Here’s How to Get Your Kids to Wash Their Hands For Real

Believe it or not, hand-washing is not something we are good at. Namely, we’re not doing it long enough — yes, that means us adults. As for getting our kids to regularly wash their hands for the full 20 seconds? That can seem like a true Mission: Impossible. But don’t quit yet.

With the coronavirus more widespread than ever, it’s high time we figured out how on earth to get kids to wash their hands — for real.

“As a mother of three young children, I am very familiar with the mad dash families go through to put dinner on the table,” wrote Carmen Rottenberg, acting deputy under secretary for food safety at USDA, in a statement shared with SheKnows. “[But] you can’t see, smell or feel bacteria. By simply washing your hands properly, you can protect your family and prevent that bacteria from contaminating your food and key areas in your [home].”

Give your kids the lowdown on hand-washing etiquette: wash before preparing or eating food; after coughing, sneezing or blowing their nose; and after using the bathroom. Here are some tips to help encourage your children to wash their hands the right way. Yes, they include “Happy Birthday.”

Step 1: Get their favorite soap

Getting them their favorite soap will encourage them to wash well — many kids like the ease and sensation of liquid or foam soaps, others prefer great smelling soaps, or go ham and get both.

Step 2: Sing “happy washday to you”

The amount of time it takes to get hands clean is about 15 to 20 seconds, or, as just about the entire population of Earth knows at this point mid-coronavirus, as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. Have kids wash by lathering their hands with soap and water for as long as it takes them to finish singing.

Three kids with the one in the middle blowing her nose.

Step 3: Do a towel test

If you want to know if your kid[s] are washing their hands properly, leave a white hand towel for them to use to dry their hands. If dirt is showing up on the towel, they’re not washing their hands properly.

Step 4: Time the soap

If you child isn’t washing long enough, try something like Inspector Hector Dirt Detector color-changing soap. The liquid contains beads that burst when the product is used — changing the soap suds’ color after 15 to 20 seconds of hand-washing. The idea is that when the color appears, hands should be clean and ready for rinsing.

Step 5: Do the inkblot test

Another product that tests if kids are washing properly is SquidSoap, which puts an ink stamp on the hand when the pump is pushed down to dispense the soap. The goal of this is to wash off the stamp. (For a cheap at-home version, use a non-permanent pen and draw a small squiggle on their hands; have them wash off all of the ink.)

Step 6: Wash the “right” way

Washing your hands doesn’t just include your palms and fingertips; you need to wash between your fingers, around and under any rings, under your nails and even up your wrists.

Step 7: Don’t skip the rubdown

Every week (at least), wash down bathroom surfaces, such as handles and knobs and the toilet seat, with an anti-bacterial wipe. This will prevent the spread of germs in your own house. It is also a good idea to keep bathroom towels fresh.

Step 8: Teach your kids about the risks of germ spread

You don’t have to scare kids, but it’s important to teach them why hand-washing is important. Give them the lowdown: Germs get on your hands from everything you touch and everything you touch gets germs from your hands. The simple task of washing hands has saved millions of lives and helps prevent the spread of illnesses and infections.

Step 9: Carry hand wipes

For times when soap and water aren’t available, give your kids individually wrapped disinfectant hand wipes or a small bottle of hand sanitizer to use. These fit great in purses and backpacks and are great for cars or when you and your kids are on the go.

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A version of this story was originally published in September 2010.

Here are some great products germaphobe parents will love.

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