I'm not a parent myself, but I frequently look after two siblings of close relatives. While the girl (3 years) does not have a problem with wiping hands in pants or getting in any other way ridiculously dirty, the boy (5 years) would rush to the bathroom if he detects a marker stroke on his arm and when he can't wash it off, he would remind you every hour that it is still there. He has been like that for at least the past 1.5 years and it isn't getting better. His mom told me that sometimes he would wash his hands every 10 minutes without a particular reason.

The two of them regularly stay over at my house for a few hours or days and his behaviour was never as bad as his mother told me, but I still need to assure him that it is fine if he has a stain on his shirt or something similar.

There was one situation that really stuck in my head:

We went on a walk, when we stopped at a bottomless fountain and I told them it is okay to play with in the water if they take their clothes and shoes off. When the boy got cold, he wanted to dress again, starting with his shoes. When I explained him that he couldn't fit in his pant legs with the shoes on, he started to get upset. He kept saying that he needs clean feet and he can only have them if he wears shoes. I didn't understand his whole fuss about being clean until he said: "But I have to be clean to go home with you!"

To be honest I was shocked that he thought he couldn't come home with me if he is dirty. I would have taken him home with me if he had been covered in mud from head to toe. So I took my shoes off and tossed them aside.

"So my feet are dirty now. I'm going home without washing them and you are coming too. I don't care if you are dirty or not, you are always welcome at my house. I love you, clean or dirty."

I'm not sure if he was more impressed by my lovely speech or the fact that I threw my shoes around. But after that we didn't have the same discussion again.

Even if I still think that my solution to this particular situation was quite good, I have the feeling that I should create more situations to show him that it is totally fine to be not perfect, that sometimes you get dirty during doing things and you don't always have the chance to take a bath immediately.

I know that the best would be to do this with him together and model the behaviour (walking barefoot, wiping hands on pants, rolling around on the lawn, taking a mud bath or drawing with skin compatible pens). I would also include his little sister (which really wouldn't need more encouragement), since I don't want her to feel left out and he would tell her about the stuff we do anyway.

While their parents won't have a problem if I return their children dirty or doing the above mentioned things, I can imagine that they teach this to others in the kindergarten ("Let us roll around in the garden, your mom can wash the clothes anyway!"), which may not be appreciated. Or being too much influenced and decide that they never have to bath again! Maybe there is also another good reason not to do it... or I'm overthinking things.

tl;dr: Should children be encouraged to get themselves or their clothes dirty (as long as it is not a health concern), while assuring them that this behaviour is fine? For example rolling around on a lawn or wiping hands on pants.

  • 10
    I almost wonder if the parents are perhaps trying to reinforce additional cleaning behaviors in the girl and are treating the boy equally (rather than equitably), or he's just trying to follow their instructions to please them, but ends up exacerbating his own adequate cleanliness habits to the point of borderline compulsion. For the fountain example, perhaps there was an earlier incident where the parents told the girl they wouldn't take her home with dirty feet (to discourage her from getting too dirty, or encourage cleanliness), and that impressed on him more than they planned.
    – Doktor J
    Commented Oct 13, 2017 at 19:09
  • 3
    Agreed, Doc. The root of the problem: just where does a 5yo get the idea that they can't go home with you if they're dirty... That's disconcerting. Have you spoken with the parents about this?
    – Mazura
    Commented Oct 13, 2017 at 20:21
  • 5
    Should children be encouraged to get themselves or their clothes dirty? No. Should children -- who are borderline neurotic about cleanliness -- be encouraged to get themselves or their clothes dirty? Good God, yes.
    – Shane
    Commented Oct 13, 2017 at 21:22
  • 20
    This sounds like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). If there are resources available in your area you might have him evaluated. If it is OCD then the earlier it is recognized the better. Just recognizing it for what it is can help with controlling the compulsions. Also, given that he started showing OCD symptoms so early and so severely, I worry he may start adding more OCD behaviors.
    – Readin
    Commented Oct 14, 2017 at 3:11
  • @Mazura I've spoken with the mother, but she has no idea why he might think that. As far as I know she never made a deal out of it if one of them had dirty cloths.
    – Zwie
    Commented Oct 14, 2017 at 8:17

9 Answers 9


My initial reaction to this question is no, I do not believe that children should be encouraged to get themselves or their clothes dirty. As long as their aversion to dirt isn't interfering with the pursuit of safe/positive activities that they want to participate in. As humans we often participate in activities that lead to dirt and other grime by default - cooking, washing dishes, gardening, taking care of animals, swimming, going to the beach, cleaning the bathroom, etc. HOWEVER, we also promptly clean ourselves afterwards, because in most cases not doing so is a health concern. Overall, the desire to clean one's self after becoming dirty is a positive trait.

