It can be tricky to convince kids that hygiene is important. “They think in the now, so a cavity six months down the road doesn’t mean anything,” says Jennifer Kolari, a parent and child therapist in Toronto. But there are ways to help kids take responsibility for routine cleaning — of teeth, nails, hair or hands.
To start, try explaining the importance of good grooming in ways little kids can understand. Instead of warning them about cavities and plaque, suggests Kolari, tell them they need to get the “sugar bugs” off their teeth. (Just don’t try to talk about it when they’re mid-tantrum.)
It also helps to give younger kids some responsibility. Let them pick out their own toothbrush or test the water temperature before you fill the tub.
As much as possible, make it fun, suggests Kolari. If the bathtub has become a battleground, for example, add some intrigue: Pretend that the tub is a boat sailing with the characters from Finding Nemo. “Using play helps change behaviour and create new habits,” says Kolari.
Once you’ve established a hygiene habit, stick with it, says Kolari. Having consistent rules (“We wash our hands before eating”) can make a big difference, but if your kids are still having trouble embracing cleanliness, consider adding incentives.
For instance, tangles can make hair-brushing a hang-up for some kids. “It can get to the point where they start screaming before you’ve even begun brushing,” says Kolari. While a good detangler might help, she also recommends having kids set personal goals, such as, “I want to be able to wear these pretty hair clips.”
After each successful hair-brushing session, your child could receive a sticker or a gold-painted Popsicle stick she can trade in for some special time with mom. “You don’t want to use rewards for everything, but sometimes they can help shift behaviour,” says Kolari.
No matter what hygiene hurdle you are trying to overcome, turning it into a game can be the secret to success. Kolari and her daughter pretend they’re in a hair-brushing competition in front of a live audience. “We’ve played it 50 times and it never gets old,” she says. “Making a game of it teaches kids it’s not so bad and that they can do it.”
Squeaky clean teens
For teens, the problem often becomes getting them out of the bathroom. At the same time, Kolari says, “you may still have to do a milder version of a check-in.” For instance, teens may well be obsessed with their hair, but flossing, not so much. But most conflicts are more likely to be about water conservation and who used up the shampoo rather than whether they scrubbed behind their ears.