remarkably healthy child, I was off school sick once in eleven years ( several times with concussion having fallen out of trees etc)

    My aunt on the other hand sterilised everything she could and cleaned, polished, vacumed every surface every day. Outdoor clothes and shoes had to be removed in the hall and exchanged before entering the rest of the house and hands had to be washed every hour on the hour (yes really) as well as after going to the lavatory etc.
    I've never known a house smell more of cleaning products and air fresheners

    My cousin had incessant colds, coughs, chest infections, ear infections and to this day having left home some 10 years previously still has almost no immunity to germs. Of course she could just be predisposed to be particuarly prone but my mother maintains it's because she was never allowed to build up an immunity.

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    • Removing outdoor shoes I can understand, but outdoor clothes? Are you kidding? Unless there is mudd on them that could stain the furniture, this is really crazy.

  10. Although I do MOSTLY agree with you, I'm a lab tech and my favorite section *and has become a personal interest of mine* is microbiology. Please do drink from water fountains, eat at restraunts, and a decent wipe down with a sponge IS better than layering everything with lysol!

    BUT where we will have to differ is on this dirt thing. There's some really nasty parasites out there because of animals doing number 2 outside ESPECIALLY near tree trunks. This is even more true if you live or play in an area frequented by raccoons. One parasite in particular, called the raccoon ring worm or baylisascaris procyonis, can cause your kid to have encephalitis or migriating larvae in their body- to the point where they might see a worm go across their eyeball. Heres the thing though, if the dirt they play in is in a contained area-say a covered porch with lots of plants then you would have nothing to worry about, its mostly just around slanted ground that the little critters with awesomely bad parasites that you have to use caution. Oh and heres the thing too, a kid with pica who is just eating dirt pie after dirt pie is at risk-more than likely not one who plays in the dirt and then eats a cupcake without washing their hands in between.

    All in all, I think you are on the right track. A person overly exposed to antibacterials will have a harder time fighting off bacteria and viruses than one with no contact =)

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    • Hey Katie. I know my post up there seems quite the opposite of what I'm going to say but I do agree with you. I'm a biologist and I've worked in the micro field. There are lots of nasty things in dirt, especially poo. Kids and adults should wash their hands after playing in the dirt or other activities like handling raw meat, handling animals, etc. My big thing is obsessively washing hands. I actually used to be very diligent about washing my hands when I worked as a microbio lab tech because I worked with some nasty bugs (i.e. MRSA and (I worked with MRSA and the 0157 E.coli strain). While in that situation it was a good thing but I developed a nasty allergic reaction to almost all soaps as a result. :-/.

  11. I couldn't agree with you more. I'm the exact opposite of a germaphobe, and my kids are never, ever, EVER sick. Four kids, eleven years, ONE ear infection and round of antibiotics. That's a pretty good track record, if you ask me. Kids who are exposed to germs are LESS likely to get sick, because they have healthier immune system. You know who they say the healthiest kids are? The ones who are raised on farms. Why? Because they are outside, playing with the animals and getting dirty!

    Also, there is a suspicious link between our germaphoic society of Purell users and the surge of autoimmune diseases/food allergies in children. It used to be a hereditary thing, but what about all these other kids? With no exposure to germs, their immune systems have beome "bored", and it could be the reason for all these cases of allergies.

    I think I'm OK with cooties.

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  12. I teach preschool– and guess what? The kids who show up on the first day with their own bottle of Purel are ALWAYS the ones who spend the most time out sick. They aren't ever able to build an immunity to ANYTHING.

    And– this is kind of off subject– but all those chemicals in baby stuff? Man alive. We have been using cloth diapers on our baby since day one, but one day forgot the diaper bag and had to grab disposables from the store. Dude– after she wet one, it SMELLED so chemically (compared to cloth) that it made me wonder what is in them!

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    • I HATE the smell of peed in disposable diapers. Clothe smell like nothing (though we do use sposies over night since they hold more).

  13. Preach it, Sister! I'm pretty laissez faire about germs. We don't buy antibacterial soaps, and our house is cleaned with home made vinegar cleaners. Our son has never had an ear infection, and so far this winter, he hasn't been home sick once. (Yeah, he's gotten the sniffles once or twice, but it didn't slow him down.) I think he's pretty darn healthy.