On the other hand, it does sound like this boy's aversion is strong enough that he is prevented from participation in some normal activities, and he definitely needs reinforcement of the idea that sometimes dirt happens, and that is completely ok - it's a normal part of life. But I think activities undertaken for the sole purpose of causing grime would be overkill, and send the wrong message. I would say choose activities with a purpose: if you want him to get dirt on his clothes, plant some vegetables with them. They'll love that anyway, especially if they get to harvest them later. If they're root vegetables, they'll have to dig them up when they've grown, so they get dirty twice :) if you want him to wipe his hands on his pants, take them camping and explain that pants are a fine alternative when you don't have the sink and towels you're used to; maybe easiest of all - if you want him to learn that mud is fun, take some pie pans out to the back yard and make mud pies. Whatever you choose to do, make sure that the dirtiness is a necessary side effect of the larger activity. Maybe take them to visit a farm and pet the animals.

It might also be that the boy's fear is about being able to get clean afterwards, and not knowing how to do it himself. So I think it would also be important to walk him through the clean-up process. Show him how to get the mud off his shoes (even if you do it for him), show him where the dirty clothes go, and help him take a bath if necessary.

My son is also very particular about dirt etc, and has been periodically brought to tears since the age of about 6 months if he didn't have a napkin to wipe his hands on at the table. Now that he has a good grasp of language though, he is easily reassured when I explain to him that (and how) we can clean up after a mess ("it's ok for your hands to get dirty, we'll just wash them in the sink when we're all done"), and when I explain to him that the dirt is just something that happens when you're doing fun things like riding horses and collecting chicken eggs, and we'll be able to wash his clothes and take a bath later. He loves making mud pies, and experiences very little anxiety about mess at this point - mostly only when he's overtired.

  • 8
    I like this answer. I don't necessarily think they should get dirty for the sake of getting dirty, but it sounds like the boy needs reassurance that yes, "dirt happens" and it's okay to get dirty and be dirty for a little while -- there's an appropriate time and place to clean up, and it doesn't always have to be "as soon as you get dirty".
    – Doktor J
    Commented Oct 13, 2017 at 19:06

Perhaps not "encourage", but certainly "allow".

I've been a pretty clean person myself (borderline OCD, some might say). That has sometimes prevented me from enjoying life, in its full, sometimes dirty, wonder. I still remember how when I went to Burning Man for the first time, seeing the dust, I shuddered and recoiled... until the entry staff made everyone in my car lie down in the dust and make dust angels

Dust angel image from Flickr

Now that I was dirty and there was no going back, I felt free to enjoy Burning Man to its fullest.

If I had kids, I would teach them that clothes are washable and often expendable. Go out there and enjoy life. Don't let a bit of dirt get in the way.


No, encouraging them to get dirty is not the right strategy, not for an average child and not your nephew*. An average child will simply get dirty on its own, and not be too disturbed by that, and as long as you gently nudge towards a reasonable standard of hygiene, that's enough. What you are observing is something else entirely.

It is obvious that your nephew has a very heightened awareness of dirt, and cannot just forget it, his attention keeps going back to it. This is an obsession, and I mean this as a technical term. It does not mean that he has OCD - neither I nor you can diagnose that - but it is potentially a symptom, and even if it turns out that he doesn't have it, the obsession itself is a serious thing which needs more attention. This is not a mere quirk which can be "solved" by simply encouraging him to get dirty or hoping that he will grow out of it. He has to see a professional who has experience with OCD, and this professional will find out exactly what the situation is, and recommend how you and the parents should deal with it.

I know that having a talk with the parents will be a very, very difficult one. It is normal that they want their child to be healthy, and any suggestion on your side that he is not may be met with denial and they can even attack you (verbally, I mean). It is especially difficult with an obsession as opposed to something like a rash, because mental illness still carries a lot of stigma, and there is much less OCD awareness than other disorders like depression. But it is still the best you can do for the child, so I suggest that you be gently persistent.

