Almost every parent on the planet wishes that children came with an instruction manual when they’re born, but alas, they do not. Parenting is hard, and one of the biggest challenges in our house over the years has been getting the kids out the door in the morning and into bed at night with clean bodies and — most of all — clean teeth.
For me, the challenge has always been figuring out how to motivate my kids to actually brush their teeth, rather than just go into the bathroom and make faces in the mirror for a few minutes. But after eight years at this parenting thing, I think I’ve finally cracked the code.
Here are some tried-and-true hacks that have been working for me lately.
1. Challenge them to hum the “Happy Birthday” song while they brush – twice.
Who doesn’t love the birthday song? (Answer: No one, that’s who.) This hack is super effective, especially for my 6-year-old. When I see him lagging behind, I shout “PRETEND IT’S YOUR BIRTHDAY!” It works every time. I mean, he hums the song through pretty fast, but that’s better than leaving the house with oatmeal in his teeth.
2. Encourage on-the-go brushing.
When I only had one kid, I never entertained the thought of letting him brush his teeth in, say, the kitchen sink. I had a very narrow view of where teeth-brushing could and could not occur. By the time my third child arrived, that notion quickly fell by the wayside (just like all my other parenting notions!).
I discovered that allowing the older two to brush over the kitchen sink (or at the breakfast table, or in the front yard) opened us up to a whole new world of possibilities. Now, I let the kids brush their teeth throughout the house while completing other tasks. Honestly, I don’t care where it happens, as long as they thoroughly brush!
3. Let the family pet be their motivation.
Often, when someone’s resisting hygiene requirements, I bring in our cat for reinforcement.
“Show Oscar how to brush so he can have strong, healthy teeth, too” I’ll say; or “Oscar wants to watch you floss — show him how it’s done!”
The kids can “teach” the cat how to brush properly, everyone does what they’re supposed to do — often fighting over who can do it first! — and I don’t have a cat underfoot while I’m trying to clean the kitchen. It’s a win-win.
4. Download the Disney Magic Timer app and make it all a game.
My daughter is in Kindergarten and absolutely loves all things Disney, so installing this handy app on my phone was a great solution to her dawdling problem. The Disney Magic Timer gives her a reason to brush for an entire two minutes and it rewards her at the end. Plus, you can scan any Crest or Oral-B Pro-Health Stages product to unlock fun sticker books.
The result? She’s practically begging me to let her brush her teeth … sometimes even when she’s supposed to be sleeping.
5. Let them pick out a fun toothbrush they’ll actually want to use.
I just took my kids to see Disney•Pixar’s Incredibles 2, which we all loved, so naturally they were excited to get new toothbrushes emblazoned with their favorite characters. I often buy things in bulk and hide the extras, pulling out new ones when the kids seem to be lagging in their zest for cleanliness.
6. Play their favorite song and tell them to brush until it ends.
Our 9-year-old loves music, so an effective way to get him to thoroughly brush is by playing one of his favorite songs and having him brush until it ends. It’s basically the Big Kid version of Hack #1, but hey, it works! (The only trouble is figuring out how to get him to stop using his toothbrush as a microphone and actually brush his teeth with it.)
7. Offer rewards. (Oh come on, don’t act like you’re above a little bribery!)
We have a rule in our house that after you’re dressed for the day, your teeth are brushed, and your shoes are on, you can have screen time. This especially works for little boys who like to play video games, but parents can tailor their “rewards” depending on what works for them.
8. Break out a mirror to show them the actual color of their teeth — that’ll inspire them to get brushing!
I’m always telling my kids that their teeth don’t look clean, but it occurred to me recently that they might not understand what that means. Not too long ago, I handed them all a mirror in natural light and showed each of them what clean teeth and dirty teeth actually look like. I also emphasized how clean teeth equal healthy and strong teeth — but dirty ones? Not so much.
Now, I can hear them telling each other “YOUR TEETH ARE YELLOW!” and it seems to be helping.
9. When all else fails, do it for them. (Note: NO ONE WANTS THIS.)
Yes, I’ve had to resort to this once or twice; and it might just be my least favorite thing to do. As you might imagine, it’s really hard to brush another human’s teeth when they’re wiggling around like a caged animal. But that’s just the thing: No one wants Mom to brush their teeth for them, which means that now, the mere offer of handling it myself kicks them into high gear.
Sometimes, these hacks need to be combined or amped up in order to get the job done, so don’t be afraid to get creative and make a few of your own up on the fly. Every parent needs a few tricks up their sleeves, and hopefully, one or more of these will help you, too.