Are More Kids Depressed Because They’re Too Clean?

Hi Readers: Let kids eat dirt? Yes!

At least, that’s my take-away from reading this thought-provoking article. It discusses the work of Emory neuroscientist Charles Raison, MD,  who studies the link between cleanliness and depression. His hypothesis is that maybe young people are experiencing more asthma, allergies and even depression because they are less exposed to the benign germs that have been co-existing with and HELPING humans since the beginning of time. One way those microscopic “old friends” may help humans is by teaching the immune system not to overreact to other non-threatening germs and become inflamed. And there is some connection between inflammation and depression.

Here’s Dr. Raison putting it far better than I:  can: 

His entire study appears in December’s Archives of General Psychiatry.  But me, I watched more of his short videos on YouTube and found them really good. Now…off to toss the Purell. — Lenore

Worse Than “Baby on Board!”

Hi Readers! Excuse me while I gag. Amazing how one sign can make everyone who passes this stroller feel big, dirty, disgusting, diseased and depressed.

Remember those “Baby on Board!” signs, that made it seem as if people who were seriously considering crashing into a car would reconsider upon realizing it was carrying someone small? I’m having flashbacks.  — Lenore

While we're at it, don't breathe near me, either.

Go Easy on the Anti-Microbial Soap, Says New Study

Hi Readers! I know, I know — there are probably another zillion studies that contradict this one, and there’s a danger in being whipsawed by every new “discovery” but as this one SO dovetails with the Free-Range outlook, who could resist? Voila:



Yes, so reads the headline on a study just released by Northwestern University that suggests that raising kids in too antiseptic an environment could lead to heart trouble (of all things!) down the way.

The problem seems to be that when the body isn’t exposed to the usual pu-pu platter of pathogens at a young age, the inflammatory system doesn’t develop quite right.

“Contrary to assumptions related to earlier studies, our research suggests that ultra-clean, ultra-hygienic environments early in life may contribute to higher levels of inflammation as an adult, which in turn increases risks for a wide range of diseases,” said Thomas McDade, lead author of the study, associate professor of anthropology in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research.

Relatively speaking, humans only recently have lived in such hyper-hygienic environments, he stressed.

The research suggests that inflammatory systems may need a higher level of exposure to common everyday bacteria and microbes to guide their development. “In other words, inflammatory networks may need the same type of microbial exposures early in life that have been part of the human environment for all of our evolutionary history to function optimally in adulthood,” said McDade, also a member of Northwestern’s Cells to Society (C2S).

This is so interesting not only in terms of chucking the Purell, but also because it is the perfect metaphor for all the other interventions we’ve been sold on — products and programs to “help” our children do what they’ve been doing for millions of years without ’em. Things like baby knee-pads to “help” them crawl. Educational placemats to “help” them get interested in words.  Marionette-like harnesses to “help” them learn to walk. What the whole baby-industrial complex ignores is that evolution has seen to it that our children come pre-equipped for the world.  So they don’t need baby knee pads — they have baby fat on their knees. They don’t need flash cards at birth — they come pre-programmed to find the world stimulating. Moreover, if we pad and pamper them through every normal stage of development, when do they develop normally? They don’t!

As this study notes:

“In the U.S we have this idea that we need to protect infants and children from microbes and pathogens at all possible costs,” McDade concluded.

“But we may be depriving developing immune networks of important environmental input needed to guide their function throughout childhood and into adulthood. Without this input, our research suggests, inflammation may be more likely to be poorly regulated and result in inflammatory responses that are overblown or more difficult to turn off once things get started.”

The same goes for an overprotected childhood: Keep our kids away from real life and don’t be surprised if they can’t deal with it later on.

And I say all this  not just because Purell always grossed me out. — Lenore

Kids Need Dirt. For Real! For their HEALTH!

Hi Readers — A bunch of you have been digging (har har) this story about how much protection our kids get from DIRT. This explains my philosophy of housekeeping!

Er…I mean: This explains my philosophy of childrearing. Anyway, here’s a bit of the article, by Murrray Wardrop,  in The Telegraph. (For some reason this story got more play in Britain than the U.S.):

Scientists have discovered that bacteria on the surface of the skin play an important role in combating inflammation when we get hurt.