Admitting that what you observed falls somewhere on the OCD spectrum (hopefully on the mild, subclinical end) is scary, but not admitting it is worse. If he and his family are aware of it, he can learn coping strategies to regulate the obsessions so they don't interfere with his life and happiness. Adversely, if he does not get help with them, they can grow unchecked and he could slide to the uglier end of the spectrum. There is a self-reinforcing process to OCD, and if he and the family are unaware, the path of least resistance can lead him right into it - and on the contrary, if they get the right help now, they can prevent it before it starts for real.

If the thought of bringing a small child to a psychiatrist sounds too scary to you to present to the parents, you can also try first getting an opinion from an authorative source to whether the behavior you observed should result in a doctor's appointment. Depending on where you are, you can probably call a help line either for OCD or for mental help in general. Or find a nonprofit concentrating on getting help to OCD patients, or a patient group. Just tell them what you told us, and ask "do you think the child should see a doctor". If they say yes, that would be a strong argument to present to the parents.

No matter what your nephew's actual situation is, I can strongly recommend reading something on the subject so you have some awareness. There are a lot of "invisible" sufferers around us who are subclinical, or too ashamed of their own irrationality to get help, or going through their condition in secret, out of fear they will be stigmatized if they told their acquaintances. Understanding them is certainly a good thing, and for you personally, it will also help you understand your nephew's obsessive tendencies, even if they never grow to the scary proportions of a full blown illness. A book I would suggest is The man who couldn't stop by David Adam. The author is an OCD patient and a very good science journalist. He does tell his personal story, but the book is not a memoir, it is really great information for what the illness is, what is known about it, what is the patient's experience, and how is it regarded by the medical system and by society at large. He is painstakingly objective about the facts, brings in just the right amount of personal story, and his language and style is easy to read and never boring.

  • you didn't specify the exact relation, so I'll call him a nephew for convenience
  • 2
    (As it’s too small for a suggested edit: You can prevent that your footnote becomes a list by typing \* instead of *.)
    – unor
    Commented Oct 14, 2017 at 21:08
  • Where as I'd say it's fine to encourage an average child to get dirty, I fully agree that in this case the child shouldn't be encouraged against their will.
    – icc97
    Commented Oct 15, 2017 at 13:15

I always had the general opinion that if a child ends the day without being dirty they haven't played enough. Obviously I don't mean that in a picture perfect literal sense, but that kids need to be able to explore and be kids without thinking they'll be injured by the perfectly normal amount of standard bacterias found in the world.

It's up to us to instill the notion of absolute filth though. For example, happening across a dead cat or a pile of dog poo. Clearly by my statement above I am not suggesting they interact with things that could potentially poison them.

I also have little regard for keeping clothes perfect. It doesn't bother me at all if my kids wear something "nice" and come home with it all ripped up because they were playing. Their clothes may become filthy, and their skin may become filthy, but that's all part of the fun.

If it helps to know, I'm not encouraging frivolous wastefulness. I'm not saying to be careless with clothes and just blow through them like they're nothing. I tend to buy a lot of second hand clothes so when I say something "nice" being ripped up, I mean something that has had some distribution and probably only cost like $1 at a thrift store, but still looks nice. I would feel the same about a department store outfit, but I tend to have less of those around mostly because of the fact that kids destroy clothes.

I say let them be kids, but let them be cautious and aware of why people insist on cleanliness (keeping hands out of mouths, staying away from carcasses or poo piles, etc)


Children shouldn't be encouraged to get dirty, but for the most part children don't usually need to be told to get dirty, in your particular case, the child has developed neurotic ideas about the dangers of getting dirty that you need to dispel. If you can, try to find out where he got the idea that he can't go home if he's dirty, or why he thinks he absolutely needs to keep his feet clean at the expense of putting other clothes.

Given time the child will learn that whether getting dirty is okay is contextual and not absolute, until then your duty is just to stop the child's lack of understanding getting in the way of his life.


First, let me remind you that your not the parent. Before you take on any thing as serious as a behavior modification, you really need to talk with the parents first. Parents establish all kinds of rules, for very different reasons. For example, right now we have three rules that must seem very odd.

  1. If your going to cry, you must sit down and throw a proper fit, with kicking, screaming, yelling and all.
  2. You not allowed to be in the office unless you have your big boy pants on (under ware) and you go to the potty.
  3. If your going to touch "it" then you need to go to your room or the bathroom first.

