One of the most-often asked questions in parenting groups that I’m in is “My child WILL NOT let me brush his/her teeth. How can I get through this?”
Oh my goodness; I feel your pain.
We went through this too when my daughter was about 15 months old, and it persisted for several weeks on and off before we finally figured it out.
I would say “OK, it’s time to brush your teeth!” and she’d say “NOOOOOO! I don’t wanna!” and collapse in a writhing heap on the floor.
The usual advice
The parenting experts tell us to offer choices, and there are lots of these available with toothbrushing:
“Would you like the pink toothbrush or the orange one?”
“Would you like the flashing toothbrush or the one that doesn’t flash?”
“Would you like the strawberry toothpaste or the bubblegum flavor?"
And when the choices don’t work, there are the games:
“Would you like to brush my teeth before I brush yours?”
“Can I look for the food you’ve eaten today in your mouth?”
“Can I look for wild animals in your mouth?”
“Should we brush Tiger’s teeth first?”
“Would you like to brush teeth in the bath?”
But sometimes it doesn’t matter how many choices you give and games you play the child still says “no.” Also, we really have no idea why the child won't cooperate, which isn't helping us at all.
And I find tooth brushing an especially hard place to set a limit because, really, their teeth are not going to fall out if they don’t brush this one time. But if they get into a habit of not brushing, you could find yourself in real trouble.
So where do you go from here? Do we have to hold the child down and force the brush into their mouth?
Psychology to the rescue!
There’s a psychological theory that can help us to understand what’s going on here: it’s called Self-Determination Theory. In short, SDT says that all people have a need to feel autonomous (having freedom to choose what we do), competent (having abilities and skills) and connected (having warm and loving relationship with someone).
The more of these needs are satisfied, the more likely a person is to work with us to achieve our mutual goals.
So what do we do to overcome the tooth brushing problem?
1 Next time your child refuses to brush their teeth, do what parenting coach Robin Einzig recommends: Drop the Rope. You can’t have a power struggle if only one of you is pulling on the rope. (Don’t worry; we’re not going to do this every time we need to brush teeth!)
2. Say “I can see this is hard for you, and it’s tough for me too. I don’t want to force you to brush your teeth. Let’s not brush teeth tonight; let’s get ready for bed, and we’ll talk about it tomorrow.” Chances are your child will be stoked to get out of tooth brushing for the night, and will willingly cooperate with the rest of the bedtime routine.
3. Continue with the normal bedtime routine: stories/songs/kisses. There is no punishment for not brushing teeth. You are showing your child that you love them unconditionally, even when you disagree (and are thus developing your connectedness).
4. The next day, look for a time when you’re both in a good mood, relaxed, well-fed, and not in a hurry to go anywhere. Sit close to your child – perhaps even next to each other or them on your lap so you can hug while you talk.'
Say “Hey, can we talk about tooth brushing?" (Wait for acknowledgement or assent of some kind.) "It’s really important to me that we brush your teeth twice a day, because if we don’t do that, your teeth could get holes in them and they might actually fall out. Brushing helps to keep them clean so those things don’t happen. I notice you’ve been finding tooth brushing really hard lately, and it’s hard for me when you find it hard. Can you help me to understand why you don’t want to brush your teeth?”
5. Listen to the response, even if you think what they are saying is ridiculous. Things we think are ridiculous are often really important to children.
6. Say: "I wonder if we can think of some ways that we can make tooth brushing acceptable for you?”
By asking this question you are saying that you trust your child’s competence at generating some ideas for ways to solve a problem and that your child’s autonomy is important to you – you truly want their help in solving this problem.
Boom! We covered all three SDT components.
a. If your child is on the younger side (perhaps ~2 years old), you’ll likely need to provide the ideas for things that could make tooth brushing acceptable. Use what you heard when your child told you why they don’t like brushing their teeth to spark ideas. Think outside the box – no ideas is a bad one. Consider writing the ideas down on a piece of paper – this helps your child to see that you treat their ideas seriously.
b. If you start doing this kind of thing when your child is around two, by the time they’re three or a bit older, they will be able to start generating ideas alongside you. Write them all down.
