In 2017, Jack Gilbert—who teaches microbial science at the University of Chicago—published a fascinating book: Dirt is Good: The Advantage of Germs for Your Child’s Developing Immune System.
As the title suggests, Gilbert challenges a core assumption of every nervous parent, namely that we must take every step humanly possible to protect our child from any and all forms of contamination. It seems that our kids can never use enough hand sanitizer or take enough baths or use enough Clorox wipes.
As paradoxical as it seems, argues Gilbert, some level of exposure to germs can actually be a good thing. It can help children develop their immune systems which, in turn, will protect them when they are older. Indeed, he argues, many health problems (including the rising rate of severe allergies) can be linked to a lack of exposure to certain bacteria.
Here’s the point: the germ-conscious parent may think they are raising healthy children when they may actually be raising vulnerable children—a vulnerability which will not become apparent until many years later.
Now, I am not a scientist and I can’t tell a parent whether they should wash off the pacifier when it falls to the ground. But I do think there is a parallel lesson here in the spiritual world.
As nervous Christian parents, sometimes we think our number one job is to make sure our kids are never exposed to any non-Christian thinking. We may be tempted to place our children inside a sanitized theological bubble, safe from all forms of intellectual contamination. But, just like germ-conscious parents, this may not be accomplishing what we think.
This topic has been on my mind quite a bit since the release of my most recent book, Surviving Religion 101: Letters to a Christian Student On Keeping the Faith in College. In all of the podcasts I have been doing since the book’s release, one question keeps coming up again and again:
What can parents (and churches) do to help better prepare their kids for the intellectual challenges of college?
What’s interesting is that my book was not written to address that question. It is not a guide for parents or churches on how to develop the next generation. Instead, I wrote for college students who are already in college (or on the verge of college), regardless of whether their preparation had been good or bad.
Even so, all these different podcasts were still interested in the same question. What can we do to better prepare our children?
While there are many answers to that question, I think the lesson of Gilbert’s book can provide an important piece of wisdom. Perhaps Christian parents need to realize that some limited exposure to non-Christian thinking can actually serve to “boost” their child’s spiritual immune systems—a system they will need when they are older.
Put differently, parents and churches need to consider ways to introduce their children, at age-appropriate levels, to non-Christian philosophies, arguments, and criticisms, along with a proper Christian response.
That way, when these Christian students head off to college, they won’t hear these arguments and think, “I’ve never heard that before; why didn’t my parents (or pastor) tell me that?” Instead, they can say, “Yes, I have heard this before, and there are answers to these questions.”
Of course, this must be done with wisdom and care. No one is suggesting we dump a mountain of critical arguments onto a 12-year-old kid thinking that this somehow will help her. Likewise, Gilbert is not arguing that parents should take no cautions whatsoever about exposure to germs. Some pathogens are a real danger and must be avoided (a lesson we learned during COVID).
Moreover, every Christian parent faces a myriad of complex questions about their child’s exposure to a non-Christian world: Can my child watch that movie? Should I let them run in that crowd? Should I send them to that school? These are tough questions. And parents must be very careful about the things to which their child is exposed.
But, at the same time, let’s not think we succeeded as parents if our child turns 18 and has never heard a single substantive argument against Christianity, nor even met a single non-Christian.
We may think we’ve “protected” them, when in fact we may have stunted their spiritual immune system which they will desperately need in the years ahead.