Teaching Kids to Stop the Spread of Germs
If it seems as if your kids are always picking up germs and getting sick, it’s not your imagination. With developing immune systems, packed classrooms and a tendency to taste and touch with abandon, kids are much more likely than adults to catch and spread germs, says Dr. William Sears, a paediatrician and associate clinical professor of paediatrics at the University of California, Irvine in the USA.
But you can teach kids habits to help them avoid and contain germs so they—and the rest of your family—stay healthy, says Betsy Brown Braun, a parenting expert and author of Just Tell Me What to Say. Try these tricks for teaching little ones to stay germ-free.
1. Lead by example.
The most important habit to teach kids: wash hands often. “The magic is modelling the behaviour,” says Dr. John Mayer, a clinical psychologist and author of Family Fit. Children learn more by watching than any other way. Wash your hands regularly, and accompany your behaviour with a verbal cue: “We wash our hands every time after using the washroom” or “We wash our hands every time before we eat.” Kids will start remembering even when you’re not around.
2. Sing a song.
Getting kids to wash their hands for a full 20 seconds is just as important as having them wash in the first place. “Kids usually stick their hands under water for a split second, which doesn’t kill any germs,” says Mayer. Try singing the happy birthday song twice or saying the ABCs while you wash, since both take about 20 seconds.
3. Play a game.
When kids cough or sneeze into the air, on their hands—or worse, on their friends—germs spread easily. To teach them to aim into their sleeve, make a game out of it. “Tell them they have a ‘germ catcher’ in the crook of their arm, and when they aim there, they catch and trap the germs,” suggests Braun.
4. Use a visual aid.
It makes sense for your children to keep their distance from kids who are constantly coughing or wiping a runny nose, says Sears. Likewise, if your kid sees a pal sneeze or cough on a toy or a ball, he should choose a different object to play with.
Since kids tend to be visual learners, use a water-filled spray bottle to simulate how far coughs and sneezes can reach while explaining how germs are spread. “Tell them that everyone has water in their body that contains germs,” says Braun. “Be clear that it’s normal—you don’t want to create a germophobe—but explain that it’s best if everyone keeps their germs to themselves.”
5. Make food shareable.
You teach kids to share, but the lesson backfires when it comes to passing germs via swapped bites. Do your part by cutting apples into slices and sandwiches into quarters when making lunches. Even throw in an extra spoon for pudding.
6. Praise good behaviour.
When you catch your kid practising a healthy habit, tell her how proud you are. Also, try offering an incentive. Give her a sticker every time she sneezes into her sleeve or washes her hands unprompted. “Once she gets a certain number of stickers, do something special, like visiting the aquarium,” suggests Braun.By consistently practising good habits at home, your kids will take them everywhere, including into adulthood. “It’s the seat belt effect,” says Braun. Once your child does these habits enough, they become as automatic as buckling in. And that means you spend less time