As a therapist, working with parents and children is one of my favorite duties. I have developed a comfortable parenting style and philosophy from the training and reading I have done, both Jewish and secular (see below for some of my favorite reads), and I have had the privilege of helping many parents improve their own parenting as a result. So it was with more than a little embarrassment that I caught myself doing something that I knew was ineffective and counterproductive, something that I commonly teach others not to do.
Let me start with this question: How do you get your kids to brush their teeth every night?
The wrong answer: Tell them to brush their teeth every night.
This falls under common parenting error #131, “Do as I say, not as I do.” We all know that that approach doesn’t work. If you speak lashon hara at the dinner table, you can read from the Chafetz Chaim until you’re blue in the face, but you won’t convince your kids to stop speaking lashon hara.
In the case of brushing teeth, as far as your kids are concerned, it’s just another “do as I say, not as I do.” In most families I know, the kids never see their parents brushing their teeth, either because the parents have their own bathroom, or because they brush when the kids are asleep or not around. (I have only one recollection of ever having seen my dad brush his teeth, and I remember what a strange, out-of-character feeling it was.) And if kids don’t see it, it’s not happening. So when you tell them they have to brush teeth, well, you’re probably just spinning your wheels.
Now, I knew all this in theory. I know that kids learn best by example. I observe daily examples of my kids (four and one-and-a-half) doing things just because they’ve seen their mother and I do them, ranging from insisting on eating with a fork (not a small feat for a one-year-old) to putting on eye shadow (exceptionally cute for a four-year-old). In fact, we have trouble getting them to stop doing things if they have seen us do them! And yet, despite all this, my approach to getting them to brush their teeth every night was – you guessed it – to tell them every night to brush their teeth. How foolish! How shortsighted!
We got some delicious kids’ toothpaste. We tried to make it fun and playful. We tried appealing to their sense of responsibility (at least for the eldest). Yet we weren’t seeing much in the way of consistency or initiative. Duh! Ultimately, brushing teeth is, for most people, a chore that has to be done. It’s not much fun, it takes time you could use doing other things, and you see little reward for your efforts. And I thought I could just cajole my kids into it? Boy, was I being daft. Of course, most kids – I don’t have any hard statistics on this, but I am guesstimating – eventually make a habit out of brushing teeth regularly, by hook or by crook. But I am trying to avoid hooks and crooks as I push my way through the early childhood years, and to stop spinning my wheels when there is so much else to be done!
So, one day last week, my good sense finally caught up with me, and I started to do what should have been painfully obvious to me earlier: When I want my kids to brush their teeth, I brush my teeth. That’s it. I’ll prepare and bring them their toothbrushes with toothpaste as well, but I don’t even tell them to brush anymore. I just hand them the tool; they know what to do with it. And it seems so much more alluring, now that Abba’s doing it! So we all brush together, and move on. Simple as that.
This idea had even come to me before, and was lazily cast aside by a yetzer hara (evil inclination), which pointed out that I was likely to eat more even after seven o’clock at night; that I would have to brush again later, since it’s best to brush before bed (or so I understand – I know about mental health, not dental health); that it would be a waste of toothpaste to brush twice. And what if I wanted to snack on an orange in the evening? Have you ever tried eating an orange after brushing your teeth? Yuck!
These were the claims of my evil inclination. And, unbelievably, they managed to win, despite being excuses of the lamest variety. Let’s face it: My toothpaste expenses are not breaking the bank.
So, yes, now I brush twice a night (and twice in the morning, if I have the opportunity to brush in front of them then, too). I chalk up the extra expense to chinuch costs, which are certainly worth a couple of extra dollars a year. It’s much, much easier than trying to coax the kids into doing it, and much more effective.
The moral of the story is that, if you’re trying to get your kids to do something, find a way they can see you doing it, or doing something similar. You probably don’t have homework to do, but you do have reading, learning, or professional work you can model at home. Do you put your plate in the sink when you’re done with it, or do you leave it for your spouse? (Don’t look now – I just caught myself on another blunder.) Do you put away your toys or tools books or pencils as soon as you’re done? If you want your kids to do these things, start thinking of ways that you can be doing them too – in full view. If you think it’s too much effort, think of the alternative.
And if you think I’m being naïve – give it a shot. And let me know how it goes.
Rabbi Raffi Bilek, LCSW-C, is a marriage and family counselor, and director of the Baltimore Therapy Center (www.baltimoretherapycenter.com). He can be reached at Raffi@baltimoretherapycenter.com or at 443-598-BTC-1 (2821). He is married to a woman.