Walk dog in a park by a school.
Repeatedly bare-hand a spitty ball that has rolled through playground muck.
Interact with dog, ball, teenagers out for a run, and several smiling, snot-squishy toddlers.
Do an errand.
Come home and eat the toast you left sitting on the counter before remembering to wash your hands.
This is why mothers have immune systems of steel.
This is a true story.
Was I a tiny bit horrified when I noticed the state of my hands as I ate the toast? Yes. Did I eat the toast anyway? Yes. For the sake of my immune system and in defiance of anxiety.
Have you rescheduled an afternoon playdate with another child due to a cold? I have. We were going away, I didn’t want to risk taking a virus with us. Of course we need to be smart, considerate and yes, healthy. We have a responsibility to teach our kids to cover their mouth when they cough and to wash their hands more-or-less regularly. But we are over-protecting them from allergens, from skinned knees, from caching a simple cold? Many psychologists and physicians say yes.
When everyone had swine flu, my father-in-law and many in his generation did not. A doctor explained to me that there had been a similar flu outbreak in his generation decades before. They were now immune. My daughter suffered through an at times frightening three-week bout of H1N1. My hope is that her immune system is now stronger for it. When her best friend had chickenpox as a pre-schooler, I didn’t shy away from exposure. I knew there were risks associated with chickenpox but I was willing to endure a bout of miserable itching when she was young and the risks were lower. When she still had not contracted them by her elementary years, I had her immunized. Because we all have a responsibility to do that too. *
Anxiety in very young children is on the rise. They cannot always tell us why they are worrying and anxiety can manifest as avoidance, stomachaches, irrational fears and separation anxiety. The many flu scares, the constant din of advertising, news, and a profusion of anti-bacterial messages with a side of hand wipes at every entrance certainly do not help. My friend’s child became afraid of dying when attending pre-school. Pre-school should be about learning to mix paint colours not mixing messages about germs. Educating our kids about their health & hygiene means walking a fine line between fostering fear and giving information.
We can show them how to manage their anxieties by controlling ours. Model normative behaviours. Prefer things very orderly? Leave a few spaces where mess is allowed. Afraid of dogs? Find some very friendly ones your kids can play with. Feel the need to use those anti-bacterial wipes at the door of the supermarket? Chances are you are killing the good with the bad. Take your little one’s sticky hand instead, and stroll on by.
* There have been cases of whooping cough in BC this winter—do make sure your child’s immunizations are up to date.
Photo courtesy of Håkan Dahlström (CC)