Once when my elder son, Big A, was 4 years old, my family visited a nearby desert to see its famous desert flower blooms. We also went on a 3 mile trek. We had a great day! Unfortunately, as we were coming back from our hike, there was a downpour. This was in the middle of February when it was still quite cold.
We were in the middle of nowhere and were totally unprepared for it. Ice-cold rain started lashing on us. My husband ran ahead with my younger son, who was still a baby and who was very fortunately well covered. Big A and I slowly made our way for about a mile through rough, rocky terrain, which was getting slippery, becoming progressively soaked and bedraggled.
Once in the car, even with the heater on and having shed Big A’s clothes, he was still shivering. It had become evening and the rain, instead of letting up, had become snow. We then made our way back home, which was a 3 hour drive, in rain and snow. Big A was exhausted and fell asleep on the way. I put him in bed with some Vicks Vaporub on his chest, and prepared for an all night vigil, sure that he would develop fever sometime during the night.
Nothing happened. He woke up the next day, as chirpy as a sparrow and went off to his friend’s house for another energetic round of play. This incident reminded me of an ancient ritual in a country called Sparta, a part of the Roman Empire. They would leave their infants out in the rain. Their logic was that the child who could not survive the rains was not fit to be a Spartan. Unwittingly, we had put Big A through such a test and we got a chance to see his endurance capacity.
Now that I have a second son, I realize that I am not as anxious to keep him safe from infections, coughs and colds as I am in having him endure them to help him build his resistance. I don’t want to wrap him up in cotton wool. I want him to pick up things from the floor, put them in his mouth and develop a tummy upset, so that next time he does so, he will have built his resistance, even if for a little bit. That’s how I brought up Big A, who has sampled the sands of every beach in California when he was a child, who used to develop stomach upsets every second month too. Now, I cannot remember the last time he was ill.
Do you think this type of parenting is wrong? There is an article titled The Hygiene Hypothesis first proposed by Dr. David P. Strachan. I was not aware of this when I started my novel parenting on Big A, but it substantiates what I believe in. Think of it this way; if you don’t exercise your muscles, they become flabby. If you don’t exercise your brain, it becomes lethargic. If you don’t expose and exercise your immune cells to different stimuli in the shape of infectious agents, they lose their power to be quickly activated. It’s what happens if we keep giving our children antibiotics too.
Now consider another situation. What happens if you have several able-bodied young individuals in a community who are also unemployed and who do not have much chance to be active? You may well expect them to resort to vandalism as an outlet for their latent energy. The Hygiene Hypothesis also proposes that rising incidences of allergies in developed countries to be a result of these excess precautions of cleanliness. We, in India, have never heard of allergies which are so severe, such as peanut allergy that you can actually die from them.
So what am I trying to say here? Am I telling people never to give their kids a bath, let them wallow in mud and eat putrid food? They won’t develop allergies to be sure; they’ll just contract some deadly salmonella infection! I am not against basic common sense hygiene, good eating habits and discipline. I am against all those advertisement of cleaning agents, Lysol and Kleenex, and air purifiers that urge you to purge your house of all bacteria and viruses by wiping every surface with their product. I am against health care practitioners who treat any sniffle with doses of antibiotics. I am also against pharmaceutical companies who try to convince you that you have such diseases as restless leg syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome and acid reflux disease and try to stuff you with all kinds of new drugs.
I don’t want to rush to the medicine cabinet every time I hear my child sniff. I don’t want to make my house so neat and clean that my kids feel uncomfortable to play in it. I want my kids to be healthy and strong, not mollycoddled. I don’t want to persuade any of you to practice what I am preaching, because I don’t believe in that also. These are just some of my thoughts and observations which I have made over the course of the many years since I had my first child, and I thought I would share them with you!
Roshni was born and brought up in Calcutta and is now living in California. Her two rambunctious boys, Big A, age 8, and Little a, age 4, are the main subjects of her blog and she can be found tweeting away (@RoshniAaMom) in her free time (you may well ask, what free time?!)