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Dirt is Good
Mom with a View

Dirt is Good

We do our children no favors if we rescue them from all conflicts.


"Babies Know: A Little Dirt is Good for You" writes Jane Brody in the New York Times (10/27/2009). She means it literally. It actually helps strengthen their immune system (and removes a certain pressure applied to overwhelmed mothers by their germ phobic friends!).

But I think it is true metaphorically as well.

A little dirt is good for children -- to eat, to fall on, even to get their faces rubbed in. In moderation of course.

Life is complicated. We face many challenges. And our job as parents is to give our children the tools they need so that they will be able to meet life's challenges in healthy and appropriate ways.

Although the instinct is to protect, we do our children no favors if we rescue them from all conflicts and insulate them from all unpleasantness. We can't anyway – but we should let go of the strong desire to do so.

It goes without saying (but if you read warning labels nothing goes without saying these days!) that I don't mean we should expose our children to serious physical danger or emotional abuse.

I'm referring to the ups and downs of "normal" life. They won't always have perfect teachers, teachers who will love them just like we do and see and appreciate their good just like we do. And while we can't allow a year to be wasted and we should always aim for the best, we can certainly appreciate the growth opportunities available for our children who have less than ideal teachers. To speak respectfully to a teacher who may lose her temper too frequently or criticize you or your homework too mercilessly is a valuable life lesson -- to be practiced on many future employers.

To learn how to cope when not the center of attention is a crucial skill. And, conversely, to learn how to cope – especially socially – when you are the center of attention, when you hold the ambiguous position of teacher's pet is also a crucial skill.

If there's no serious risk of physical danger and likewise no risk of serious emotional damage, stay out of it.

If we let our children fall in the playground and don't overreact, they will learn to pick themselves up and try again. If we keep them away from the high slide and the monkey bars, they'll never know their true potential. To play any sport without falling probably means you haven't tried very hard. This applies as well to all of our accomplishments. Don't we want our kids to do their best?

And our children are going to have conflict with their siblings and their peers, lots of it. This is their laboratory for working out interpersonal relationships. Every time that we interfere we are stunting their ability to work it out for themselves and undermining their confidence. Some families have the "no blood" rule. If there's no blood, leave them alone. I think I would broaden it slightly. If there's no serious risk of physical danger and likewise no risk of serious emotional damage, stay out of it. Otherwise we will be referees our whole lives and our children will never be fully adult.

We grow through our experiences. While we certainly want to exercise some control over the parameters of our children's experiences, we definitely want them to eat a little dirt. They'll be more successful adults because of it.

February 21, 2009

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 7

(7) Jeanne smith, February 27, 2009 8:11 AM

Dirt Eating

I am proud of my daughter in how she is dealing with not-so-nice kids at her school. She ignores what is unimportant and stands up for herself when necessary. I only intervene when she is unable to resolve her problems alone. I want her to be strong and stand on her own. At the same time, she knows that I will be in her corner when she needs me. She also knows that G-d is with her every step of the way. That really helps!

(6) Anonymous, February 26, 2009 4:54 PM

very generic, elementary, and flawed

this article speaks in such relative terms without quantifying "how much dirt is good for you." using the term "a little dirt" is very unscientific and dangerous advice. everyone can definie "a little" differently.

(5) Anonymous, February 26, 2009 4:16 PM

Great article and very true. My son has difficulty with some children in carpool. I spoke to the carpool parents and role played with my son about how he should address the other children in carpool when they make nasty comments. The carpool situation has improved, however, I continued to ask my son how carpool was when he returns home. Ironically, he seemed to have gotten over the carpool debacle faster than I have, becuase one day upon returning home from school as I started to ask him my daily question of how carpool was, he stopped me and said "Mommy don't worry so much... carpool is fine." From now on I don't ask him unless he brings it up. Thanks for the article!

(4) Rivka D, February 25, 2009 11:59 AM

disagree somewhat

I agree not to rush in to rescue your child from bumps or encounters outside the home. However, INSIDE the home, especially between siblings, they definitely can and should be taught how to disagree in a mentsch-lich way. Arguing - yes. Calling names - no. Especially because I have experienced over and over non-frum people asking me why frum children behave so badly, or just express the opinion that it's a natural result of having several children.

(3) ruth housman, February 24, 2009 2:21 PM

the sandbox of life

As a therapist I have seen children who are very compulsive about dirt and this is often expressed in language dysfluencies and in behavior that is not what we would love to see in children. Children need their freedom to flex their wings, to splatter paint on canavas, to experiment. This is how we all learn best, on our own with support from the sidelines. We all make mistakes. We learn this way.

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