As much as we might encourage daughters to get involved in non-gender specific activity, many little girls still like to do things such as fuss over a doll’s house, collect Barbie dolls and play dress-ups.
They’re all pretty common activities – but according to an Oregon State University researcher it could be detrimental to their health.
Associate Professor Sharyn Clough, has discovered that women who have higher rates of allergies, and other autoimmune disorders are a result of being too clean.
In other words, parents who let their children run amok in dirt or mud tend to have healthier kids.
The link between increased hygiene and sanitation and higher rates of asthma, allergies and autoimmune disorders is known as the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ and the link is well-documented.
Yet the role of gender is rarely explored as part of this phenomenon, according to A/Professor Clough.
"If you're okay having your little boy play in the dirt, you should be okay having your little girl play out in the dirt as well," A/Professor Clough explained.
She cites the fact that women infected with the auto-immune disease Lupus outnumber their male counterparts 9-to-1. While there isn't a concise explanation as to why the disease occurs more frequently in women, the expectation for young girls to stay cleaner than boys may provide a reason.
"Little boys are encouraged to play in the dirt more often that little girls, but being exposed to high amounts of bacteria found in dirt can actually help build a healthier immune system.
“Girls tend to be dressed more in clothing that is not supposed to get dirty, girls tend to play indoors more than boys and girl’s playtime is more often supervised by parents,” she says.
“There is a significant difference in the types and amounts of germs that girls and boys are exposed to, and this might explain some of the health differences we find between women and men.”
Not that that means girls should eat dirty.
“What I’m really proposing is new ways of looking at old studies,” says A/Professor Clough. “The ‘hygiene hypothesis’ is well-supported but I would like to see epidemiologists and clinicians examine their data through the lens of gender.”
She says that in the past 50 years there has been a 400% increase in allergies, hay fever and asthma.
“Children – both boys and girls – spend much more time indoors than they used to.”
A/Professor Clough says a day-care centre in Portland has taken her study to heart, encouraging both boys and girls to play in the mud and sand. The day care centre provides children with a pair of boots, shovels and a mud box.
“They tell parents the kids are going to get dirty and that’s a normal part of childhood.”
* * *
Note: Other researchers have challenged the 'hygiene hypothesis'.