Our resident advice-giver-outer Jenny True provides shouty, full-hearted answers to your niggling questions about pregnancy and parenthood in her column Dear Jenny. Warning: This is not a baby-and-me singalong, this is about yelling into the cosmos and actually hearing something back, sometimes in the form of an all-caps swear. Jenny isn't an ~expert~, but she has a lot of experience being outraged on your behalf. To submit your questions to Jenny, email email@example.com.
I grew up with very young, distracted parents in the '70s. I was left to fend for myself much of my childhood, which has given me a fierce independent streak and some gaps in my personal hygiene habits. The former makes the latter fine for me, but I'm now a father raising an 8-year-old girl.
She's not a big fan of bathing, refuses to wear socks or underwear, and often looks like a grubby little street urchin. I don't want to "sweat the small stuff" and be constantly haranguing her to conform to society's current norms of how a girl should look, but I also don't want to risk her health or be reported to CPS. How grubby is too grubby?
Raised by Wolves
Dear Raised by Wolves,
My parents were not young or distracted. Still, I remember being in the fifth grade — at least 11 — before I understood what was supposed to happen in the bath. Somehow, it came out that I wasn't using soap.
"The washcloth is always wet," my mother said, dumbfounded. "What are you doing with it?"
"I swish the water," I reported confidently, "so the temperature is even all the way around the tub."
Obviously, it's their f*cking fault for leaving me in the bathroom without instructions. But cleanliness wasn't the issue in my house — MY cleanliness just fell further down the list from the living room furniture. Who cared if my incipient sweat glands were kicking into high gear DUST THOSE BASEBOARDS JENNY ALSO THE PIANO AND THE LEGS OF THE COFFEE TABLE AND THE MANTEL GOOD NOW BRING ME MY WINE.
Anyway, when my mom wanted the baseboards cleaned, what did she do? SHE GOT DOWN ON HER HANDS AND KNEES AND SHOWED ME HOW TO DO IT.
I applaud you for recognizing something all parents have to deal with: MY PARENTS F*CKED THIS ONE UP HOW DO I DO IT.
Your daughter is not going to figure out personal hygiene for herself. Kids have no facility for discerning the basic facts about life, because 1) they're new at this, 2) they don't do abstract concepts, and so much more than we realize is abstract (germs? Smells are particles? If I leave my stuffed animal/book/backpack on the plane, it won't magically follow me home?), 3) they're just trying to have a good time. So unless they're immobilized by a vacuum seal of dirt — and sometimes even then — they're not thinking about "hygiene." They're thinking about the next time they're going to the pool.
You're in charge of your dirty little kid. And if cleanliness doesn't come naturally to you, the first education is yours. So I applaud you for recognizing something all parents have to deal with: MY PARENTS F*CKED THIS ONE UP HOW DO I DO IT.
How we endeavor to raise our kids often has something — if not everything — to do with how we were raised. We try to identify the things we want to repeat from our own experience, and the things we don't. It's figuring out how to circumvent the hardwiring of the things we don't that's tricky.
First, kids learn the most by modeling, so the hygiene habits you're committed to are the ones she's most likely to pick up. Do you bathe regularly, Raised by Wolves? Do you wear underwear and socks? Whatever habit you want your daughter to have, make sure you have it yourself.
Second, maybe you're a peace-and-dirt-loving hippie OH JOY, but basic cleanliness means basic hygiene — and teaching your kid to take care of herself, especially at a crucial moment when her body is changing, is a big part of your job. Also, it has nothing to do with gender. Unless you're telling your daughter, "Daddy wants you to clean up so you can get your MRS degree," you're just showing up for work. You'd teach the same lessons to a boy (RIGHT?).
Finally, basic hygiene affects everyone. If your kid's not bathing, she's a vector. My friend tells her kids, "I don't want you handling the milk after you just wiped your butt, thanks. And you wouldn't like it if I did either."
One way to start the conversation is by talking about what's "appropriate" OH GET OFF YOUR HIGH HORSE ABOUT THE FASCISM OF SOCIETAL NORMS WE LIVE IN THE WORLD. Says the same friend, "I just say that their particular outfit/hairstyle/unclean appearance/et cetera is 'not appropriate' for the particular situation. Then we talk about why."
As for underwear, your daughter is protecting her privates from the ravages of pant seams, sand, and, yes, germs — and she's protecting other people NO BRITNEY/PARIS/LINDSAY NO ONE WANTS TO SEE THAT.
"Another approach," says my friend, "is to say that we clean up for things we respect. One way we show our respect for ourselves and others is by taking the time to be washed and brushed. It shows we care."
Setting a few rules — these days we call them boundaries — and calmly but consistently enforcing them ("Did you wash your hands? Did you wash your hands with soap? Are you wearing underwear? WHY NOT FOR CHRIST'S SAKE WE'VE BEEN OVER THIS") is the road to seeing the behavior you want. (Side benefit: Kids who understand boundaries tend to be better behaved.) Positive reinforcement is more likely to have the desired effect — sticker charts and reward systems have a long history of behavior modification — but don't sleep on totalitarian rule. As my friend says, "It's over the top to reward behaviors that should just be expected. Like brushing and washing. That's just what you do as a human who is respectful and wants to be respected, and also wants to be healthy."
On a practical note, there's a really good book series called The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls. Book 1 tackles hygiene and health issues from hair and teeth and body odor to periods and breasts. Read it together — or, if she's too embarrassed (or if you are), leave it somewhere she can read privately, like in her room or the bathroom — and let her know that if she has any questions, she can ask you or another trusted adult.
Also, don't underestimate the value of asking that trusted adult – your kid's other parent, your partner, a relative, or a friend — for help yourself, in filling in the gaps from your childhood. You don't know what you don't know, and it can help to check in.
DIRT NEVER HURT ANYONE BUT YOUR SMELLY KID NEEDS TO KNOW HOW TO TAKE CARE OF HERSELF. CLEAN HANDS, CLEAN FACE, CAN'T LOSE. YOU GOT THIS.
Have you got a niggling question for Jenny about a parenting sitch? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.