There’s no shortage of discussion surrounding the subject of kids’ health. And everywhere we turn the message seems to be the same: our kids’ health is going down the tubes. It’s a cynical consensus for sure, but it does seem hard to argue the facts. According to the CDC, the childhood obesity rates in the U.S. have tripled over the past 30 years. And accordingly, rates of asthma, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular risk factors among children have also grown significantly over that same time.
Our kids’ brains have fared just as poorly, if not more so. The Journal of Pediatrics reported that nearly one in five children and adolescents now suffers from some sort of behavioral or mental illness; that too is nearly triple the level of just 20 years before. And lest we dismiss all of this scary data as a mere phenomenon of improved detection and diagnosis, we should know that the rate of young people committing suicide in America has also tripled over a 30-year period leading up to the 90′s. There were no improvements to methods of determining suicides from other deaths during that time period.
The culprits responsible for all of this misery comprise an array of the usual suspects. Our kids are getting too much bad stuff (like junk food, technology overload and in-your-face pop culture) and not enough good stuff (like good food and some decent running-around-the-neighborhood). However, there is at least one bright spot among our children’s health – tooth decay among kids has continued to improve. Thanks to Crest and Colgate we can brag to the world that America has some of the unhealthiest kids with some of the greatest smiles.
But as we focus on our kids’ woeful lack of veggies and exercise, I fear we may be overlooking another major deficiency in our kids’ lives. It’s something which used to be a staple of every childhood, and yet has seemed to almost vanish from the face of our modern society. I am, of course, talking about the virtual elimination of the most common element that sustained every childhood. We affectionately called it, dirt.
Now, I know what most moms are thinking. I can hear the mounting vociferous protests, “He buddy, apparently you haven’t seen my wash lately!“ It’s true; we continue to have our fair share of dirty laundry – no pun intended – as we fight our way through ink stains, chocolate stains and juice stains of today’s youthful indiscretions. But this modern version of “dirt” is nothing more than a misnomer at best, and at worst it’s a true insult to the original definition of the good old fashioned dirt we came to know and love in our childhood.
In fact, today’s dirt isn’t really dirt at all. It’s merely the remnants of today’s excessive childhood behaviors spilling carelessly onto synthetically advanced Under Armour fabric, where it can easily be wicked away along with the sweat we don’t want our kids to feel against their skin. That’s not dirt. I’m talking about real dirt; the brown stuff made of clay, silt and sand. The stuff that got so ground into your white socks when you were a kid that even the smartest scientists at Proctor & Gamble couldn’t get it out if their pensions depended on it. When you had that dirt, and lots of it, you had your childhood.
A Dirty Past
When I was four years old my parents decided to pick up and move our expanding family from the more densely populated town of Massapequa, NY to a brand new housing development being built further out east on the former potato fields of Smithtown, Long Island. We were part of the classic suburban sprawl of the 50’s and 60’s, as the explosion of post-war Baby Boomer families became the territorial pioneers and settlers of our time. We blazed new trails into open space and undeveloped grounds far outside the boundaries of the Big Cities, rolling onto virgin lands not with horses and covered wagons, but with strollers and wood-paneled station wagons. Instead of saloons we put up strip malls . It was truly a new beginning for millions of families like ours. And like the generations of pioneers before us, we arrived to a warm welcome from the one element that has historically greeted all brave settlers. Dirt.
Erecting new housing developments on former farm lands was a popular strategy for the “Levittown” builders of that time. There were no trees to clear, the land was flat and the soil was loose and easy to work with. In our own family’s case, upon emptying the last lamp and box of dishes from the moving van, we turned to face the same vision of our new homestead that dozens of our new neighbors would face: a modest new home and small blacktop driveway, placed squarely on a plot of dirt, with dozens of other similarly designed houses placed symmetrically on either side throughout the entire “block” (as we used to call the streets), each in a various early stage of construction, and with neither a single shrub, tree nor blade of grass in sight. We all owned properties surrounded by dirt. And behind our house was nothing but dirt as far as the eye could see, since home construction on that portion of the former potato fields was yet to begin.
But we were thrilled. We had a brand new house in a brand new neighborhood with the prospect of dozens of large families – and hundreds of kids our ages – moving into that neighborhood within the span of a couple of years. And as for the dirt from the potato fields, well what more could my three brothers and I ask for? This place was a boy’s paradise. Everywhere you looked there was an opportunity for getting into trouble and getting filthy dirty. The new home construction sites offered empty foundations to hide in, wooden frame structures to climb on, and building materials to poach from in order to make your own whatever-it-might-be. And then there was the dirt itself. Plenty of dirt. Large mounds of dirt to run and roll down. Dirt to dig ditches as fox holes for protection against the pretend enemy. Dirt gave us everything we needed. It was our key to imagination, creativity, exercise, friendships and sunshine. Where there was dirt, there was childhood.
Of course, my mom hated the damned dirt. It was omnipresent and made for tons of difficult laundry, especially at a time when our clothing inventory was limited to two, maybe three pairs of jeans, including that embarrassing pair with the big scratchy patches on both worn-out knees. But she accepted all of that dirt, knowing it was the greatest playground in the world for her kids.
I realize it may be overly ideological to turn the dirt potato fields of Long Island into some metaphorical “Wonder Years” reminiscence. And I don’t think I’m clueless enough to ignore that legions of current day populations still live in dirt which represents squalor and poverty. But I do think that our own lost childhood dirt can serve to symbolize a variety of essential elements that we sense are missing from our kids’ lives today.
I can’t say scientifically that a dirt deficiency in America has contributed to our kids’ current health concerns, but then again, who’s to say that our kids wouldn’t benefit from a little more dirt?