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By: Dr Afiniki Akanet, author of Fortitude and Life Without Coffee (Choosing Happiness Over Stress)
Posted on: Oct 14, 2020

Tips for Teaching Children Good Hand Hygiene

With 15th October marking Global Handwashing Day, medical GP and mum-of-two Dr. Afiniki Akanet shares her top tips for teaching good hand hygiene to young children.

A lot of parents will have spent more time with their children this year due to COVID-19 school closures. As such, we have been exposed to new aspects of their characters that we love, and others that need improvement. As parents, it is sometimes easy to fall into the trap of trying to raise ‘perfect’ children, forgetting that we ourselves are not perfect. As hard as we try to teach some good manners and habits, some children just won’t change, and we wonder why.

Handwashing and hygiene have been of greater significance this year as we try to control the spread of coronavirus. Although handwashing is something we all should have been doing before now, we are all urged to do even more than the bare minimum, such as washing your hands after using the toilet, and before eating. I have been impressed by the creative and effective ways teachers have explained the importance of this to children, helping to keep them safe in school this year.

The question now is, how do we teach good handwashing and other healthy habits at home?

Provide clear direction

It is amazing to see that many children remain confused about what their parents really want from them. The child that gets told off a lot often tells professionals that he/she is frustrated about not knowing what exactly is expected of him/her. Communication within families can sometimes be strained because we can unconsciously assume that people know better or understand what we mean, without us having to say the words. This can often be a problem, even in adult relationships and marriages.

Parents will sometimes get frustrated with disobedient children, and say “How many times have I told you?!” It might be worth asking yourself next time, before getting upset, whether you have actually given clear enough instructions. Some children prefer pictures, so it might help to show them in pictures and videos why, how, and when we want them to wash their hands.

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Be consistent

If your children are anything like mine, you will be used to the ‘why’ questions. I am sometimes sure they already know the answers but just want to test us - for consistency! If we break the rules here and there, they tend to believe they can do the same, but, unfortunately, get into trouble because it probably embarrassed or upset us when they did.

Children will often challenge us when our actions do not match up with what we have said. For example, about social distancing, government guidelines, health and hygiene, etc. It is helpful to keep updated with government guidelines and what the schools are teaching children so we are all passing on the same messages.

It has been a really trying time with COVID-19 rules and advice changing often, but it is possible to be honest with children about our own limitations and let them know that we all just need to do our best to stay safe and healthy together. I have sometimes had to simply maintain a blanket rule of ‘no playdates for now’, for example, because it was too difficult to explain the do and don’ts of social gatherings and bubbles in this pandemic to a four-year-old! We can also encourage good habits like regular handwashing by praising good behaviour and being consistent in our disapproval of unhelpful habits.

Be 'the good example'

Children really do copy what they see. They soon figure out that we are hypocrites if we keep saying one thing and doing the opposite - then, respect goes right out of the window! Even when children say nothing, they notice when we wash our own hands and how we do it.

Alcohol gels have been handy in this pandemic for hand hygiene , but it is useful for children to see that it is not just something we do for show - that we are actually cleaning our hands properly when we use gels.

Ever since my children discovered that I have fillings in my teeth, I am sadly no longer an authority on dental hygiene in our house. They joke that I ate too many sweets as a child, so they mainly listen to their Dad and dentist about tooth hygiene. They look forward to receiving praise at their dental checkup and rub it in that they have healthy teeth because they brush properly twice a day. Since I love my sweets and cake, I am just grateful that they actually listen to the dentist and do the right thing.

Even when we are unable to be 'the good example' for our children, we can be honest about our faults and show them other good role models, so they can have a better future.

It really does take a village to raise a child, so I hope that as we celebrate global handwashing day this month, we will all try to be good role models for the little ones around us.

Global Handwashing Day 2020