My 5-Year-Old Won't Wash His Hands!

04/22/2015 03:55 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2015
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My 5-year-old son is as sweet as pie. But he lies about washing his hands. When I tell him I know he's fibbing, he denies it or starts crying. What should I do?

When you come AT children with logic to expose them in a lie, you generate feelings of shame. While you may "win" by proving your facts, you will have lost a sense of closeness that he needs to feel with you.

I often counsel parents to ask this question about their child's problematic behavior: What would have to be true for your child to behave this way? Another way of thinking about this is to ask, Why does this upsetting behavior make its own kind of sense?

Let's look at hand washing through this lens. The fact is, children are notorious for doing what they can to avoid washing their hands. First of all, they usually don't see the point. We may feel a scuzzy feeling when our hands are dirty, germs are invisible. But our child may think, Why bother getting my hands wet -- or even more -- bothering to soap and rinse, for no good reason? In addition, they may intend to do the job, but find themselves distracted once they get to the bathroom, making faces at themselves in the mirror or finding something captivating out the window.

Inject fun into his hygiene rituals. Here are a few ideas:

• Buy washable chalk and mark his hands with it before it's time to wash up. His job? To remove every trace of the chalk with the soapy water.

• Make your own soaps. It's easy, and your son will be much more motivated to use a soap that he made! Kits are readily available online with various molds and wonderful scents.

• Sing a song while he scrubs. Here's one, to the tune of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." Scrub scrub scrub your hands, till they're nice and clean. Lather up, lather up, lather up, lather up, till they shine and gleam.

• Tell him that his soap is made out of a magical substance that gives his hands super powers. Invite him to "paint" every inch of his hands with it and the challenge him to grip something tightly to demonstrate his power!

• Play Race the Clock. Set a timer for 15 to 30 seconds, pour liquid soap over his hands, and encourage him to produce squeaky clean hands before the timer goes off!

• Show your children how germs grow. Place a slice of bread in a zip locked bag marked "Touched", and another slice in a bag marked "Untouched. Have your son rub his unwashed hands on the slice marked "Touched" and then spritz a mist of water into both bags before sealing. (It helps to make sure they're dirty, so you may want to conduct this experiment after he's been playing outside.) Observe which bread grows mold more quickly. Your son will see more on the slice that he touched. Explain to him that even though germs are invisible, they can end up in our food, or create viruses that make us sick and that's why it's so important to wash well.

According to research, we have somewhere between two and 10 million bacteria living between our elbow and the tip of our finger. And germs can stay alive on our hands for up to three hours! Hand washing matters. By infusing your child's hand-washing ritual with more fun, and helping him understand the power of germs, he'll be more likely to scrub up. Best of luck!

Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected and the brand new Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids (An Eckhart Tolle Edition). She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.

To learn more about her online parenting courses and support, visit her Facebook page or sign up for her free newsletter.

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