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Bad Hygiene or Neglect?

I am a lot of things, but I’m not fastidious. Not by a long shot. More than I’d care to admit, it’s my children who have ventured out into public with smudged faces, sticky hands, and snack crumbs decorating their clothes.

Because I never want anyone judging me until they know exactly what’s on my family’s plate, I reserved judgment the first few times my kids hung out with the neighbor kids from around the corner. While I may have registered matted hair, dirty fingernails, and a ripe scent, I honestly thought those were just signs of kids who were allowed to have a good time and get themselves messy.

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But then in every subsequent encounter, the level of hygiene had slipped a little bit farther away.

Still. I admonished myself to stop being such a judgey pants. After all, I don’t always bathe my kids every day, and they get plenty dirty too.

But somewhere it crossed a line in my head from simply letting kids be kids to something more like neglect. I don’t know their parents well, but I made some assumptions based on the cars they drive—which are way nicer than mine—and the schools the kids attend—which are some of the priciest in the city. Neither their mother nor their father has ever stood out to me for their hygiene practices one way or another, which makes the kids’ habit of showing up just this side of filthy a little perplexing. And all those assumptions I’ve made confound the whole situation for me, because, really, what does my superficial assessment of their financial balance sheet have to do with whatever reasons they have ignored basic hygiene for their children?

Maybe the kids have a skin condition that requires them to forego bathing but for once in a while.

The answer? I have no idea.

And what about all the facts I’m missing? Maybe one of the parents is ill and bathing the children isn’t a priority. Maybe they are having a hard time in their marriage. Maybe the kids have a skin condition that requires them to forego bathing but for once in a while. Maybe it’s all in my head and I am irrationally expecting every child to follow my narrow ideas of how dirty a kid is allowed to be. Without a doubt, none of that is any of my business.

What I do know is that they are delightful little kids who bring imagination and joy to our little playgroups. They aren’t hurting anyone by having a different set of hygiene standards than I would prefer. I do worry about their future—that inevitable day when kids take notice and possibly torment them. But I know that’s none of my business either.

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If their parents were putting them in physical danger, I would certainly speak up—loudly—and for as long as it took to get and keep the kids safe. But cleanliness isn’t really a safety issue. It’s more like a preference or a norm, so I keep my mouth shut, which I think is the right thing. No matter how hard it is.

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