8. Cross out any of your child’s ideas that won’t work for you, and explain why as you do this. Read your ideas to your child, and ask them which ones won’t work for them. Cross these out.
9. Select from or adjust the remaining options as needed to arrive at a mutually agreeable solution.
What you did here was not only solve an immediate problem of tooth brushing, but you simultaneously scaffolded your child’s ability to generate solutions to problems that will serve them incredibly well in many aspects of their life.
In our house, the phrase “Let’s talk about this later” (said in a warm, not threatening tone) has become an indicator that the respective parties should start thinking of solutions to a problem. We recently had a problem because my daughter (age 3 ¾) wanted to wear pajamas to school.
Finally I said “OK, you can wear pajamas to school today but let’s talk about it later.”
On our way home from school that night I said “Let’s not forget that we need to talk about wearing pajamas to school.”
She said “I been thinking about it ALL DAY,” and proceeded to give me some options (one of which was acceptable to me; no further negotiation required).
And as for the tooth brushing: we made it through our struggle.
What was the incredible solution that made tooth brushing acceptable to her?
Brushing in the living room. A solution I would never have imagined without her input.
Toothbrushing struggles solved, instantly.
Give a try, and let me know how it goes!
Dramatic responses are understandable after traumatic events because want to distance ourselves from the pain, and ‘make sure it never happens again.’
I saw a lot of articles in the weeks immediately after the Florida school shooting discussing how parents were considering homeschooling because they were afraid; another recent spate of articles note that there have been more than 20 school shootings so far this year (and it’s only May!) where someone was either hurt or killed.
Kathy Lowers of Collier County, FL had a son who was one month old when the Columbine shootings happened, and decided that schools were no longer safe. Her perspective is underscored by a statement in the same article by Michelle Estes, the secretary of the Children’s Home Educators Association of Collier County, who said that “the only way too guarantee your kids are safe is to have them by your side.”
We shouldn’t need bulletproof backpacks to protect our children at school, but we cannot harden all schools against all forms of attack. As long as there are guns essentially freely available to pretty much anyone who wants to buy one, we will continue to see attacks on schools, movie theaters and workplaces.
It’s natural to want to avoid things that scare us and things that might hurt us. And at the same time, we want the best for our child.
Don’t homeschool because you’re afraid of school shootings
But being afraid of gun violence is not a good reason to pull your child out of school – because you or your child could just as easily get shot at the mall, at a concert, or at work – or (if you own a gun) in your own home.
Indeed, if there is a gun in your home it seems possible that your child might be less safe there than in school, given that living in a home with guns present increases the risk of homicide by 40-170%.
But even if safety is the wrong reason to homeschool, there are many great reasons to consider it. In fact, homeschooling may be one of the hottest trends in education, since more children are now homeschooled than attend charter schools.
And believe me, this is not your mother’s homeschooling – when I first learned about homeschooling I thought they were a particular type of the population but actually secular homeschoolers may be the fastest-growing group.
These parents are worried about budget cuts; about class sizes; about standardized testing; about what their children are learning in school; about how school might be one of the more effective ways of squashing curiosity and a love of learning out of a child.
People just like you are thinking “could homeschooling actually work for me?”
(By and large, teachers are NOT among the “reasons to consider homeschooling.” I’ve interviewed teachers across the country and am continually impressed by their talent and dedication. On more than one occasion they’ve been moved to tears when they talk about how much they care about their students. Teachers are not the problem: the system they are forced to work within is the problem.)
Five reasons to consider homeschooling – besides safety
- I was shocked to learn that compulsory schooling was not developed to help children reach their potential, or even to teach basic skills (there was no need: literacy rates – admittedly primarily among White males – in New England reached 90% between 1787 and 1795), but was actually developed by states to control what students learned and shape them into compliant citizens. The first countries to enact compulsory education laws were those that were less reliant upon child labor. We need a school system that actually supports children’s learning (but reformers have been agitating for this for over a century now so it seems unlikely to happen anytime soon).