  14. Hahaha. This reminds me of an older woman at the electric company the other day who *pleaded* with me to put sanitizer on my daughter's hands after she decided that standing in line was too much, so she was going to sit on the floor. I hardly ever wash my daughter's hands. I know that's probably gross and not healthy but I am a firm believer that it simply builds her immune system. The only purel we have in my house was given to me by other people. i clean with vinegar and baking soda…occasionally method products in the bathroom.
    As for the baby wipes, we use Earth First natural wipes. They're thicker – so I don't feel like I'm wiping poop onto my hands every time she messes her diaper. And they didn't make her sensitive bum break out when she was a teeny tiny baby.
    So go on – and just look at the Purell-toting mom's like they're the crazy ones. Because really, not even stoners should be that paranoid about anything.

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  15. True Story: A professor of medicine at Oxford University, where I used to work back then, once told us that when his son & dil came by with their young infant, he was very worried by their sterile approach to child-hygiene. Whenever they would leave the room and he was alone with his grandchild, he would quickly get the pacifier, rub it on the carpet, and stuff it back in the infant's mouth. With his knowledge of immunology he knew that a child NEEDS to 'eat dirt' to build up a good immune system.

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  16. In total agreement. We knew a family who actually mad their daughters extremely sick — hospitalization!– because mom cleaned EVERYTHING all the freaking time. The woman was so obsessive that she would have to wipe books down with chlorox wipes they got from the library. My sisters dreaded when she'd call for baby sitting.

    Oh, and other than the rat-poo thing with bottled drinks, things like water fountains are eco-friendly to boot 😀 Yay for not wasting plastic bottles!!

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  17. I am definitely in the "meh" camp with regards to dirt. Yesterday my youngest ate some cereal off the floor and I thought my husband would have a heart attack. I told him that it was better than the styrofoam peanuts he was trying to consume earlier-at least it was food. Bacteria and dirt go hand-in-hand and are beneficial to us!!

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  18. Here here!! Let the kids be kids, and kids get dirty! I remember walking down a huge stairwell into the subway in Hong Kong, and looking over to see that my 2 year old sister's tongue had been on the handrail the whole way down. When she didn't get sick from that, I think all my fears of germs went out the window.

  19. I can barely remember to wash my own hands, and my daughters? Yeah, when she's sticky or looks dirty, but otherwise…no. Once she gets to potty changing stage we'll have to change that a bit, but for now "Let Them Eat Dirt"

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  20. Yay! I love this article! I live in Japan where people are more germaphobic than anywhere and I am constantly hearing shouts of alarm from random strangers as my daughter picks up random things from the floor and puts them on her mouth. They are horrified I even let her on the floor! Funnily enough, while all her little friends are sick with earaches and terrible colds, she hasn't had a sniffle.

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  21. I remember my parents telling the story of my oldest younger brother (try saying that three times fast!) eating a roach when he was a baby. Our mother was like, "meh." Our dad? Complete freak out. He was convinced that Michael was going to get dysentery from it. Of course he was fine and ended up with the strongest immune system of the four of us. Side note – my mother's a nurse, my dad's a biology teacher.

    Funny thing, and I know this is completely anecdotal, but despite my mother's relatively laissez-faire attitude about insect ingestion, and although we had dogs, four out of four of us ended up with seasonal, food, and medication-based allergies, and three out of four ended up with asthma. Unfortunately, sometimes genetics triumphs over dirt.

    However, we rarely get sick from bacteria and viruses!

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  22. Dude, you are not crazy–this whole fad of "oh, no, germs!" has cost a generation of kids to have weak immune systems. Send them to school, and BAM! they get sick at the drop of a hat. Plus, I think it adds to certain neurotic tendencies as they grow older.

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  23. This is brills. Of course, due to all of what has been said about immune systems, but also, seriously, how annoying are parents who freak out over every little thing? My parents were awesome, and they loved us and engaged us and were all-around great, but they also left us to our own devices and knew when to ignore us to maintain their own sanity.

    I feel like the water fountain freak-out mom would just be zero fun to have as a friend, is what I am saying.

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    • Yeah, you do have to be a little careful about what dirt your kid is eating. In areas where there was a lot of industry, things like arsenic and lead have deposited in the surface soils (I've done quite a bit of sampling in the Tacoma area).

      With that said, I agree when it comes to germ warfare. Antibacterial products are helpping us breed super bugs, not reduce how much we get sick.

      As long as kids are being steered away from eating lead and other heavy metals, I say have fun.

