On any given school morning, like every other mom, you’ll find me yelling “Get your shoes on!” (multiple times, with decreasing levels of patience). But when my kids are not going anywhere that shoes are required, all bets – er, all shoes – are off. Because they don’t want to wear them, and I don’t care.
With the exception of my husband, whose feet are eternally stuffed into shoes and therefore so sensitive he can’t even stand barefoot on the grass, we’ve been a barefoot family for as long as we’ve been a family. He marvels at how I can walk on any surface – be it gravel or snow or hot sand – without hobbling, and I tell him it’s because, unlike his, my feet have been free to adapt. So they have. And so have our kids’.
That’s what happens when feet are allowed to come in direct contact with multiple surfaces: they toughen up. The skin is designed to protect us from pathogens in the first place, and when you go barefoot frequently, the soles of your feet thicken to further fortify that natural barrier, protecting you from pain and infection.
People worry that their kids are going to risk injury or catch some kind of disease by taking their shoes off, but in the environments where most people walk barefoot, there isn’t a lot to worry about – they’re not walking through bio-hazardous substances or across beds of broken glass.
And as someone who has gone barefoot as much as possible throughout my entire life, I can attest to the fact that not wearing shoes makes you more aware of potential hazards. It’s kind of like when you’re driving: you might run right over, say, a flattened piece of cardboard without thinking twice because you know it won’t damage your tires. But you always notice — and swerve to miss — a broken bottle or piece of metal in the road.
Going barefoot makes you aware of a lot of things, actually. First and foremost, it’s a sensory delight, one that I don’t want to deny my kids. If they never knew the pleasure of digging their toes deep into the sand or walking through a lush carpet of cool grass on a scorching summer day, they’d be missing out. But beyond that, it’s just easier to get your bearings when there’s nothing between you and the surface you’re traversing.
Think about doing everything you do with your hands while wearing gloves – not the thin latex kind, but the thick winter gloves designed to protect you from the elements. Think about how much more difficult it is to do things with gloves on, how much it cuts down on your manual dexterity. Everything would be so much easier if you could just feel what you were doing instead of being cloaked in these stupid gloves, right? It’s the same with going barefoot.
While our toes don’t feel and touch in quite the same way that our fingers do, they still have sensory receptors that send neurological messages to our brains about the things they come in contact with. So when my kids climb a tree, or scramble over big rocks, their bare feet are an advantage – because they can feel exactly what they’re stepping on, grip with their toes, and get an overall better sense of the terrain.
If they’re gonna climb all over everything (because kids), I feel much safer with them doing it barefoot than attempting to climb while wearing flip-flops or something. And, going without shoes allows their feet to develop naturally, without being pinched into the narrow toe-boxes until they conform.
If you wanna get a little bit crunchy about it, there’s even a school of thought which says that “grounding” or “earthing” – i.e., the practice of regularly going barefoot outside, for at least 30 minutes a day – has tremendous health benefits, including a decrease in inflammation and better sleep. The theory is that by connecting your bare feet to the earth, you can access its abundant supply of electrons, which neutralize harmful free radicals in the body.
There are actual scientific studies which appear to back this up. I’m not sure I subscribe completely to the notion (my mom was a hippie, me not so much), but I see it this way: my kids and I enjoy going barefoot, and if it benefits our bodies in some way, then … yay!
I realize that barefootin’ it isn’t for everyone, and there are those (like my husband) who prefer to strap into some footwear ASAP every morning. And there are some people who need to wear shoes for arch support. But we’ve never gotten any heinous diseases or foot injuries. Have we had incidents of squishing through fresh dog piles? Maybe once or twice, because thick grass is great crap-camouflage.
I’ll tell you this, though – dog poop is a whole hell of a lot easier to wash off the bottom of a foot than to remove from each groove, crevice, and tread in the bottom of a shoe. Ick.
But no matter how often my kids go barefoot, or how good for them it may be, there’s one problem I can’t seem to avoid: They still ask for the same stupid-expensive shoes as their friends.
At least they don’t wear them out as quickly.