How do we get our kids to brush their teeth?!
Keeping up standard dental hygiene can be difficult in those early years with our children. Young children have little to no understanding of the future – any talk of cavities, bacteria or doctors seldom leaves an impression. Cleaning teeth for fear of a parent’s wrath or because of some nightmarish tales doesn’t instill healthy associations with the topic; it alienates children from a part of their body and transfers their motivation to an unhappy place.
Children from around six years and above may well be interested in the reasons for brushing teeth and the consequences of not. They begin to comprehend the future and how our actions now may have implications.
We must first bid farewell to this way of thinking: we mustn’t ever need to “get” someone to do something. Bribes and rewards, punishments and shaming will not keep their hold for long and do not instill healthy connotations (on the contrary in fact), but bring about a dependency on outer, controlling forces and are detrimental to a person’s self-esteem and relationships. We must consider the person standing before us; take their needs, emotions and personal boundaries into consideration and communicate with them instead of implementing aged methods and techniques of child-raising.
The task of brushing our children’s teeth mustn’t be done by the clock or on our schedule – if a child is engaged in play or meeting a different need, telling him it’s “time” gets the whole thing off to a rotten start. When we live authentically, we see our children for the individuals they are; we have no need for methods or time-frames. We can mention the thought, await reply, take interest in the activity our child is immersed in and connect with them. The right time will arise; the connection and playfulness are already in place.
One of the most important things, when it comes to dental hygiene, is that children experience adults cleaning their teeth, too. Oftentimes children of all ages rarely observe it being done, however they generally revel in doing things adults do; After all, that is the point of growing up and learning: to be able to do things adults do.
I do not believe people should get into the habit of doing things now because they’ll need to be used to them in the future; if my two year old won’t clean her teeth now, there is no reason to believe she won’t clean them when she is six or ten or twenty years old. But I know for a fact she will not enjoy doing them if I force her now.
Young children like to do things they enjoy. That is why we must focus on making this experience a fun one they want to take part in instead of reprimanding and scolding them for not complying.
We must authentically enjoy the experience and then they will imitate our attitude and join in. We must be playful and our suggestions must be appealing for our children to want to undergo this uncomfortable and greatly incomprehensible task.
These are some examples for making teeth-cleaning fun:
*Have more than one tooth brush to choose from. Have ten if need be!
*Have different tooth pastes to choose from.
*Invest in an electric toothbrush. (The procedure doesn’t take as long and as they move so fast you manage to clean ‘better’ than with a regular toothbrush)
*To offer a greater array you could add a finger toothbrush, offer to use a flannel (which might be gentler) or get ahold of some liquorice root.
*Have special songs/rhymes/games you play during teeth-time: my son currently enjoys hiding while I prepare the toothbrush. When he was younger he rotated favorite songs.
*Have a special, funny hand-puppet that does the brushing.
*Find animals in the teeth and clean them away “how did a monkey get in here? What, there’s a kangaroo back there!”
*Play “Dentist”, examine every tooth (promptly) and make remarks, “ah yes, number two is fine…three...four, aha this one needs a bit of a scrub!”
*Play “give that crumb a PUSH!!” As you brush along, pretend to find crumbs and push them away, or let the child do so with brush-strokes. Our enthusiasm drives the play.
*Count down from ten for each row to give a time-perspective.
*Have your partner do your teeth and vice-versa; I’m sure the experience will be hilarious and entice your child to join in the fun!
*Allow your child to have a go at brushing your teeth.
*Do not restrict teeth-cleaning to mornings and evenings; maybe it suits your child to do it at alternative times of the day.
*Let your child choose “how” and “where” you do her teeth: my sons enjoyed picking random places, sometimes even choosing to lie on my lap facing away from me, feet in air, as I brushed upside down! And phases on the sofa, in bed or sitting on the bathroom floor rotated…
*Introduce a special chair (you could paint it a favorite color or stick stickers on it); special children’s mirror and sideboard in bathroom; special toothbrush holders and accessories.
*Incorporate as much choice and autonomy as you can (however if your child is prone to becoming overwhelmed by too many choices, offer two instead of ten different options and support in a patient and calm manner).
*Offer older children Xylitol chewing gum.
We must alternate these games and suggestions before they grow mundane, always introducing new fun ideas and establishing new rituals.
Another crucial thing is to respect our children’s bodily autonomy and personal boundaries. When they say “no”, we may try a few things playfully, but when that “no” doesn’t give way to smiles and fun, we must respect it.
Children, like adults, like to have the choice; it’s a human thing. Having the choice certainly doesn’t mean our children will always choose not to clean their teeth. It shows them respect; the same respect we expect to receive, the same respect we wish to see in our families.
When we oppose their decision and try to coerce them into doing their teeth by physical force, guilt or shame, we create an air of caution, mistrust, dread and terror to the task and through this yield defiant behavior.
Many parents opt for the “holding down” method, feeling the need for clean teeth is in fact so important it justifies such abusive behavior. They don’t feel good doing it…because it is far from good. Holding a child down and inserting an object into a bodily orifice and moving it around in a manner that is far from gentle is without a doubt a violation of that human being. Such handling would be categorized as gross ill-treatment and certainly reported to the authorities in the case of an adult. Children do not take such an offense lightheartedly, many fight their battle for justice and basic human rights, but some others do surrender to the fact that this is the treatment they earn in life…this is the treatment they are worthy of; such is the respect they must expect in their world: People overpower people and show no regard for their feelings.
How could we frown at our children, when they fight such attacks on their integrity? They know and believe they shouldn’t be held down, shouldn’t be overpowered, they have sufficient and intact self-esteem to fight for their right to say “no” and “stop”! This is a quality, a natural state we should be empowering, instead of seeking to break by overpowering our children into obedience.
When we have created power-struggles around teeth-cleaning, it helps to drop the subject altogether for a while in order to neutralize any biases we and our children have acquired. We can let go of our own dread of the ritual and stock up on new exciting ideas to make things more enjoyable. In this time we can authentically ask our children if they would like to join us in cleaning our teeth and also clean their own (or allow them to be cleaned). We must allow them to trust that we will hear and respect their decision. Younger children will soon become open to associate dental hygiene with happy, fun things and freely wish to join in.
We can strike up conversations with older children about teeth, food and hygiene; delve into history and learning about the habits and implements used by different cultures. They will feel so liberated through this experience of having a choice and bodily autonomy they will also begin to open up to the possibility of actually brushing regularly, not because they have to, but because everyone does so.
When we stop applying so much pressure around the topic of dental hygiene, all involved parties undertake it more willingly than when it promised bad moods and stress. We must ask ourselves what it is that is stilled within us when we manage to brush our two year old’s teeth for two seconds…what is this fear that has such a hold on us and how are these few half-strokes capable of satisfying it? Do we really believe there is such a great difference to if we hadn’t performed them? How could this fear legitimize holding a person down and cleaning their teeth forcefully? How could a need for clean teeth come close to the emotional wounds that arise from such a betrayal of our parental role?
This use of force and coercion can impossibly be the correct and decent way of going about this topic. We must address our fear; educate ourselves to counteract it, be playful with our children and treat them as we wish to be treated. They are certainly more likely to follow someone they trust, rather than someone they fear! They are much more likely to do something they enjoy, rather than something they dread!
I invite you to take your liberty and join the revolution!