Teaching Your Kids About Proper Hygiene and Good Grooming

Stinky feet, smelly armpits and rancid breath: They're three sure-fire 'strikes' in any social scene – especially with candid kids. Cover your bases with these 11 things every parent should teach their children about grooming and hygiene.

Most people can remember the stinky kid – the classmate whose breath or body odor sometimes preceded his arrival. The social isolation poor hygiene habits invite can be avoided all together with early and regular self-grooming guidance, says Julia Cook, author of the children’s book Hygiene … You Stink.

“Good hygiene is a very cheap price to pay for a more positive self-esteem and acceptance by others,” says Cook, who is also a former school teacher and counselor. “Kids can be mean. They will find whatever they can to pick on others. Poor hygiene is so easy to fix.”

To that end, here’s a list of squeaky-clean tips for parents to help instill optimal grooming habits in kids – even at the earliest stages of development.

1. Conduct a handwashing how-to

Dr. Ebony Parker-Featherstone is a clinical assistant professor of family medicine at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and a mom of two. She stresses that perhaps the most important self-care regimen to begin teaching tykes is proper hand washing.

“Let them know all the different times they need to be washing their hands,” she says. “Those include before meals, after using the restroom, when coming in from outside or a public space, after coughing and sneezing and, of course, if their hands are soiled.”

Don’t bother telling little ones to wash for the health care gold standard of at least 20 seconds, Parker-Featherstone adds. It means nothing to them.

“Pick a song they know and like and have them sing it at least once through while they wash,” she says. “ABCs are a favorite, but it can be any song. There are also some nifty timers that have come along to help in this regard.”

Parker-Featherstone notes that proper technique includes wetting hands, lathering the soap, rubbing vigorously on both sides and rinsing.

“Also, encourage your child to cough into his or her elbow,” she says, “and advise them on what to do if they have a runny nose.”

2. Bust bad breath

Megan Stowers is a pediatric dentist with Cabot & Stowers in West Bloomfield. She says bad breath can be kept in check through regular brushing (including brushing the tongue, where bad breath-causing bacteria thrive) and the use of a fluoride mouth rinse when a child is old enough to spit.

“Flossing is also important to remove the bacteria from where a toothbrush can’t reach,” Stowers says. “We recommend parents help with flossing. Once teeth touch one another, we educate parents that it is time to floss.”

Twice-daily brushing should commence with the eruption of the first tooth, Stowers notes, and fluoride toothpaste in small amounts is OK at any age.

“A parent or caregiver should be responsible for placing the toothpaste on the brush to ensure an excess amount is not being used,” she says. “Under the age of 2, a ‘smear layer’ of toothpaste should be applied to the bristles.”

At age 2, she says, children can use a “pea size” amount.

3. Review bathing basics

In her hygiene book, Julia Cook explains some reasons kids might not be overly keen to take a bath or shower.

“Sometimes there’s just too much else going on that they’d rather do,” she says. “Sometimes they’re actually afraid of the water, and other times they’re afraid of discomforts like cold water. Sometimes they are just lazy and don’t see the point.

“They become ‘nose blind.’ They’re so used to the way they smell that they don’t realize it is offensive.”

In her book, a fork thinks she doesn’t need to bathe because she is made of stainless steel. The cast of kitchen characters explain that the germs and bacteria making her reek suggest otherwise. The characters go on to address each of her fears, including cold water and soap in her eyes.

Barring skin conditions or other medical issues, Parker-Featherstone recommends parents bathe their infants and toddlers every other day. “However, if the family spent the day at a petting farm, a bath is probably warranted,” she says.

During early childhood, there’s a great opportunity for parents to make grooming a routine that lasts for a lifetime, she adds: “Use your child’s bath time to talk about washing well under their arms, drying well and moisturizing their skin – and why they need to do that.”

By age 9 or 10, kids should be bathing at least every other day, says Bridget McArdle, a Sterling Heights-based pediatrician with Henry Ford Health System.

“If they are playing sports or sweating a lot, daily bathing is necessary,” she says noting it often starts with feet. “Stinky feet can be the result of pH and hormone changes.”

On days when a full shower or bath isn’t possible or absolutely necessary, encourage kids to take a sponge bath to wash armpits, feet and the genital area in particular, McArdle adds.

Topics like body odor and bathing may be awkward for parents of tweens and teens. It can help to frame the conversation in terms of a respect for others.

“Not being diligent with self-care can impact other people,” Parker-Featherstone explains. “You can ask your child how starting to smell might impact their neighbors and others sharing their space.”

McArdle is a fan of the book The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Younger Girls, a guide for ages 8 and up on all things related to hygiene, puberty and the changes girls go through as they develop. “As a parent, the earlier you talk about these types of things, the less awkward it is,” she says.

4. Instruct on lice avoidance

Elyse Kolender would likely argue a holistic hygiene regimen includes hair and overall head care. As owner of the Lice Sisters based in Bloomfield Hills, she regularly works with families trying desperately to rid their household of the itchy pest. Her two main prevention tips are simple.

“Tell your child never to share anything that goes on their head,” she says. “This can include hats, helmets, hair ties, brushes and combs.”

Second? “Caution them not to share places where they put their head,” she notes. “Things like towels and pillows.”

Also, stress the importance of not adding your coat to a pile at parties. “Lice does not discriminate. It actually thrives on clean scalps, much to people’s surprise.”

If an outbreak is present in a child’s school, Kolender recommends parents tie long hair up in a tight bun and encourage kids not to crowd around friends’ and classmates’ phones and tablets, where their heads could be touching or are at least in close proximity.

