My six-year-old told me I never taught her to wash her hands. Ouch!

It seems the age-old ritual of washing up before lunch, at least in some schools, is now passé.  Why no more soap and water? Germ-X, of course.

“The kids don’t need to wash up,” said a teacher-aide at one Colorado elementary school. “They just stick out their hands and I give them a squirt.”

Now that’s what I call zenful.

Maybe “washing” with Germ-X helps conserve natural resources, but surely something more important is lost in the process.

If kids are too rushed to wash up when they’re six and eight, imagine what their lives will be like when they’re twenty. Handwashing, as simple as it sounds, is actually an important cognitive process, although as grown-ups we don’t really think about the steps involved. We just do it. But little ones need to learn step-by-step procedures. Not just handwashing, but procedures like hanging up their coats, putting away toys, etc. It’s – que’ est-ce que c’est – beneficial to their thinking skills.

So you can imagine my horror when my six-year-old daughter came home from a visit to her grandparents’ house and explained -quite earnestly, in fact – that I had never taught her to wash her hands.

It seems her Pop-Pop busted her. She’d been instructed to wash up for dinner and when she emerged from the bathroom minutes later, the old gent had reason to doubt the degree of thoroughness with which she had completed the task.

Not one to let grime go unreckoned with, he checked the towel. (Really, you should’ve seen this man’s garage. He even had a small paper bag taped to the dryer for collecting the lint.)

And so Pop-Pop marched my blond-haired girl back to the bathroom to set her straight. He didn’t just lead her to water, he taught her to fish; and his instructions left an indelible impression.

Pop-Pop might have been old-fashioned and set in his ways, but he was right on the money in the germ department.

The CDC says that hand-washing is the number one thing people can do to keep from getting sick and spreading germs. And whereby that teacher-aide probably believes hand sanitizers are a gift from God, they are not effective if hands are visibly dirty. Those little paws might have gotten by her, but they would not have gotten by Pop-Pop.

After my daughter told me of my failure – and I mopped my maternal ego off the floor – I listened to her recite, step-by-step, what she’d learned from her grandfather. She was actually quite adorable and ever so sincere: First you turn on the water and get it warm. Then you wet your hands and pick up the soap and make lather. Then you turn off the water and wash your hands. (I watched as she rubbed her little hands around and around.)

You have to wash the backs of your hands, too, she said. And each finger and under your fingernails. Then you turn on the water and rinse off your hands. Shut the water off and you’re done. Then you can dry your hands.

I would add that kids can time themselves to the Happy Birthday song. Sing it twice – not too fast – for a thorough washing. The alphabet song works to, twice through.

Little ones can and should be taught to wash their own hands as soon as they are able to follow simple instructions. They might need a sturdy step stool to reach the sink, and some help reaching the faucet.  Don’t forget to model handwashing for your child. Tell him what you are doing with each step. Take it down to the 1/16th, like Pop-Pop did. Don’t assume that your child will intuit handwashing, just because you’ve washed his hands every single day for the first two or three years of his life.

I never went in for sticker-charts, but they might be of value when teaching a new skill, such as handwashing. Let your child place a sticker on the chart everytime she completes the task for the first month or so.

It’s pretty much common sense when kids need to wash their hands. Here’s what what CDC recommends for kids and adults:

A girl sneezing

  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone who is sick
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the toilet
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After touching an animal or animal waste
  • After touching garbage

I add to that list a few of my own: Always wash hands after  shopping and pumping gas. I also like to wash after shaking hands. If you can’t wash, use hand sanitizer.

If your kids are going to be using hand sanitizer at school, make sure they know how: Take a squirt of hand sanitizer gel and rub it into the palms,  then onto the backs of hands and up and down fingers – until hands are dry.

Remember,  hand-sanitizer is not as effective for kids as handwashing because their hands are frequently dirty.

Here’s a too cute podcast from the CDC, a recording by children for children about the importance of handwashing. Give it a listen.  FFG

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *