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Appearance-Enhancing Hygiene Habits

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

As children become more socially aware, and start to form relationships with other kids, their attention to hygiene habits becomes an issue capable of affecting their social desirability. Children who do not learn to present themselves in accordance with socially desirable (appearance-related) hygiene standards regarding cleanliness, haircare and clothing will start to stand out to their peers in a negative way. Hygiene problems such as unwashed clothing, dandruff-filled hair or body odor may contribute to children becoming objects of ridicule by their peers. Accordingly, it is important that children be taught to pay attention to and address these appearance-oriented aspects of hygiene so that they can avoid having to experience the negative social consequences associated with not attending to them.

Bathing and Body Odor

bathroomThe most important appearance-oriented aspect of hygiene is probably regular bathing. Children should be encouraged to bath themselves regularly so as to remove dirt, oils, sweat and the like from their hair and bodies. Exactly how regularly children should bath will vary on a child-to-child basis, however. Highly active children may need to bathe every day. However, other less active children may require less frequent bathing. Too much bathing may contribute to some children developing dry itchy skin, as oils are removed from their bodies during the bathing process faster than they can be replenished. In such cases, the use of moisturizing lotion or special soaps may reduce symptoms. Parents will need to use their judgment in order to determine children's optimal bathing frequency and what sort of bath products should be used.

Most children are physically able to bathe themselves by the time they're seven or eight years old. However, even in middle childhood parents may still need to monitor and assist the bathing process from time to time so as to insure that children are actually getting clean and to prevent injury. Some children may forget to scrub all of their body parts. There is also the possibility of children sustaining a burn if they accidentally fill the tub with scalding water. Finally, children remain at risk of injuries from slipping and/or hitting their heads while playing, or even of drowning in the bathtub. Parents can reduce these risks by lowering the household water temperature at the water heater, by padding exposed fixtures with foam childproofing supplies, by placing non-skid/non-slip surfaces on the bottom of the tub, and by standing by at all times while children are in the water so as to come to their aide in the event of an emergency.

Many children enjoy their bath routine. However, some children will resist taking a necessary bath. They may simply not like to take a bath, or they may wish to be doing something else such as watching television or playing with siblings or friends. In such cases, a power-struggle between the resistant child and parents may ensue. Parents' options for managing bath-time conflicts vary depending on children's age:

Younger children may be distracted from their discontent with bath toys that capture their attention and motivate them to bath. In addition to rubber ducks, ships and toy fish, there are other creative and inexpensive bath-toys available today which may serve this purpose, including colored foam soaps (which enable children to have a green mohawk haircut or a red beard while bathing), and bathtub crayons.

Older children are less likely to respond positively to distracting toys. Their successful bath-time management will instead require that parents define, communicate and enforce firm rules, boundaries and expectations concerning bathing if arguments are to be reduced. For example, Dad can calmly explain to Todd that he needs to come inside from playing with his friends and take a bath. If Todd isn't willing to take a bath, the consequence is that he won't be allowed to go outside and play with friends the next evening. If Dad enforces this consequence calmly, firmly, and consistently, Todd will probably agree to a periodic 20-minute bath in order to earn back the privilege of playing with his neighborhood friends. For more information about discipline techniques useful in middle childhood, please see our section on discipline, appearing later in this center.

At some point around the time of middle-childhood, it is likely that children will become interested in taking a shower in the adult manner, rather than continuing to bath in the tub. Parents should talk with children about their preferences throughout this period and, when the time comes to make the switch to showering, help orient children to how to properly clean themselves in the shower. Parents may also wish to explain to children that water is not free, and neither is the gas or electricity used to heat it, by way of helping them understand why it isn't a good idea to take long showers.