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The Nightly Fight: “Wash Hands Before Supper!!”

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Fighting About Washing Hands Before Dinner

It’s proper etiquette and good hygiene to teach children to wash their hands before coming to the table.  There are actually two parts to this lesson: The learning to wash part, and then getting them to actually do it before coming to the table.

The first is the easy part:  the “how to wash your hands” lesson is just one example of helping our children develop skills and foster autonomy.  It’s the second lesson that mystifies parents; now you know they CAN wash their hands, but they WON’T.  Each night find yourself having to remind them, yell at them, or sometimes you even resort to doing it for them.
Children usually refuse to wash their hands because they don’t want you bossing them around with your “orders”.  They perceive that you are exerting your personal power over them when you say, “Go wash your hands.”  I know – it wasn’t your intent to be all controlling, you were only concerned with enforcing good hygiene and etiquette. Sorry, but we parents don’t come off that way to our children.  They get instructions most of their day!  It’s off-putting to them.
We can reduce the likelihood of stirring up a power struggle by using a “When ____ then ____” statement.  It looks like this:  “When your hands are washed, then I’ll know you are ready for supper.”  Said this way, the child is in control of their choices, while the parent is in control of maintaining the social order of the household.   They are NOT telling the child what to do, but simply stating that cleans hands are a requirement of eating.  Notice how different that feels from hearing, “If you don’t wash your hands, you don’t get dinner.”  Ouch. That statement is a threat! The power resides with the parent, and it invites resistance and rebellion.
Try a simple when ___ then ___ statement and don’t waiver on the wording.  Let me know how it goes!

About Alyson

Alyson has been blogging parenting advice for over 15 years. She has been a panelist at BlogWest, Blissdom, #140NYC and more. Her content appears on sites across Canada and the US, but you can read all her own blog posts right here.

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8 Responses to “The Nightly Fight: “Wash Hands Before Supper!!””

  1. Amy

    Hah. I take the easy way out and don’t make them wash their hands. I got lazy when they were at the age where you have to go physically help them, and now we’re not in the habit of it. Disgusting, I know. I do make them wash their hands after they go to the bathroom, though.
    I’m slightly validated by that article in the New York Times about germs being good. ( )
    This is a specific instance of a more general laissez faire attitude I perfected after reading your book, Alyson. We don’t fight about outside clothes, or inside clothes for that matter. We don’t fight about what gets eaten at the table. There’s so much we don’t fight about! Slacker parenting is awesome!

  2. Louise

    The way I get my kids to wash their hands- and my husband for that matter – is by telling them that we want to keep a healthy house. And then we all wash our hands at the same time. It works out just fine, and my kids are 9 and 11 yrs old.

  3. Luisa

    Wow! When and Then works very well for my 7year old. So simple and very effective, thankyou!

  4. Alyson Schafer

    Glad you tried it out and found success. That’s why I love sharing this information. Tell 10 friends about it too. So easy to make life in the family happier!

  5. Luisa

    Yes, and I love sharing, so I passed your website to friends…”When and Then works for other situations as well., incredible. I also have a 9yr and 15yr old..(all boys). I had the pleasure of shaking your hand tonight at ‘Joys and Fears” of teenagers!(I sat in the front row!).Thankyou, you’re a great, enthusiastic, passionate speaker and clearly make so much sense. I felt so good after leaving your seminar that I forgot that I actually did have a question…. I can’t believe I lost my opportunity to ask you in person! and get your autograph on 2 of your books I just received…next time,….My 15 yr old son and girlfriend have been ‘together’ for 2 yrs. Apparently, her parents are very strict, but I allow her to come here for lunch, after school..(.my son even makes lunch for her!)Recently, let’s just say that I walked in one day, not expecting my sons face in this place, ya, So, I didn’t yell, I stood there like a fool in awe..Next day, I sat down with the two of them and talked about trusting. They both knew that if I wasn’t home they were not to be home for lunch. So, I took his key and she is not allowed upstairs.They would never do this at her house, are they taking advantage of me? I’d like to be communicating with her mother, how can I make this step,,argh.

  6. norine

    Hi. I came to your website specifically because my friend told me the “when/then” statement has helped her get her 3 year old to wash her hands. I have been trying the “when/then” statement with my willfull 2.5 year old and although she loves water, pumping soap, and is capable of washing her hands she still won’t do it. I am at a loss. I am also having a really hard time crossing the road beside my house with her. She won’t hold my hand and insists on walking beside me, on her own. I keep saying when you hold my hand I know we are safe and ready to cross but then she just sits down on the ground and refuses to move altogether. I then have to drag her kicking and screaming. We have to cross this road 4 times a day. I dread leaving the house now! Please help if you can.

  7. norine

    Hi. I found your section on runaway toddlers. I will try this strategy walking around and with the road crossing. Hopefully it helps.

  8. Alyson Schafer

    Sounds like you have the right idea – just need to allow for longer time lines. She may not wash her hands the minute you want her to, but if you say that you need clean hands before eating / snack and then proceed on with your day, eventually her desire for a snack or to come to the table will motivate her to look after he hand washing of her own accord. Same with crossing the street. You may be late getting where you are going but if they sit down on the sidewalk – sit down with them and start reading a book or check your emails and say ” when your ready to cross let me know” Don’t drag them. You should only be held up doing this a few times / days / weeks. You might want to try a nap sack that has a tail ( basically a harness situation). Some children feel more freedom with that arrangement than having their hand held.


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