- We created factories to manufacture standardized components in an assembly line, and the school system segregates students according to ability and uses standardized curricula to teach in standardized ways to ensure good results on standardized tests, which allows us to measure the performance of students and teachers and reward or punish them accordingly. Meaningful assessment of children’s learning is not the enemy, but testing that does not tell a child anything useful about his learning is.
- Despite this focus on test scores, test results are abysmal. Between 30 and 40% of students score at above a proficient level in reading and math in both fourth and eighth grades; the rest score at a basic or below basic level with a 25-30-point difference in scores between black and white children. Results are only “improving” in that they are better than the 13-30% of students scoring at or above proficient level in 1992, when we started the standardized testing push. It is very difficult to obtain data to empirically test this, but studies indicate that homeschooled children perform at least as well on standardized tests as children who attend school.
- Schools aren’t preparing our children for success in the real world: they’re actually really good at preparing our children for the kinds of jobs that existed in the 1950s (the height of the factory assembly-line era). Schools treat content (i.e. facts) as if it was the most important thing in education, when actually students leave education with few of the skills they need in the working world. Instead, content is perhaps the least important (because we have Google now, after all) of six critical skills they should be learning – the others are Collaboration, Communication, Critical Thinking, Creative Innovation, and Confidence. Ironically, one of the reasons the students at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas school seem so poised when they argue for gun control is because they attend school in an affluent neighborhood which enables programs like school newspapers, debate, and drama programs – these are not kids sitting around memorizing content all day.
- Homeschooling might actually be better preparation for both college and life than being in school. I did well in school because I learned how to understand and follow rules. The words “will this be on the test?” strike fear into the hearts of educators because they know that our children – like I did – are learning only as much as they need to pass the test. The only cure for that kind of thinking is to learn about things that interest you. Which you can do, if you’re not beholden to a curriculum.
Some of the most common reasons given keeping children in schools are that they allow children to learn life skills and social norms, and that they expose children to diversity in people and in ideas. Plus there’s always the concern: how will they ever get into college?
Learning social norms by being separated from society
But isn’t it ironic that we expect children to learn how to behave in society by separating them from society and putting them in a group of individuals exactly their age, where they learn things (as we have already seen) that don’t prepare them for life outside school?
Think of the last training you did for your work. Now, did you ever apply what you learned to your work? If not, chances are it’s because you learned it in isolation and never practiced integrating the new knowledge into what you actually do all day. Maybe the things you spend most of the day thinking about aren’t even remotely related to the training.
Students don’t learn to manage money, manage their mental health, how to buy, sell, repair, manage, or maintain a car or house, how to be a good spouse or take care of and raise a child, how to communicate professionally, and how to cope with failure in school. They don’t learn skills like self-control, motivation, focus, and resilience. They don’t learn how to learn beyond rote memorization. (If you prefer to hear this in the form of a rap, click here.)
This article summarizes five critical social skills, and concludes by asking “What can happen when kids don’t follow social rules?” The response given is that your child may find himself being bullied by other children – as roughly 35% of children in school are. But should we lay this blame on the children being bullied – or does some of the fault lie with the bullies? And is it possible that these lessons about social skills could be more effectively learned in environments outside of school?
Exposing children to diversity…but not too much
Parents say that they value diversity in schools (one national survey found that 73% of parents say that having a racially diverse student body is “very” or “somewhat” important for their children to attend a diverse school), but their actions show that their support for diversity is actually rather limited. One mother involved in a research study on the importance of student body diversity was asked whether racial or ethnic makeup was an important factor in her school choice decision, and responded “It is ideally, but I didn’t have a lot of choices so I went with a school that I felt had the best educational program even though I would like a school to be more diverse.”
White parents want diversity in schools, but they also want to make sure there’s a critical mass of other white students in their children’s schools and classrooms: one white mother in the same study said “I don’t want to be the minority. I want a comfortable place for my children.”