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  24. When I was younger someone told me that if I ate dirt it would make me smart. So, I did. A couple years later a neighbor boy told me that if I ate this pill he had (I still have no clue what it was) that it would make me pretty. I didn't eat that one. Apparently, as my bf points out, eating the dirt worked. 😀 And bonus: I still turned out pretty, haha!

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  25. We're pretty lax about this, too. From the start, my and my husband's philosophy has been, as long as it's not a safety issue (rocks she'd choke on, cords she'd shock herself with), it is up to our (currently 11-month-old) daughter what she puts in her mouth. Dog bone? I wouldn't do it, but she's free to. Cat toy? Sure. Playdate's shoe? No problem. And aside from medicine when she needs it, the same goes for ingestibles. We give her a selection of healthy food options, and she decides what she eats and what she doesn't. I'm all about washing my hands after using the restroom or changing a diaper. But that about covers it, unless I've got something visibly dirty on my hands.

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  26. I love this post, though it may be worth acknowledging that eating dirt & being exposed to germs is not a surefire remedy to a strong immune system, or avoiding allergies, food intolerances, etc. I did not grow up with a germaphobe family (my mom is of the baking soda & vinegar persuasion of housecleaning, and would never dream of using antibacterial or chemical cleaners), and I have distinct memories of licking the metal bars on my preschool playground. We washed hands before eating & after the restroom, but nothing obsessive. And yet, I have always been the one to catch the latest cold, flu, what-have-you, and have suffered from pretty irritating food intolerances my whole life, and picked up a few environmental allergies along the way. So, while it's good to stay away from obsession, dirt does not necessarily keep your child healthy!

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    • I'm the same, my mom wasn't a germaphobe, she was of the vacuum, vinegar and baking soda type, yet I was always sick. But it was stress that was weakening my immune system, because I was bullied a lot in elementary and high school.

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  27. Ugh, working as a nanny for many many years, moms that are obsessive about health and safety drive me nuts.

    I worked for one family that the kids were only allowed to have all-natural, healthy foods, they had to wash their hands constantly and supervised at all times. Like, if Kid#1 ran out of the room, I was supposed to scoop up Kid #2 and run to follow him from the *gasp* playroom to the dining room. PS-they were 6 and 8!

    It's a good thing they never nanny-cammed me, because I would've been fired on the spot! I let them play in the backyard ON THE SWINGSET ON LAKEFRONT PROPERTY white I was indoors washing dishes (don't worry, i was watching out the window). Sometimes I let them eat mac and cheese i baked from scratch. And I never made them wash their hands after playing with the cat. And somehow, despite all my bad influence, they survived. And didn't live in fear of soiling the carpet like they did when Mommy was around!

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  28. O.k. The scientist in me HAS to react. While I agree with the general line of your point (a little bit of dirt and germs isn't so bad), chemicals are NOT bad for you because of their long, weird name. Think of it as the Latin name we use sometimes for plants. Broccoli in 'scientist language' is Brassica Oleracea, also long and difficult, but not bad for you or your child.
    In fact, a lot of chemicals are really good for you. It's called 'food' or 'medicine'! The example you gave, 2-Bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol, is in fact not very healthy and you should not consume it. I agree that a little dirt or even dog poo might be better than 'eating' a lot of this compound through baby wipes.

    But please, don't say that it is bad for you or your child just because it is a 'chemical' (in fact, everything there is in the world is a chemical, or mixture of chemicals) or because it has a long, difficult scientific name. Ehtyl Alcohol, for example (also in your listing), is daily consumed by lots of people! This is the alcohol you find in beer, wine or whiskey! You can eat/drink it, no problem (although pure is a different matter, but baby wipes aren't pure alcohol either).

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  29. There's even a emerging debate on the association between the ingredients in antibacterial soap and autism. Go ahead and Google "antibacterial soap autism".

    Note: I don't say this to get everybody to freak out and panic, but to acknowledge that humans lived without this hyper-over-sanitation for ages and did just fine. The dramatic increase in lifespans and stuff came with rather simple things like washing your hands (with water and soap made from fat – not chemicals) and enclosing sewage systems – not everyone using Purell.

  30. I'm not a mom, but am a microbiologist. While newborns are quite vulnerable, young toddler bodies need to decide when and how to react to microorganisms. The body learns what is an acceptable amount of bacteria, and when it should 'freak out' and respond with illness. This likely determines their microbial 'tolerance' later in life. This isn't guaranteed, but the exposure is important.

