By Gregory Keer
As we pack for a day on the soccer fields, my wife looks at my clothes and shakes her head.
“You know those shorts will not be khaki colored when you get home,” she says.
“I have to match them with my assistant coach’s jersey,” I respond, half-hurt she’s not fully admiring me in my uniform.
“You’re such a geek,” she confirms.
So we pile into the minivan with the ice chest, soccer balls, and three sons all gleaming in their various team colors.
At the field, nary a blade of grass can be seen. The city has been miserly conserving water so what remains are playing surfaces resembling the vestiges of a scorched earth campaign by a rival park organization. Worse yet, the wind picks up and blows mini dirt twisters.
“A boulder just landed in my eye,” Ari (5) wails in the middle of his match.
“It’s just a speck of dust,” I yell back, hoping the tiny tornadoes don’t throw a Dorothy or Toto at my kids.
Later, as we trudge over the barren prairie toward the next game, we see our friend, Dave, who coaches his daughters’ group of 10 year olds.
“The other day my girls didn’t want to run on the field because it had just rained,” he explained. “So I picked up some mud, wiped it on my face, and said, ‘See, it doesn’t hurt!’”
We all laugh knowingly, then continue our grimy experience. After three games amid the thick grit and occasional mud puddle, my shorts are indeed milk-chocolate brown and my kids are streaked like farmers in an onion patch.
And I like it.
At a time in which Americans have gone clean crazy, scrubbing ourselves sterile with anti-bacterial soaps and sanitizers, it’s a joy to get dirty. When my family gets home on a soccer day, we do shower and drop the grubby uniforms in the wash. But putting in a good day of throwing our bodies into the elements feels great.
I’m not advocating for a lack of hand washing or sneezing into our sleeves. I want to help keep my kids and the general population free from swine flu and other airborne illnesses. Yet I do think that in looking at the world as a war zone of germs, we’re taking a lot of fun out of childhood. We’re losing too much by going overboard with sanitation.
These days, many of us fear our kids will transform into Charlie Brown’s buddy Pigpen should we allow them to dig in the soil for bugs, fool around with paints, or (as infants) fiddle with their food. Over the years, I’ve been prone to blood-pressure surges upon seeing disorder and have discouraged my children’s normal, but not harmful, tendencies toward messiness. Because of this, my kids have been shy to make mud floors in shoe boxes for school dioramas or get bicycle grease on their hands despite a desire to learn how their vehicle works.
In his first two years of life, my middle son, Jacob, liked to put everything from the ground in his mouth. He ingested rocks and pebbles from the park, sand from the beach, and spare change from the sidewalk. Aside from the fear that he would choke on the objects, my OCD tendencies caused me to imagine Pokemon-like germ characters mounting bacterial attacks on his immune system. We tried everything to keep him from mouthing things and even learned about a condition called pica (or pika) which causes people to crave dirt to alleviate iron deficiency. He didn’t have pica. What he had was a natural curiosity in the world and a habit of using his mouth as one of his tools.
Six years later, Jacob thankfully shows no permanent damage from his early childhood earth consumption. In fact, there’s even a whole legion of researchers who have found that kids need exposure to germs to strengthen their immunity to various illnesses. They even suggest that (yuck) having tiny worms in our digestive tracts are good for our long-term health. This is why these scientists recommend keeping dogs and cats around for casual but fairly safe contact with dirt.
I will likely continue to struggle with my tendency for cleanliness but plan to let my kids get filthy. I will draw the line at Benjamin (11) and Jacob continuing to use their shirts as napkins, but I vow to revel in Ari coming home from preschool looking like he wrestled an overgrown paintbrush in a sandbox. This year, I’m keeping a dirty mind.