The Lorax, small Seussian hero, spoke for the trees. Dr. Jack Gilbert, the director of the Microbiome Center at the University of Chicago Medicine and co-author of Dirt Is Good: The Advantage Of Germs For Your Child’s Developing Immune System, speaks for the microbes. Gilbert has spent his professional life — and much of his personal life, first in the garden of his childhood home in London and now just outside of Chicago — rooting around in the muck. This has been, his research shows, salutary. “My mother always said, keep the house ‘clean enough to be healthy, dirty enough to be happy,'” Gilbert told Fatherly. “I like to turn that on its head a little bit and say ‘Dirty enough to be healthy, clean enough to be happy.’”
“When I started to do research in asthma, allergies and then neurocognitive disorders, it became obvious that making sure that you have a robust and healthy microbiome,” said Gilbert, “also made sure you had a robust and healthy immune system.” This has real-world (and wonderful) implications for fathers. “Kids should be interacting with the world and being part of it rather than locked up inside the house.” Pacifiers will fall, dogs will come and go, dirt will cake upon the flesh of our children and this is all, scientifically, good. In that sense, Gilbert speaks not only for the microbes, but for the dirty happy children, who are doing just fine.
What is your name?
Scientist, I study microbial ecology. I am also a professor of surgery at the University of Chicago.
How old are your children?
10 and 7.
What are their names?
Dylan is my eldest son and Hayden is my youngest.
Are they named after anyone in particular?
Dylan is named after Bob Dylan. Hayden is complicated. My wife and I are big music fans. There was a Canadian musician named Hayden we both liked. But there’s more. ‘Dylan’ is a British name, Welsh, actually, whereas Hayden is an Anglo-Saxon name. England is an amalgamation of the British and the Anglo-Saxons, with a smattering of Viking and Roman in there.We wanted an Anglo-Saxon name and a Welsh name. Also, Hayden means ‘Man of the Valley’ whereas Dylan means ‘Man of the Sea.’
Do you have any cute nicknames for your children?
Hayden is known as ‘Hayders-Baders,’ which rhymes, and which we thought was cute. And Dylan is always ‘Dyl.’ I call him ‘Bubby’ a lot.
What do they call you?
They call me Daddy. I’m still Daddy.
How often do you see them?
Every day, when I’m in the country, but I travel all over the world, giving lectures and talks. In fact, I am spending three weeks teaching an undergraduate course in Massachusetts, so I’ll actually be away for the longest time I’ve ever been. When I’m away we Facetime a lot. Also, I tend to try to play the video games they play like King of Avalon and, of course Minecraft. That way, we can join forces, form alliances and fight dragons.
Describe yourself as a father in three words.
Loving. Loyal. Adventurous. We jump off hills into oceans. We go diving together. We try as much stuff as we possibly can. Dylan is much braver than I am. Hayden is usually terrified at first, but once he figures out he can do it, he is the showiest, loudest person you could possibly imagine. He’s just a remarkable young man.
Describe your father in three words.
Grumpy. Dependable. Supportive. He always supported me in everything I’ve ever wanted to do and he’s always been there. But he’s a complicated person. I love him more than anything, but he’s a grumpy bugger.
What are your strengths as a father?
I’m well organized and I’m flexible. The kids will come to work with me and we’ll sit in a meeting with the president of the university. I am not afraid of that in the slightest. I’m never ashamed of them. I’m flexible to the point of trying to integrate them into every facet of my life. In fact, they come sit with me in the office on a regular basis. I’d have them come every day all day if they didn’t have to go to school.
What are your weaknesses as a father?
I am quite often indulgent. They probably eat too many sweets, too much chocolate, they watch too much TV, they play too many video games. I can be grumpy and I can be authoritarian. I view that as a weakness.
Relatedly, what is your biggest regret as a father?
That I have to spend time away from my family. I would be a stay-at-home dad if I could. I would be there to pick them up at school, to drop them off at school. I try and do that as much as I possibly can. I’d be there for breakfast and dinner and lunch every single day and I’d spend every minute of my day with them.
What is your favorite activity to do with your children, a special father-child thing?
Camping. Usually Mom will stay at home with one of the dogs who isn’t a good camper, and me and one of the bigger dogs and the boys will just jump in the car, throw all the camping stuff in the back, and then go and grab some hot dogs and sausages and just head out to the camp site.
What has been the moment you’ve been most proud of as a parent, and why?
There’s too many. When my eldest, who has autism, learned how to tie his shoes, and he could do it repeatedly, I was so proud of him. That was four weeks ago. Hayden has just taken up drums and he’s really good at it. I’m extremely proud of him for finding something he enjoys.
What heirloom did your father give to you, if any?
We’re not really an heirlooms family. The non-physical heirlooms are a sense of pride in family and a sense of who I am. We’ve always been proud to be ‘The Gilberts.’ My dad and mom were very adamant about that. They instilled this sense of ‘You’re a Gilbert, you can do anything.’ One of the things my dad gave me was that there are two things you need to do in life. If you’re going to work, work as hard as you can. Be the best you possibly can in any job you do, whether you’re waiting or whether you’re doing science, do it the best you possibly can. The other thing was to love as hard as you can. My dad was always about love. He’s so devoted to my mother and so devoted to the family. Those were the two things I took away.
What heirlooms, physical or not physical, do you wish to leave for your children, if any?
I want them to be successful in love first, and in life, second. If they are poor, but they’re happy, and in love, that’s cool with me. If they’re poor, if they’re in love, then they’re happy, but they also find something outside of family and romance that provides them with a purpose, then they will be satisfied with life.
Describe the “Dad Special” for dinner.
I love cooking, but I’m a scientist, so I need a protocol to follow, and it’s got to be followed exactly. The ‘Dad Special’ is either cheese on toast or steak and sausages. There’s rarely any vegetables involved, which is really bad. Every day we have a great diet with vegetables, but if you ask me to do it on the fly, all I ever come up with is the total antithesis of what I write in my books about the foods you should eat. I am no chef.
Are you religious and are you raising your children in that tradition?
No, I’m a total atheist. I’m very tolerant of other people’s religious beliefs but I would never impose anything on my children. I want them to question reality. Though I’m not a spiritual person, I have a sense of the energy in the universe, that everything is energy, because that is true. I’m very open with my children about death and the finite possibilities of life. We’ve gone through watching animals die. If a pet dies, they ask questions. ‘What happens to the pet?’ Well, its energy gets redistributed to the universe, that’s what happens, and it will become other things. ‘When will you die?’ I’ll probably die in about 40 years, and when I do, I’ll become part of everything that’s around us. You’ll die one day too. That’s the way of the world.
I’m very prosaic about that. The kids have a very good understanding of that reality.
What is a mistake you made growing up that you want to ensure your children do not repeat?
There’s so many. Although I was not untruthful, I tended to be boastful and I exaggerated when I was a kid. I made myself seem bigger than I actually was. I see my younger son doing it now. It’s a part and parcel of wanting everyone to love you and think you’re awesome. I really love him. I already think he’s awesome. I constantly tell him that he doesn’t need to do that.
Aside from saying it aloud, how do you make sure your kids know you love them?
I hug them multiple times every day. I support them in the decisions they make. I listen to them. I respect who they are. I will move heaven and Earth to be with them. If I have a meeting in LA, I will fly there and back in a day, which means that I get no sleep for 24 hours, just so I can be there for breakfast with them in the morning. That, I hope, demonstrates my commitment to them and my desire, however selfish, to be with them.