It’s true: There is at least one toddler in the world who actually enjoys getting his hair washed. His name is Riley, and he’s two years old. At bath time his parents, Joe and Katie Desimpel, name his different body parts and he washes them. When it’s hair time, they say, “Rub-a-dub, scrub, scrub, scrub!” and away he goes. Then it’s “time for the waterfall,” and Riley leans his head back for a rinse.
Too good to be true? If you have an adamant hair-wash hater on your hands, it’s unlikely a little game will change his mind. But for many toddlers, making personal grooming fun is a great strategy and a good start to eliminating their fear of hygiene.
How else can you make those routine but often unpopular grooming jobs easier? Here are more ideas, from Laurie McNelles, director of the Mothercraft Institute for Early Development, and Karen Monaghan, manager of Mothercraft’s Robertson House in Toronto.
1. Model it
“If they’re in the bathroom with you, seeing you brush your hair, brush your teeth, they learn from the very start that it’s a natural part of life,” says Monaghan.
2. Be consistent
“There needs to be a pattern and a routine,” Monaghan suggests. “Wash your hands every time before you eat, because when the routine isn’t consistent, children don’t make the connection to the importance of it as quickly.”
3. Talk it up
Talk about what you’re doing: “We’re washing our hands, we put soap on our hands and rub them together. We’re getting the germs off our hands.” Talk up your toddler’s good work too. Monaghan says, “The biggest thing in getting them to repeat the behaviour and embrace it is to praise them: ‘Look at how well you washed your hands! You’re taking good care of your body!’”
4. Make it fun
The Desimpels bought Riley an electric toothbrush that looks like a race car. Tooth-brushing time is “the one-minute race! On your mark, get set, go!” They give blow-by-blow commentary too: “He’s on the top, he’s shining up the back molars… Oh, and he’s got the checkered flag!”
5. Let them choose
Some toddlers might feel differently about a toothbrush or hairbrush that they got to pick out at the store. Monaghan did that with her son’s toothbrush, and now “it’s special to him and he takes pride in it.”
6. Think spa
Sometimes you do need to hurry but, McNelles says, “it’s much better if you’re in the relaxed spa mode.” It’s not just the rushing that’s upsetting to toddlers. McNelles points out that things that might not bother us, like having a jug of water poured on our head, can be frightening for young children. Relaxed, unhurried, gentle — that’s what makes for a fun bath!
7. Make it easy
A stepstool to the sink, a mirror at his level, soap where he can reach it, his own towel on a low hook all encourage a toddler’s growing independence and give him a sense of competence with routines like handwashing.
8. Be sneaky!
Nails are easier to clip after the bath, and nail clippers are easier to accept after you’ve watched dad use them on himself, and had a chance to check out the clippers. But if it’s still a no-go, you can do what Monaghan did: Do it when your child is asleep.
Monaghan also practised the nail-clipping routine when her son was awake, just pretending to clip the nails until he got used to it. It worked:“He actually sits down in my lap and gives me his hand now,” she says.
A version of this article was originally published in April 2007.