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How Do I Convince My Smelly Kid to Shower?

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Welcome to “Survivor,” in which author Catherine Newman tries to answer your questions about adolescents and why they’re like that — and how to love them despite everything.

Have a question for Newman? Send it to her here.

Question: How can I convince my just-turned-12-years-old boy to shower regularly? We practically have to bribe him! I would think this would be a no-brainer — he has a crush on a girl, and I mentioned that girls tend to like boys who don’t smell, but I guess it’s not convincing.

Answer: I’ve been thinking about the way our kitten is like a toddler: you wake in the night, and he’s standing on your chest, purring into your face and trying to nurse your moles. He dreams of milk and wants toys and cuddles and to dig in the houseplants and fall down the stairs and give you a heart attack every five seconds, just like a tiny human.

But then — divergence alert — kittens turn into cats who keep obsessively clean. They wash and wash and are damp from washing. Every day, they win their own personal imaginary hygiene contests. They smell like clean sweaters, and if you pet them lovingly, they will grimace and rewash the part you touched, like Jack Nicholson in that movie where he is afraid of doorknobs and has OCD.

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The humans, meanwhile, have turned into the love children of Cousin Itt and a slime mold. It used to be you couldn’t get them into the bath — Waaaah! — or out of the bath — Waaaah! — and now there is no bath at all. Their showering patterns are a mystery or a nonexistence and you catch yourself saying things like, “What’s that on your neck? That crusty thing that looks like… it’s part of your neck, but crusty?” (It’s crust.) Or “What’s that above your lip? That smudgy thing that looks like a weird smudge?” And what that is, my friends, is what we call, shudderingly, the bar mitzvah mustache. There may be odor and/or actual dirt, like the soil kind of dirt. There may be smelly feet or smelly hair or gigantically unpopped whiteheads that are so burstingly huge you feel like they might spontaneously splatter you. There may be mossy teeth or packed black crescents of fingernails or reeking sneakers that you sneak into the outdoors overnight.

But not coincidentally, now is not the time to shame the kids. These are middle schoolers. Middle school sucks. Middle schoolers need shoring up so they feel better about themselves, not worse. They’re self-conscious enough as it is. If, in the interest of preempting their humiliation about hygiene, you humiliate them about hygiene? Well, that’s irony, which you should try to keep out of your parenting repertoire.

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Plus, lucky you that your kid’s not in thrall to those horrible headache-scented Axe products that turn your bathroom into an episode of the show Kill Me Now. America’s obsessive deodorizing is big business, and it depends on social convention to sustain itself. You smell is the message we’re getting. Your carpet smells, your car smells, your vagina smells, and we’ve got a product for you. (In France, you’d just sit around happily, smelling strong and eating your strong-smelling cheese.) Be proud of your kid for resisting! There is even some evidence that skin and hair are healthier when they’re washed less frequently thanks to the bacterial biome that eats all your blackheads and scalp grease, or so I have been led to understand.

And yet…

And yet it is our job as parents to teach our children what the social conventions are and how they work, what the expectations are, how to be in the world in such a way that they don’t become inadvertent social outcasts. I am torn even writing that since training children to be soldiers of convention is not my typical MO— I wouldn’t do it around gender or sexuality or clothing, for example — but hygiene is kind of a gray area. I hate the idea that someone would interact with my child and be too distracted by grime to comprehend the beauty and brilliance beneath it. That they would think about this lovely person, ew.

Full disclosure: My kids feel like we biffed the grooming issue. Both of them think that you should leave your child alone, and once he cares about showering — when, as my son put it, he develops a sense of his own presence — he will. They feel like we pressured them to shower more (we made a three-times-a-week rule) about six months before they naturally would have and that it was a pointless and demeaning power struggle. “If this is a good kid — a nice kid who people like?” my daughter Birdy says, “Then this might not really be a battle to pick right now. He’s a young person — if she criticizes him about this, he’s going to feel like it’s a kind of global rejection.” Oof.

So here’s what I think: Leave the girl issue out of it. Don’t shame him. Explain what your issue is if you can do it gently. And try these strategies that are among the (few) things my kids think we did well: 

  • Explain to your child that showers release feel-good brain chemicals. This is positive incentive that is scientific rather than moralizing. Bonus points for using the term hydrotherapy.
  • Buy him a really nice, big, thick new towel or a hotel-style terrycloth bathrobe. Yes, it’s in an overlapping Venn diagram circle with bribery, but at least it’s more thematically relevant than Legos or Laffy Taffy.
  • Take him to the drugstore and let him pick out his own shampoo and soap or pomegranate bath gelée or whatever. Give him time to smell everything. The more ownership he has over the experience, the better.

And be careful what you wish for. Because later they are going to shower a lot. Like, compulsively during all the times when you yourself once showered unencumbered by other people’s maniac showering schedules. In other words, they turn into cats after all.

More: How Teenagers Are Like Cats

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