pediatric housecalls Robert R. Jarrett M.D. M.B.A. FAAP

Kids and Handwashing

Even that yahoo father in Sam’s Club that I told you about before, does at least recognize that hands DO need to be washed once in awhile. And if dad can’t be trusted to do it, the duty to teach the kids the proper habit of handwashing falls squarely on mom.

Smart moms recognize that nearly every kid is much too old to do anything about the life-habits he’s already learned by the time he realizes that not every parent on the block makes their children do the same things. By the time he learns that Joey’s mom never makes him wash his hands after going to the bathroom, it’s too late. He’s already well endowed with the habit to “cover, flush and wash” and does it without even thinking.

There doesn’t even need to be any arguing and certainly no negotiation – we’re talking about under 8’s here. There DOES need to be plenty of non-emotional reminding in this age group in addition to monitoring and reinforcement.

How Much Is Enough?

The food industry, believe it or not, has done fairly extensive studies on handwashing. (My guess is to find out the minimum times needed so they can get back to work). It turns out that the minimum time is 20 SECONDS, with running hot water and soap.

That’s the study of what TO DO, you don’t want to hear about what the studies show is ACTUALLY DONE. Really, you don’t. Sufficeth to say that most kids leave the water running for less than five seconds and some even prefer to merely splash water on the soap bar rather than actually use it.

Teaching Handwashing

One mother told me once that she got so frustrated she plopped some pans in the sink and made her daughter “wash the dishes” in order to get her hands clean. That did get ’em clean all right, but probably didn’t teach the behavior she wanted to teach.

So, I’ve sort of collected a few “techniques” I’ve seen mothers write about on their blogs. I’ll list a couple here:

    Girl washing her hands on a step

  • Make it expected – I’ve already mentioned this above. But for a reason I haven’t quite figured out, setting expectations seems to be something an increasing number of parents are finding it difficult to do. I’ve seen parents giving lengthy explanations to a two-year-old, even though the only thing they are understanding is “this is fun making mommies face all red.” There are some things which you should have on a list of “our family does” rules which are non-negotiable; not going into the street is one, washing your hands after using the bathroom and before eating is another.
  • Routine, Routine, Routine – The second is like unto it: what is routine gets done. “Every time we get home, we take off our jackets, shoes, and wash hands before we can do anything else.”
  • Schedule inspections – This age group needs frequent reminders, it’s part of their job description. Formalizing the routine until they’ve shown (via un-announced inspections) that they can be trusted to do it on their own is a good idea.
  • Sing a song – it takes about 20 seconds to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. Or you could have them count or sing a different song. Just time them for real the first time they do it so you’ll know which guideline to use.
  • “Smells like clean” – Make a point to equate a particular smell (like Christmas tree) with clean. “Every time my boy washes his hands he comes to show me how clean they smell.”
  • Kid friendly wash station – Make a project of setting up a “big boy” wash station with steps, small soap and dispenser, small rag – everything they need within reach. With any luck a habit will form before the newness and pride of doing it all themselves wears off.
  • Ditty about dirt – Along with the singing time mentioned above, sing this ditty (to the tune of Frere Jacques): “Front and back, Front and back, In between, In between, Rub them both together, Rub them both together, Now they’re clean, Now they’re clean.” Or, another: “Twinkle, twinkle little star. Look how clean my two hands are. Soap and water, wash and scrub. Get those germs off rub-a-dub. Twinkle, twinkle little star. Look how clean my two hands are.”
  • “You can’t have it” – I’ve seen some parents use this “reverse psychology” ruse but it seems like it may come back to bite you sometime. “Don’t you dare wash your hands,” “Don’t use my soap,” etc.. Like I said, this won’t work with some kids… well, perhaps with very few kids.
  • You can use MY soap – On the other hand, if a boy or girl becomes interested in “dress-up” or using mommy or daddy’s things, one parent suggested making a big deal out of allowing them to “use mommy’s soap.”
  • Things to buy – I much, much prefer parenting techniques than gadgetry. However, there are numbers of companies who’ve gadgetized and mechanized handwashing into a commercial venture: multiple scents of soaps, character based soaps, sports figure endorsed soaps, flashing light timers, singing soap dishes, color changing soaps.
  • Troubleshoot – If hygiene habits don’t seem to be forming, or if there is a backslide, it’s time for a “parent talk.” Both parents need to be on the same page, no “mixed messages.”
  • Another mother advised:

  • When all else fails – foam!
Share on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on FacebookEmail this to someone
Please share...