The bugs dampen down overactive immune responses, which can lead to rashes or cause cuts and bruises to become swollen and painful.

The findings support previous research which suggests that exposure to germs during early childhood can prime the immune system to prevent allergies.

The so-called “hygiene hypothesis” has previously been used to explain why increasing numbers of children suffer allergies such as eczema and hay fever in more developed countries.

Parenting groups yesterday welcomed the findings as “a vindication of common sense” and urged parents to allow their children greater freedom to play outdoors.

Experts at the University of California at San Diego made the discovery by studying mice and human cells cultured in their laboratory.

The team, led by dermatologist Professor Richard Gallo, found that common bacteria called staphylococci, can reduce inflammation after injury, when they are present on the skin’s surface.

Prof Gallo said: “These germs are actually good for us.”

Of course, most Free-Rangers and other sensible folk suspected this all along. (And my book discusses it, too, in the chapter, “Germs, Anti-Germs & Shopping Cart Liners.”) But it’s nice when a new study comes along and explains WHY dirt and kids go so well together.

And why I’ve decided to sit here and blog rather than get out the mop. — Lenore

Fetch Me A Worm! (And Other Ways to Get Kids Outside)

Hi Readers – Over the summer Judy Molland gave me an advance copy of her book, Get Out! 150 Easy Ways for Kids and Grown-Ups to Get into Nature and Build a Greener Future,” which is filled with the kind of tips I like: Simple ones I hadn’t thought of. Now the book is out (and about). May her tips work for you! 

Get Out!

by Judy Molland

As an advisor to a couple of parenting sites, I’ve received several notes along the lines of, “When I tell my kids to go outside and play, they come back five minutes later saying they’re bored, they don’t know what to do, and there are no other kids out there.”

 I’m guessing most parents can relate. So here are a few suggestions from Get Out! Most of these are for young children, so they involve parents getting out, too. 

Find squirrel highways. Most squirrels stay in a relatively small area, usually about an acre, their whole lives. They know that area very well, including every branch of the trees they roam. If they didn’t have the branches memorized, they couldn’t skitter along them at the high speeds they sometimes do—when escaping a predator, for instance. Watch the squirrels in your yard or at a park for a while and see if you can identify the “squirrel highways.”

 Invent your own treasure hunt. Make a list of natural things likely to be found in your neighborhood or play area. Make copies of the list for each kid or team, hand out paper bags to collect the loot, and send them on their way. Kids will be more engaged if you include several weird or gross items on your list, so here are a few list-starter ideas: a dead bug, a bird feather, a leaf bigger than your hand, a worm, moss or lichen, a seed or pit, a stick shaped like the letter “y,” a smooth rock, and a cup of mud (bring your own cup). Remind the kids to respect natural surroundings. You could even put “five pieces of trash” on the list.

Create a water patrol. Give your children responsibility for watering plants, yards, gardens, patio planters, or window boxes. This gets them outside on a regular schedule, and they’ll feel good helping out.

Adopt a tree. Choose a favorite tree you can visit often, and have children take notes by recording the diameter of the tree’s trunk, the reach of the branches, and anything else they’d like to jot down. They can also make bark rubbings using crayons and paper, smell the flowers, and gather the seeds. Take a photo of your tree every week or every month, and put the pictures in a series to see how it changes over the course of a year—or longer. If something interesting happens, like a big snow or a wind storm, take more pictures!

Build a bat house. Did you know that a single brown bat can eat up to 1,000 mosquitoes in an hour? You can attract bats to your neighborhood by building a bat house, which will provide you with natural pest control and provide bats—many species of which are endangered—with a safe home. Bat houses can be many sizes, from about 2′ x 3′ and up. Place yours in the sun and at least 12 feet off the ground to prevent predators from gaining entrance. For free bat house plans, check out

Have fun! 

Adapted from Get Out! 150 Easy Ways for Kids and Grown-Ups to Get into Nature and Build a Greener Future by Judy Molland (© 2009). Used with permission of Free Spirit Publishing Inc., Minneapolis, MN: 800-735-7323; All rights reserved.

 Thanks, Judy!