Part and parcel of your children growing up is them learning to take care of themselves, but before they get to that stage there are a lot of growing pains – and conversations about cleanliness – to be had. Right now, with the ongoing fears of the spread of Covid-19, those hygiene conversations are more important than ever.
Rather than just being a conversation where mum or dad nags them about keeping their school uniform tidy, conversations about staying clean and healthy now have added weight as all of us – children included – need to do our best to prevent the spread of germs.
The UK government and the World Health Organisation has advised that the best way to stay safe from the virus – alongside social distancing – is to maintain good hand hygiene and wear a face covering if possible. But how do you get children, whether they’re 5 or 15, to stick to these sort of rules – especially now they’re back in school?
Here are our tips for talking to your kids about keeping healthy and hygienic, whatever their age.
With children under five, including toddlers, you’re more likely to already be fairly vigilant when it comes to their health and hygiene. Very young children often put things in their mouth or on their face because they’re curious about the smell or taste, and as a parent you’ll be used to keeping a watchful eye on them. However, if they’re at nursery or socialising with other children, it’s important to talk to them about keeping themselves clean so germs don’t spread.
Washing their hands with them is a simple way to teach them how to do it themselves. The government recommends linking hand-washing to a song – like ‘Happy Birthday’ – so we all wash our hands for the recommended 20-30 seconds. But you might want to use your child’s favourite song or a rhyme you make up together.
At this age, children begin to be more independent and perhaps even rebellious when it comes to following the ‘rules’. This can mean it’s harder to encourage them to do things like wash their hands – so leading by example is simple but effective.
Instigate a household rule that everyone has to wash their hands when they get into the house, before dinner and after dinner – and then make sure everyone does it! Children are excellent at finding ways round doing things they don’t like (like hand-washing or teeth-brushing) so you may wish to do it at the same time as them in the kitchen sink to make sure.
You can begin to explain more about why hand-washing is so important at this age; talk to them about how germs ‘stick’ to our hands and cleaning them helps wash them away.
From ages 9 to 11, children are likely to become more curious about things like cleanliness, hygiene, dirt and looking after themselves, in part as they become more conscious of approaching adolescence. Having conversations about good personal hygiene now will help cement positive habits later on, and that includes hand-washing.
The idea is to normalise hand-washing before and after meals, when they get in from school or arrive at school, and whenever they sneeze or cough – along with the normal times like after using the bathroom. Chat with them about when they think it’s important to wash their hands, and why; you could even draw up a little list to help remind them.
As well as instigating ‘all household’ rules about washing your hands, you can also talk to your children in more detail about how germs spread. As an experiment, get them to count how many things they touch in an average day, then talk about how bacteria can move between surfaces.
In the early years of puberty, your child may find they need to change their existing hygiene habits to counteract some of the changes in their body. As hormone production amplifies, so do the smells, secretions and mood swings, and it can be challenging for children to keep up with what’s going on.
During this time, it’s even more important that your child takes care of their personal hygiene and feels able to do so. Talk to them openly about puberty; discuss how hormone changes will affect things like how much they sweat, how much oil their skin produces, and how keeping clean will help them avoid nasties like greasy hair, stinky pits and, of course, germs.
You can give your child hand sanitiser to use while they’re out with friends or at school, as long as it contains at least 60% alcohol – any less won’t be effective. They should also be reminded that it’s not a replacement for hand-washing, but a supplement.
As your child progresses into young adulthood, they’ll start to face the true perils of teenage-dom: lethargy, laziness and a general disinclination to do anything. That includes washing their hands and ensuring good personal hygiene habits.
Having an adult-to-adult conversation with your children at this point is a good idea, as you can outline to them the official guidelines when it comes to Covid-19 and link it back to the importance of keeping clean and healthy. Act as a role model for your child; when they see you regularly washing your hands, wearing a face covering and maintaining social distancing, they’re more likely to perceive it as ‘normal’ and make the effort to do it.
You should also talk to them about peer pressure and social challenges they may face if, for example, one of their friends isn’t adhering to the rules. Talk to them about what they can say or do, and how they can make sure to stick to what they know is best even when their friends are doing something different.