Privileged families move to different houses in the attendance zones of desirable schools, use information they get from the directors of their expensive preschools, and use their extensive networks to navigate the application system and get their children into “good” schools, defining those schools more by the racial makeup of the school than by what is taught. They opt in to “Gifted and Talented” programs which effectively segregate otherwise diverse schools.
It’s true that where diversity exists in schools, it tends to benefit students (although the picture may be more nuanced than is often reported). But our schools are actually highly segregated: 52% of white students attend schools with less than 25% minority enrollment, while 57% of black and 60% of Hispanic students attend schools with 75% or more minority enrollment.
Diversity is great for your kids…when they can get it. It’s possible they might be exposed to more diversity just by living life in society than by being in school.
How can a homeschooled child get into college?
Three of Grant and Micki Colfax’s four children got into Harvard.
In the late 1960s the couple protested the Vietnam War and worked for the civil rights movement. One night in 1968 they received a phone call threatening their son’s life – and the police called David a “goddamned draft dodger” and refused to help. David was later denied tenure at two different universities, and he received a settlement from one of them for violation of his academic freedom due to his political activities.
After that, the couple bought a plot of land in remote Northern California – one the real estate agent told them was “no place to raise children.” They carved out a homestead and began homeschooling. When their oldest son, Grant, won a full scholarship to Harvard the family made the national news. The next two sons followed Grant to Harvard, and the fourth works in the software industry. (Read all about it in their book Hard Times in Paradise.)
Homeschooling is no impediment to college acceptance and later success, and it may even be an advantage as their self-directed accomplishments distinguish your child from all the other suburban children with straight As and seven extracurricular activities. Stanford even tags homeschooled applicants with a special code so they can be found more easily among other applicants. Why? Because of their intellectual vitatility.
So why should you consider homeschooling?
Well, we’ve implicitly covered a number of these reasons by now.
Your child wouldn’t have to learn the same thing that every other child in the country is learning. She could follow whatever curriculum you wanted: heavier on science, or math, or writing, or whatever is most important to your family. Or you could do away with the curriculum entirely and just follow your child’s interest. (Remember the part about Content being the least important of the six Cs? If you spend less time on that, it frees up a whole host of time for the other five Cs.)
If you don’t believe that standardized testing is an accurate representation of what children know, you could opt out of testing in school but then your child would still have to go through the test-based teaching geared toward the rest of the class. (Keep in mind that civil rights groups oppose opting out of testing because it demonstrates the achievement gap between children of dominant and non-dominant cultures.)
But if you aren’t wasting time on standardized testing, you can assess children’s learning in meaningful ways – through formative assessments (used to monitor learning) and authentic assessments (used to provide rich, meaningful assessments of a final work product). You know, the kinds of assessments teachers would do if they didn’t have to teach to the standardized tests.
Alternatively, you could do away with assessments entirely and just encourage your child to share his knowledge with others who are interested in the same topic – both peers and adults. They will offer critiques for him, suggest different strategies, and provide the guidance he needs.
She can socialize with children and adults of all ages, doing away with the notion that only socialization with children of exactly her age is valuable. Indeed, she may get far more out of relationships with both younger and older children, as well as with adults of all ages – based on their shared interests rather than their age.
Most importantly, he can learn – about himself, about the world, and about his place in it. From actually living in it, rather than memorizing facts about it in school.
Don’t homeschool because you’re afraid of school shootings. Do it because it facilitates the best kind of learning there is – learning how to learn, in a way that inspires her to love learning. Don’t we all want that for our children?
Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting. She also launched the most comprehensive course available to help parents decide whether homeschooling could be right for their family. Find out more about it – and take a free seven-question quiz to get a personalized assessment of your own homeschooling readiness at www.YourHomeschoolingMojo.com
Malaika Dower, who hosts the podcast How To Get Away With Parenting, found my podcast recently on iTunes and reached out to see if she could interview me.