“Did you brush your teeth? Are you sure? I did not hear the water. Your toothbrush does not feel very wet. Where is the tube of toothpaste?” Does this sound like a typical evening ritual in your house? I know it used to happen in my house. While all this questioning might seem right, what if I told you these questions were actually encouraging your child to lie?
We all know that teeth brushing is important for healthy hygiene. We desperately want our children to brush their teeth. Actually, we desperately want our children to want to brush their teeth. Actually, we desperately want our children to want to brush their teeth and to do it without being told or questioned. Is that not why we ask the question? We know they probably did not brush their teeth, but there is this teeny-tiny bit of hope within us that believes that this time, the child will have actually brushed his teeth and told the truth about it. So, with hope in hand, the questioning begins, and it either ends with the child getting away with lying (usually in the desire to just have peace in the house), or having to do some fancy investigation work to prove that he did not, in fact, brush his teeth. It is the proverbial catch twenty-two.
Maybe the problem is not in the lack of desire to polish those pearly whites. Maybe the problem lies in the question itself. And lest you think this tale of mine only applies to teeth brushing, I assure you it applies to any area of parenting where a behavior is being cultivated: cleaning your room, doing your chores, finishing your homework, eating your dinner, and getting ready for bed. Oh, and that is not an exhaustive list. It is just the biggies!
Believe it or not, children really do want to please their parents. They do not want to do the required work, though. When you ask your child if he has brushed his teeth, he will be quite tempted to say yes. It is not so much that he wants to lie, as he just wants to please you. I am not suggesting that the child is acting appropriately. I am suggesting that your question encouraged him to lie in the first place. Ouch!
What is a tired, busy, honesty-loving parent to do? Stop asking the question! Well, at least stop asking the question after the fact. If you have a little one, plan to be in the bathroom and give some parental guidance to the teeth brushing routine. Then there is not even a reason to ask the question. I know, I know. You have four kids and the last thing you want to do at 8:00 pm is stand in the bathroom for 20 minutes while the kids brush their teeth. I have been there. I get it. I also have perspective now that my kids are grown, so I have earned the right to say, “It’s really not as big of a deal as you think it is. Just do it. One day you’ll be wishing you had another chance to spend those 20 minutes in the bathroom with your little one just being together.” This is where you groan at me and tell me that I do not remember how exhausting those little ones can be. And this is where I tell you, “No, I remember, and I actually miss it.” Now, go stand in the bathroom.
For those of you with kiddos that are a wee bit older, say over the age of 7, you should stop asking the question after the fact. No, you do not need to hang out in the bathroom and watch your 12-year-old like a hawk to make sure he polishes every tooth. That would actually be exhausting to both you and your child. This is where the parenting gig gets harder. There is this thing called trust. And, there is this thing called natural consequences. This is where your parenting mettle really gets tested.
Let’s talk about trust for a moment. Hopefully you have been cultivating a trusting relationship with your child in all things. If you have not, well, then truthful tooth brushing is really not your biggest issue right now. We will have to save that for another blog. If you have been making it a point to be a truthful parent, and to expect truthfulness from your child, here is another one of those areas to reinforce the virtue of truth. Rather than asking your child if he brushed his teeth after he was told to do so, try asking your child what things he needs to do to get ready for bed before-hand. When you ask this pro-active question, the child has the chance to hear himself tell you all the things he is supposed to do, which hopefully includes brushing his teeth. When a child hears himself say the things he is supposed to do, he is far more likely to actually do them. Once he has told you he needs to brush his teeth, he will probably go and do it. Notice, I said “probably”. All kids are different. Different temperaments are going to react a little differently. Now you are asking me, “But what if they don’t actually brush their teeth?” This is where natural consequences come in to play.
What happens when we do not brush our teeth? Bad breath, infected gums, cavities, etc. These things are called natural consequences. If your child is not brushing his teeth, it will catch up to him. And when that time comes, you will have a discussion about how his poor choice led to this pain and agony that could have been avoided simply by brushing his teeth each night. At that point, the issue is no longer about him lying about brushing his teeth when asked the question. At that point, the issue is that he made a poor choice to disobey the expectations and he is now suffering the consequences. Natural consequences are a parent’s best friend. You were not the big, bad, mean parent that doled out some horrible punishment for not brushing his teeth. Your child actually did that to himself. There is no one to blame but himself. The bonus is that you do not have to be the one to give the lecture. He will receive that lecture from both the hygienist and the dentist. And, then you can go home and watch your 12-year-old brush his teeth! Haha
The temptation to ask a child if they have done what they are supposed to do is the same temptation that leads to the child lying about whether or not they actually did it. I encourage you to stop asking “if” they did something, and start asking them “what” they are supposed to do. Then, let the chips fall where they may. I hope you did not think parenting was going to be easy. It is not! But, it is worth it, even if it means you spend twenty tired minutes in the bathroom while your 3, 5, and 7-year-olds brush their teeth. Maybe, just maybe, you will wish it was that simple again one day.
Tricia McDonald is the wife of SGM(ret) McDonald and four adult children. She is learning to adjust to civilian life now that her husband has retired. She is also learning to adjust to life without homeschooling, as all of her children have graduated. Tricia volunteers her time teaching U.S. History to local homeschooled high schoolers, and coordinating music for a local semi-professional youth theatre. She enjoys blogging from time and time and is trying to figure out what she should be when she grows up. She wants to encourage all the young moms to hang in there and enjoy the moments, as they will pass far more quickly than you ever thought possible.