Help me Sara: How do I instill the importance of personal hygiene?

By Sara Dimerman, Psychologist on February 14, 2013

Question:

My 10-year-old son can go a week or more without bathing, but I can’t tolerate it. I am responsible for reminding him when to bathe, or else he wouldn’t do it. I don’t know how to tell him that he sometimes has body odour and I’m not sure how to instill the importance of personal hygiene. Help me Sara!

Answer:

There are few things more intoxicating to a parent than the smell of a freshly bathed babe. We sniff at their heads and their baby clothing, breathing in their innocence. As they grow, we take pleasure in watching them luxuriate in warm baths with lots of toys and maybe even bubbles. As they grow older, capable of running their own bath water or turning on the shower without scalding themselves, we purposely pull back to allow for increased independence.

By the age of 10, most children are familiar with a routine or schedule that you have maintained over the years. In some homes, bathing or showering is a daily habit. For some, it’s a shower before leaving for school every morning, for others a bath before settling in for a story at night. In some homes, showers are an every second day ritual. Some families encourage their children to bathe more frequently during the summer months when children are typically more active and therefore sweaty. So, it’s no surprise that you will be disappointed and frustrated when your 10-year-old doesn’t keep with the program that you implemented when he was younger.

Something that struck me in your question was that you feel you are responsible for remembering your son’s washing schedule. I’m presuming you feel this way because without constant reminders and nagging, you say he can go a week (or maybe more) without continuing with what has always been part of his routine. There are a couple of factors that may be worth considering before concluding that he doesn’t care.

Firstly, how did the change from hand-holding to independence occur? Did you suddenly decide that he was mature enough to take care of his personal hygiene without your help? If you haven’t already, I encourage you to share your thoughts with him. Let him know that you believe that he seems mature enough to keep track of his personal hygiene.

Point out other examples of times when he has proven himself to be independent and capable. Then, run through the routine with him before handing over the reins. Ask “what do you think about the routine we have been following until now? Would you like to continue managing your personal hygiene like this?”

If he says no, then ask how he might do things differently. Perhaps he would like to shower at a different time than you had previously suggested. It’s important to let him know that you are handing things over to him, that you believe that he is capable and that you are open to hearing any changes he’d prefer. My guess is that if he feels empowered, he is more likely to implement his plan. Suggest a two-week trial, during which time you shouldn’t interfere even if he smells like old socks! Then reconvene to review his readiness.

The bottom line: Boys (and girls) will typically become more inclined to smell nice and more concerned about personal hygiene around the age of 12 (or earlier) when they become interested in relationships. Even without that in place, peers often aren’t as kind as you when it comes to body odour and there’s nothing stronger than a comment from a friend to get him running for the shower.


Sara Dimerman is a Psychologist, author and parenting expert in the Greater Toronto Area. Read more at helpmesara.com.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, February/March 2013.

By Sara Dimerman, Psychologist| February 14, 2013

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