4 Ways to Clean Up Your Kids’ Hand Washing Habits


This winter, my kids were continually sick. Nothing severe, thankfully, but our household was plagued by tonsillitis, stomach flu, coughs, colds, and always-runny noses. Kleenex should have signed us to an endorsement deal.

The endless cycle of germs, sick days, and cancelled plans frustrated me to no end. Our house is reasonably clean and we are responsible about our healthy eating habits and sleep routines. Still, exposure to viruses and bacteria is inevitable. I felt compelled to take action, even if it was simply to give myself an illusion of control. I decided to tackle an area where I felt I might be able to have an impact: hand washing.

I have two boys, and cleanliness is not high on their list of priorities. They are reluctant to stop whatever they’re doing for something as mundane as washing up. Whenever I take the clippers out of the drawer to trim my six-year-old’s fingernails, he groans: “Oh, no – not hygiene!”

This time, though, I was immune to their grumbling. Every article or tip sheet I had read about illness prevention encouraged proper washing technique, and our situation had gotten out of hand. Here are four strategies that ended up working for us:

Introduce a timing device.

My kids already washed their hands regularly – usually prompted by me – but I suspected that the amount of time they spent in the actual act of scrubbing was negligible. I dug through our boxes of Christmas ornaments to find a reindeer decoration that played an electronic song, similar to a musical greeting card. I clocked its rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” at 20 seconds in length. Perfect. I hung it next to the sink and announced that all hand washing would now be accompanied by the musical stylings of Rudolph. I showed them how they should wet their hands, get a dab of soap, turn on the song, scrub until it ended, then rinse.

This seemingly ridiculous idea has proved to be highly successful, even weeks later. The kids enjoy activating the noisy toy, and it gives them some obvious parameters for how long they should spend lathering up. Other similar options include any toy that makes a prolonged sound, a sand timer, or having kids sing a song themselves. Out of season as it may be, the muffled Rudolph melody coming from inside the bathroom has been music to my ears.

Get some fun soap.

Full disclosure: I haven’t done any research on the benefits of antibacterial vs. regular soap, nor do I know the germ-fighting pros and cons of liquid, foam or bar formats. I do know that my kids love going to the soap store in the mall and picking out easy-to-pump soaps in various (as they call them) “flavours”. When there’s a multi-buy sale, we all head over there and spend half an hour smelling all the different varieties and making our selections. They like reading the exotic-sounding names on the labels and are excited when “their” soap gets its turn next to the sink. If the vivid colours and scents make them a little more enthused about the whole hand washing experience, I’m all for it.

Ask the right questions.

I have explained to my kids why we’re striving to stay germ-free. I have used hotel and camping analogies to illustrate how germs are keen to get access to a human body. I have stressed the fact that keeping their hands clean is a good way to avoid getting sick. None of it appears to have had any effect whatsoever.

I made a little more progress when I stopped lecturing and started sleuthing. On a day when my oldest was miserable with the sniffles – again – I asked him how often he washes his hands at school. He sheepishly admitted that he usually didn’t bother to wash up before either of his two eating breaks. Appalled to discover that he was skipping this important step when I wasn’t around, I launched into my next strategy:

Make it visual.

At this point, desperation led to demonstration. Even though I knew it would be messy, I took some white flour (I suppose icing sugar would have worked too) and spread it on the table in front of me. I told my son that in this simulation, I was him and the white powder represented germs. I proceeded to touch the table surface to show him how over the course of his school day, his hands would be contacting desks, chairs, doorknobs, and water fountains – all places where germs could get on his hands. Next, I picked up a cracker and started eating it, purposely wiping my face with my hand the way he does. He was sufficiently horrified by my flour-covered face. As a final touch, I went over to the sink and washed my hands, to show him how easily the germs could be removed prior to snack time. The best part was that he started asking questions like: “What if I wash my hands really well but then I touch a door handle with germs on it right after?” Welcome to my world, kid.

I realize that even if our whole family is meticulous about hand washing, we’re still going to get sick at some point. Even so, it was an area where things had started to slip, so it was worth the extra effort to clean up our act.

Picture of Kristi York

Author: Kristi York

Kristi York is a freelance writer and mom of two sports-loving boys. Her work has been published by ParentsCanada, Running Room, ParticipACTION and The Costco Connection.

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