My husband and I often took road trips with our children to distant places, which meant we spent a lot of time in the car together, eating Happy Meals at McDonald's, and filling up at gas stations. We tried to plan our trips around the most sanitary pit stops and fast food restaurants with the best playgrounds. More than once, however, we needed to make an emergency pit stop because a small child couldn't "hold it any longer."
You know what that means. You turn off the freeway and hope to find a toilet ... quick. If not, at least a bush.
One particular emergency bathroom break stands out in memory. We found a sketchy gas station that time forgot. I think the Health Department forgot it too. It had one of those unisex bathrooms you enter from the outside that you have to beg the cashier for the keys for. We all held our noses and took turns using it. We were lucky the toilet still flushed, but there was no hand soap. I reminded my kids to put toilet paper on the seat and at least to rinse their hands to drown the germs if we couldn't kill them with Dial.
When we packed the kids back in the car, I noticed my toddler, Rachel, was chewing gum. I never give gum to my toddlers because they usually have no concept of chewing without swallowing. I asked where she got it, and she bragged, "I got it the bathroom." Toddlers are built low to the ground so they see things that we adults miss. I wanted to yank it out and spray Lysol inside her mouth, but realized the damage had been done.
What else can a parent do at that point?
I've heard that every child needs to digest at least 10 lbs. of dirt by the time she is 8 years old to survive in this world. Besides, eating boogers may be the only GREEN food they'll eat. It is organic, after all.
Before you rush for the hand santizer, I have to report that Rachel is now 19 and arguably the healthiest of my five children. Was it heavy doses of germs early on that made her so robust? With each child, I became more relaxed in my antiseptic approach to parenting. With the first child, if the pacifier dropped on the floor, we boiled it for five minutes to de-germ it. By the fifth child, if the pacifier dropped and the dog licked it, I wiped if off on my pants and stuck it back in the baby's mouth.
The authors of "The Good Gut" reveal how our bodies are made up of microflora in our digestive systems. Microflora is a fancy name for bacteria, fungi and viruses, and they all live happily together in a microbiome, a fancy name for our gut. We need good bacteria, like ABC gum and boogers, to help our bodies build immunity and fight the bad bacteria. Kind of like inoculating our children against measles. We give them little doses of bacteria every day when we let them play in the sandbox, make mud pies, kiss the dog and lick the handle of a shopping cart (well, I didn't let my children lick the handle, but they did it anyway.)
Our bodies consist of more cells from microorganisms than human cells by a 10-1 ratio, according to an NPR article and accompanying video "The Human Microbiome." It reports how gut flora wires our brains and alters our mood. Research done by Dr. Faith Dickerson suggests that introducing good flora in the microbiome "may contribute to an improvement of psychiatric symptoms."
If we wonder why so many modern children are sensitive to foods, the air and contact with plants, it could be answered by a scientist who studied the Yanomami people in the Amazon. He found that "the microbes from their skin and gut were 40 percent more diverse than those of modern, urbanised people … the more exposed a group was to modern life, the less diverse the microbiome."
I'm all about diversity. And I'm all about microbiomes because they sound cool. Imagine a bunch of foreign germs, like Goodwill Ambassadors, from Angola, Tonga, Korea, Canada and Slovenia hanging out in your gut, sharing drinks, swapping stories, eating chips and salsa and playing Charades. When an intruder tries to crash the party, all these foreign friends band together and bar the door.
Of course that makes sense. If there's a party happening in our gut, the other organs are invited which makes us feel better all over.
JULIE K. NELSON is a mother, wife, professor, author of "Keep It Real and Grab a Plunger: 25 tips for surviving parenthood" and "Parenting With Spiritual Power," and is a contributor on radio and TV. Her website is www.aspoonfulofparenting.com.