5. Encourage regular clothing rotation

The cleanest of kids can still smell when the clothes they wear bear yesterday’s BO. Remind even young kids to change their underwear and socks every day, McArdle stresses. Parker-Featherstone concurs.

“Sweat composition changes as puberty nears,” she says. “Tweens and teens can’t wear the same shorts three days in a row like they may have been able to do when they were younger.”

Cook recalls a student she once taught who smelled badly and had no friends.

“The child wasn’t unclean,” she recalls. “But his clothing was. Come to find out, his cat was peeing on his clothes. He was so used to it, he didn’t even know.”

6. Keep acne in check

As kids begin puberty, their skin changes. Acne is a common pest. Nanette Silverberg is a pediatric dermatologist who, during a guest web radio spot for the American Academy of Pediatrics, says 85 percent of teens statistically have acne.

“I’ve always said to my patients that I think the other 15 percent were just lying when surveyed,” she says. “I think everyone gets pimples at some point in the teenage years. It’s a matter of how many pimples you get and how it affects you.”

When you start to notice acne on your child’s face, Silverberg recommends introducing a gentle, fragrance-free, over-the-counter cleanser that the child should use twice a day. She also suggests kids avoid using thick products on their face and lots of hair gel or hair spray that can move forward onto the forehead, blocking up pores. She also advises parents to wash baseball caps and helmets on the inside to rid them of bacteria that may be promoting acne.

More severe acne may require a prescribed topical or oral medication.

“It may sound basic, but advising your kids not to touch their face with dirty hands is another simple way to keep acne at bay,” Parker-Featherstone says.

7. Don deodorant daily

While young kids may be years away from needing deodorant, McArdle says there’s nothing wrong with having conversations about it early.

“You could say to your kids, ‘As we get older, we sweat more. See how mom and dad use deodorant? You will too when you’re older,'” she notes.

When that time comes, she suggests casually mentioning you’ve noticed your child’s body changing and that it is time to try deodorant.

“You could ask them if they want you to get it for them of if they’d rather go with you,” McArdle says.

8. Prep for feminine hygiene

When a young girl first gets her period, it’s Parker-Featherstone’s hope that she knew it was coming.

“Parents should have the puberty conversation early,” she says. “Prepare kids in advance as much as possible.”

Part of that, she says, should be talking about and showing daughters feminine hygiene products. “Talk about tampon use, but start with a pad. Girls should be empowered to make the decision that is most comfortable for them.”

Take stock of what your daughter will need and put together a stash she can keep in her backpack or purse.

The American Academy of Pediatrics stresses parents should educate daughters on the need to change pads or tampons several times a day and that tampons should not be worn overnight. Girls can and should shower or bathe while menstruating.

Major feminine hygiene brands, like Tampax and U by Kotex, sell tween- and teen-friendly pads that are less bulky and packaged decoratively for discretion.

9. Share shaving tips

With the arrival of puberty comes the arrival of hair – and lots of it. Shaving becomes an important part of the hygiene discussion, McArdle notes.

The American Academy of Dermatology provides helpful hints to share with your son or daughter, such as wetting skin and hair first to soften it, using shaving cream or gel and shaving in the direction the hair grows.

Teen boys with acne need to exercise extra caution when shaving so as not to exacerbate it. The AAD recommends boys experiment with electric and disposable blade razors to see which works best, always to use a razor with a sharp blade, shave lightly to prevent nicks and never to attempt to shave off the acne.

10. Leverage visual aids

Aubrey Rutkowski is a mom and social worker from Lake Orion who previously worked in Warren Consolidated Schools. In her time there, it was not uncommon for her to be called in to work with one or more kids whose personal hygiene needed addressing. Typically, she’d begin with a book.

“(That) opens the discussion,” she explains. “The kids may begin asking questions as you read.” After, she would ask the kids questions about what taking care of themselves looks like.

“I’d make a list on the board of their answers,” she says. “This is how I approach many topics – I make it their idea.”

For younger kids, Rutkowski has found great success in using visual or picture schedules that outline hygiene steps one by one, in chronological order.

“A schedule like this could include pictures of a toothbrush, a comb, a wash cloth and deodorant, for example,” she says. “Once the child does the task, he or she gets to check it off with a dry erase marker or move it along a Velcro strip.”

She notes that visual schedules are often especially helpful for very young children and children with special needs. She has found helpful templates for visual cards on sites including speakingofspeech.com and do2learn.com.

11. Bring in reinforcements

Both McArdle and Parker-Featherstone are happy to be a resource. As a routine, Parker-Featherstone asks the parents of her pediatric patients ages 12 and up to step out at some point during their annual wellness exam.

“This gives kids an opportunity to ask questions they may not be comfortable asking their parents,” she explains. “I may also be able to help reinforce what the parent is telling the child at home when it comes to self-care.”

Parker-Featherstone notes U of M’s OB-GYN department has a developmental disabilities clinic, which may be a resource for tweens and teens who are cognitively or developmentally delayed or who have some other impairment, like the inability to use their lower legs.

“Thinking about menstrual issues in patients with these types of impairments, there are some unique challenges,” she says. “We can work with patients and their families or caregivers to train them on how to handle self-care and grooming when puberty hits.”

McArdle and Parker-Featherstone advise parents not to discount the important role their own hygiene plays in setting the tone for their child’s grooming habits. Aubrey Rutkowski couldn’t agree more.

“I always say it’s about teaching, practicing and role modeling.”

Photo by Lauren Jeziorski

This post was originally published in the June 2016 issue of Metro Parent and has been updated for 2017. 

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July 2016
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