It’s no understatement to say that getting children to form healthy behaviors you hope they carry into adulthood is challenging. There are complications, exceptions, and distractions galore! Let’s take something as simple as dental hygiene for example.
Brushing and flossing are excellent preventative measures to tooth decay and gum disease. Stuff caught between your teeth, discoloration and rot spots, bad breath all can be social prohibitors. Having teeth removed or replaced, cavities filled, crowns and root canals can all be painful and expensive trade offs for foregoing the 5-7 minutes of oral care effort required per day.
The ADA recommends brushing teeth twice daily with fluoride toothpaste, for a duration of 2 minutes per session, and cleaning between teeth daily. My dental hygienist reminds me every 6 months of this commitment even though I get good marks on my check-ups.
You would think that it would be easy to start and end the day with a little teeth brushing with the children. Even if you have a routine planned, life happens to have other ideas. Things like illnesses, vacations, sleepovers, falling asleep in the car, late night gatherings, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of excuses that you or the kids may make to skip 2 minutes of scrubbing.
In our case, getting the kiddos to start the teeth brushing was less problematic than getting them to stay at it for more than 30 seconds. It was similar to watching an Olympic luge race – a quick push off, a couple of whooshes around the bends, then a bunch of spray at the end, and it’s over before you know it! If you turned your back, you probably missed it.
As soon as the kids were old enough to hold a toothbrush and scrub on their own, convincing them that 2 minutes wasn’t that long was a battle. We had timers and sandglasses, which seem to act more like torture devices of how slow time actually can go versus showing them they were mostly done. To them “mostly done” was definitely not the same as “all done”.
Insert your own “Princess Bride” meme here…
The next best option was distraction from the time. We attempted singing and rhymes but when you’re in the midst of scrubbing with a mouthful of bubblegum flavored paste and reciting any fond childhood song, the giggles will quickly start. And while that is entertaining, it makes for a very messy bathroom mirror, sink, and counter.
Eventually came ideas about telling stories as a means of distraction. We had used this when the kids weren’t quite tired yet, but were laying in bed trying to settle down (ya know, from the earlier silliness and spit takes at the mirror). So, one day when the kids started to brush their teeth, I settled on the floor and started reading a book to them. And to be candid, I don’t recall if the suggestion of reading came from one of the kids or something that came from one of their parents, but since I’m writing this, I’ll take the credit. (Though in all likelihood, it was probably my daughter’s idea.)
Every night we would read books aloud while they brushed their teeth. We did this from toddlerhood until well into their teenage years. We started off with simple, fun picture books, like Sandra Boynton. And moved up to Dr. Seuss. Then Beatrix Potter. From there we moved into chapter books like “The Magic Treehouse” series, followed by “The Lion the Witch, and the Wardrobe”. Eventually to the full “Harry Potter” series, and J.R.R. Tolkien.
And an amazing thing had happened, time was no longer an issue. They would be at the sink for no less than 10 minutes a night and sometimes more than a half an hour. They would listen and scrub, scrub meticulously and listen intently. Whenever we finished a book or chapter in about 5 minutes, they would beg for one of us to keep reading while they kept brushing. They had lost all sense of time because they were so fascinated.
To keep things fair, the kiddos would alternate between them on the next story to be read. They had different strategies, like picking a book with the most pages or the most chapters or that had the most books in the series. Sometimes we would skip around in the series because we either didn’t have one of the books yet (like “Warriors” or “Wings of Fire”) or just for a change of pace.
With the chapter books, most chapters would end with a cliffhanger and the kids would ask for more to be read even if it was hours past their bedtime. But the book would always pause for the evening and would be continued another night. Until then their imaginations would conjure up what was going to happen next in the story or debate whether they liked the progression of the series so far. It was those little moments that I most thoroughly enjoyed.
I wound up reading more books, by several orders of magnitude, in those years of nighttime teeth brushing than I ever did in the prior 30 odd years of my life. And I’m grateful for it, too. While we did read stories that were familiar to me like those of Roald Dahl and Edgar Allen Poe, we also broke into many books I wanted to read (“The Westin Game”, “The Secret Garden”, “Sherlock Holmes”) and others I didn’t know I would enjoy so much (“Diary of a Wimpy Kid”, “Misty of Chincoteague”, “Percy Jackson”).
The thing is I’ve never been a fast reader nor a confident one either. But that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the kids as they got ready for bed. They eagerly hung on to those words as they came forth from my lips in nearly flat and dry tones, only occasionally modulating to introduce another character or to imitate a sound effect. Nonetheless, they were bewildered by the words of the authors as they were read aloud. They could picture the characters, the world they lived in, the struggles they endured, and the resolution that came perhaps only a moment too soon for bedtime.
Not surprisingly, neither of them has had any cavities to date. And both enjoy reading in their spare time, which is a trait they didn’t inherit from their parents. And both are so inspired by other writers that they are looking to make careers as published authors themselves.
The goal of ensuring good dental hygiene through the use of reading did endure for them into college ages anyway. I’m sure there won’t be any life distractions that await them now and those good habits will follow them forever!
Here’s a nice TED Talk clip on the subject of reading aloud, too: