Young kids are rather mucky creatures. Curious as they are, they have a habit of winding up in places infested with dirt and grime, and a certain way of spreading it around. They also have a rather oblivious disregard to their health and hygiene, and will happily stick things into their mouths without a second thought or moment’s hesitation. Then they wonder why their tummies are hurting. Even older children can sometimes be a little ignorant about their own individual cleanliness.
Teaching children about germs is an essential part of teaching them to take responsibility for their health and grow into better, healthier adults. Without giving them the insight into how illnesses are caused, you could find yourself making a number of trips to a Night Lite pediatric care center that might otherwise have been avoided.
However, it needs to be done with care. For one thing, your children should not be encouraged to live in absolutely sterile conditions. A healthy level of interaction with bacteria is essential to promote a strong immune system, which will help your children better resist germs in the future.
Likewise, you don’t want to encourage latent germophobia either. That will just create unnecessary difficulty further down the line.
The Little Things
The most effective way to teach young children about germs and protecting themselves from them is to get them into the habit of cleanliness. By this, we mean you should as soon as possible encourage them to undertake the little rituals that help promote hygiene and prevent the spread of germs. This includes this such as:
• Washing their hands before meals and after trips to the bathroom
• Avoiding germ-infested areas, such as the trash can or the toilet
• Not to put things in their mouths that they’ve found on the floor
• Use of the personal toiletries, such as hand soap or sanitizer
• How to cough into their elbow, and clean their nose with a tissue
Children tend to appreciate routines — they like habits, they like things to be just so. So the sooner you get them into a regular habit of hygiene, the sooner they can learn to protect themselves against germs. After a while, they’ll perpetuate the behaviour themselves with very little need of any prodding from you, just to make sure they’re building the right habits before they become fixed in that routine
But this is teaching kids how to be clean. How do you actually teach them about germs?
Kids are actually a lot smarter than most people give them credit for. Sure, you’re unlikely to have an in-depth discussion about the deeper meanings and themes of To Kill a Mockingbird until they’re a little older, but they’re quite capable of grasping concepts such as bacterial growth and general cleanliness. They’re also rather trusting — you, as the parent, are their resident authority. As such, don’t feel the need to dumb yourself down for them or try to make the topic more complicated than it needs to be. If you tell a child “Germs are small creatures – too small to be seen – that are carried around by bugs and muck, and they can make you sick” that’s all a child really needs to get an idea as to why it’s important to keep clean.
But suppose a child asks you questions about germs? What do you if they’re still curious about the topic?
Well, be frank with them. You won’t win any parenting awards for lying to your children, even little white lies, so by all means teach them what you know about germs and microbes where you think it most appropriate. It simply saves confusion later on once they start learning about these concepts in depth. If your child is fairly young, here’s an exercise that might help you:
Take a cup of glitter and spread it across various items, such as a phone, a toy, a stone, or other such items your child may pick up. Also, try to find some toy food as well. Tell the child to pretend that the specks of glitter are germs. Ask your child to touch one of the items you’ve covered in glitter, and then ask them to pick up one of the pieces of food. Show them how the glitter-germs are all over their hands, and now all over their food.
If your child is a bit older, meanwhile, you can try to work in learning germs with a scientific project, if you like. If your child has a science fair at school, suggest that the child do a study into the various germs that can be found in an average household, and how quickly they can be picked up and spread by household members. This will allow your child to learn actively about germs within the home, which should stick a little more readily with them than simply telling them yourself. If they’re lucky, they may even bag an A+ for their efforts!
Christian Mills is a freelance writer and family man who contributes articles and insights into various issues affecting family life and the challenges of owning a home.