    I also FIRMLY support limiting intake of prescription antimicrobials, and by extension, nonprescription antibacterial soaps, gels, wipes, etc. By the same logic, these limit exposure to otherwise-nonthreatening amounts of microbes that the body is just trying to get to know better.

    And regarding the perceived filthiness of public places, remember that your own showerheads are microbial playgrounds. So basically, we're all screwed.

    So with that, I generally agree with the above "dirt is good" mantra I'm hearing from parents and scientists alike. All things in moderation: don't eat poop, don't shower in Purell, but probably a little of either isn't that terrible. Just wash your hands, when you can remember.

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  31. Oh, I love you I love you. I'm a shitty housekeeper and a lazy hand-washer. I let my son play on the floor (even on public places, so long as he's not likely to be in the way), I'm not afraid of shopping carts or playground equipment, and I've even gotten over the fact that he licks every mirror he finds. (God, I don't know why.)

    And this current ear infection is the first time he's been sick in his first year of life. I'm feeling pretty good about this germ thing.

    (Though I do use hand sanitizer at work — I work at a dry cleaners, and other people's dirty laundry can get a little gross.)

  32. I mostly agree. Mostly. I think water fountains are fine, and playing in the dirt is great, and purelling after touching every surface may be overkill. However, I also work at the top pediatric hospital in the country, and we have seen formerly healthy active kids in our ICU from H1N1 and the seasonal flu. As for the kids with asthma, or even more serious chronic conditions- when they contract something like the flu it is awful. So like a previous poster said- it isn't just about your child, it's about every child they come in contact with, so it's important for some level of consistent hand washing to occur once school comes around, not just after going to the bathroom. But once again, I agree with you- in your own home, playground, yard etc…. the ambient "germs" are just a part of the world, not something that will kill a child hahahaha.

  33. This makes me feel better about the way I raise my kid. Without the constant wash and polish some other parents display on their children. A friend likes to say, "God made dirt, dirt don't hurt." One God or another made the dirt we walk on everyday, the dirt our Mother Earth is made of. It's not going to kill us. Hell, when my lil girl was a year old she once ate dog poo off the floor at our babysitters house. Fresh dog poo. (I cant wait to tell her boyfriends that when she is a dating teenager). I probably sounded alot like that parent who was terrified of the water fountain as I was running to her, unsuccessfully trying to get to her before her first bite of the poo. I scooped her up and washed her mouth out with water from the tap (unfiltered tap water, gasp and horror!!)….stared at her in wonder for a moment and then as the sitter was apologizing with every once of her being, I burst into laughter. These things are going to happen, because they r CHILDREN, and dirt and poo will find them, one way or another. Dirt dont hurt.

  34. LOL I have another friend who likes to say that anitbacterial wipes will someday lead to the SuperBug that wipes (no pun intended) out all humanity. Then we laugh…but somewhere deep inside we wonder if this may be true. Humans like to sterilize everything. Maybe it comes from my country background, or from the gardens that we like to dig our hands into during the growing season, or from believing that a child should be able to make a mudpie and possibly even eat some of it without being screamed at…but I dont sterilize everything in my path. We are a pretty natural family. My daughter has had bad ear infections in the past, and thanks to countless antibitotics she doesnt respond to treatment like she once did. Letting it run its course as long as she is not deathly ill has become the better option. Sterilization is not the best response to the world.

  35. Speaking of handwashing, there are studies out now about the benefits of paper towels over hand dryers. Bad news for eco-geeks like me, and an eye opener for germaphobes: hands dried under a blowdrier carried something like twice as many germs as hands that had been dried with paper towels.

  36. I meant to post this stuff in my previous comment: My mother works in a hospital. As you might assume their cleaning crew is extremely diligent. The floors in her area of the building hardly go two hours without being sanitized, and all the surfaces above the floors get sanitized much more often than that. But she had this one co-worker who would go through entire containers of those super-strong chemical disinfectant wipes ever day, scrubbing everything she touched. Once she brought her little daughter in to pick something up that she had left behind at work, and instructed the girl to TOUCH NOTHING! Then insisted that they had to throw away the kid's hello-kitty purse because she dropped it on the floor. Luckily her co-workers were able to talk her into letting the poor girl keep it, but only after it has been thoroughly disinfected. If I remember correctly that woman spent a lot of time asking my mother to fill in for her because her daughter was home sick…again.

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