The first is to combat some attention seeking crying. If they have to put all the energy into a fake tantrum then they usually choose to just use their words instead. This lets us keep it's ok to cry, without having them cry over every little tiny thing. It's temporary for sure, but such an odd rule to them makes them think and make a decision before they cry, and that really cuts down on the fake crying. When there to up set to decide rather they want to pitch a fit or talk, then it's real crying and we can react. (Plus it makes crying a game of sorts which helps them feel better)

The second may sound weird, but right now, big boy pants mean they are "grown up" and the office is for "grown up things". SO before they come in they have to do the most grown up thing they can do. Which is go potty, proactively.

The third really isn't that odd, it just seem like a weird rule to have to teach, but there it is.

My point is, your not the parent. Not only do you not get a say in what values are OK or not OK for the children, you don't know why that rule exists.

As for encouraging a child to get dirty, not really. Some people are just different. One of our kids hates to get dirty at all. Screams horribly if he gets a little dirty (that he can tell, of course), the other will roll around in a mud puddle if you let him. We just accept that, and for one we we make sure to choose "clean" activities, while the other does finger paints and so on. When "the clean one" see's the other finger painting he usually want to join in, and we allow it. But, he doesn't stay long once he figures out that finger painting means getting your fingers dirty.

An alternative way to look at it is, if you had spent years teaching someone, that to be clean is very important. Then how would you feel if someone undid all that work?

We constantly work with our children to teach them to stay clean and to not wipe their hands or face on their pants. To not dirty their shoes. To keep themselves neat and tidy. To blow their nose. To wash their hands after meals and potty. Who are you to undo that work?

"But I have to be clean to go home with you!"

That's how kids think some times. I could see one of my kids saying that. While we "allow" them to get dirty for certain activities, I can think of a few things that could cause that statement.

  • You can't go to blah blah's house all dirty, so make sure you stay out of the mud. Or some such.
  • Before you can go to blah blah's house we need to get a bath and wash all that dirt off.
  • Before you can go inside we gotta rinse some of that dirt off.
  • Awww look, you got dirt all over your pants, we can't go t the blah blah like that, we gotta go home and change.
  • (and in some extreme examples) Well, you got your cloths all dirty, were going to have to go home now. -- But I want to go to the movie -- I know, but see how your shirt is covered in sticky stuff. We can't go to a movie like that, and by the time we get home, and come back, it will be to late. We will try again tomorrow.
  • A good answer since it is important to check with the parents what the rules are. I do know the rules they have and try to set the same while the two are at my house. In my case the children are allowed to get themselves or their clothes dirty, so it is more the question if I should encourage them to do so or refrain from telling them that the should use a chance to get dirty.
    – Zwie
    Commented Oct 16, 2017 at 11:03

It's hard to say. I have had my own kids concoct weird things in their own heads based on misunderstanding something said, or taking something someone else said too seriously, etc. I also had a child that was very very very into being neat and clean. Something changed somewhere around 7 and now I sort of miss my little neat boy. When he was a year we gave him a smash cake. He wouldn't touch it. I put a dab of frosting on his nose and he cried. He used to want his hands wiped between every single bite. He was a trip. He also has SPD though and I think that was part of it for him. I sort of tell myself his dirt loving ways are a major victory for the boy who used to beg to get his face painted and then scream when it dried until I washed it off. He hated that tightening feeling. Poor kid.


It sounds like this child might have OCD, or at least be somewhere tending towards that condition. Given that this seems to be impairing their ability to function normally, it seems like it'd be worth it to talk to the parents about taking them to see a psychiatrist for an evaluation, and if necessary, a diagnosis.

If he's not clinically diagnosed, then good news! It's not something that your family needs to worried about any longer, and it might well just be a phase that he grows out of. If he is, then good news! The psychiatrist can help the parents give their child the help and support he needs to function normally.

Excessive hand-washing can lead to skin conditions (e.g. warts) due to the way it strips the oils out of the hand and exposes the skin to excessive moisture, so if it's a problem, it should be one that's dealt with before it leads on to complications.


I think explicit encouraging is not the way to go. I just ended up with the statement: "If you had fun and got dirty it's ok!" That tells them that being happy stands over staying clean

Personal highlight: Another mom telling kid: "You're mum is going to offend you for being so dirty"; (5-year-old) kid: "No, she is going to be happy that I had fun"

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