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A Neat Appearance

© Pedro Monteiro | Dreamstime.com

When our children are babies, we’re in charge of everything. We decide what to feed them, when to bathe them, what they should wear and whether a large bow would look good in their scraps of hair.

Then at a certain age, we start to let go and let them pick a shirt for today, let them choose between carrots and celery (or more likely Oreos and chocolate chip cookies), let them take off their hats even though the wind’s blowing.

At the next certain age, we start to want them to find, pick up and use that hairbrush! At least go to the bathroom and pretend you’re washing your hands. Please get dressed in anything and eat something before racing to the school bus.

Ah, how our standards do change. Someone must have secrets to getting children to take a bit more care of themselves. But why won’t they share?

Lynn Vanderhoek of DeWitt is the mother of three children who are good bathers. Her 11-year-old son now prefers showers to baths, her 8-year-old daughter no longer stays in the bath all night, and her 4-year-old son thinks the bath is just another place to play with toys. Asked for her input on getting her kids to take the lead in grooming, she says, “I’m looking for advice!” Her overall philosophy is to give lots of praise when kids do something well (or in this case just do it), choose your battles carefully and then resort to threats, she jokes.

Although the bathing-every-other-day routine goes smoothly in her home, brushing hair has been a problem with her daughter. “I took her to the hairdresser’s and threatened to cut it all off,” Vanderhoek recalls. She didn’t, but her daughter started finding her brush more often. As the mother’s ally, the hairdresser even made Vanderhoek’s daughter promise to brush her hair every day.

I can relate. Sitting through the hairdresser combing out knots was very persuasive for my daughter, then almost 8. The hairdresser advised brushing three times a day: in the morning, after school and at bedtime. But I think the solo trip to a drugstore to buy a new, big hairbrush with her “big,” college-aged cousin did the trick. Cousin Megan has long, thick, gorgeous hair. Now Annie has the same kind of hairbrush. She brought it to school one day and her friends all admired it, she says. Who knew a hairbrush could be a thing of beauty? But I’m not complaining.

Like most things, finding the secret to unlock each child’s interest is the key. For my daughter, bathtime became funtime and not a chore when she could make “potions.” They consist of soapy water in old shampoo bottles and cute tiny bottles from hotel stays. A Spider-Man water pistol worked for my son, especially in the cold months when water pistols would freeze outside. Recently, when our showerhead broke, we finally ordered the showerhead we had ogled in a catalog: It projects colored lights onto the water: red for hot and blue for cold. When the water’s purplish, it’s just right. At least that’s what the kids say.

One mom I know has kids’ toothbrushes in the upstairs and the downstairs bathrooms in case her children are inspired at any time. A teacher taught her children to brush their teeth for as long as it took to sing the “Happy Birthday” song in their head. I think that early programming could really pay off when they’re in the elementary-school ages. One Clay mother of two tries to use sibling rivalry. She encourages teeth-brushing contests for the “most clean” teeth and the fastest brushing.

Getting dressed in the morning and wearing clean clothes can be another issue. My 4-year-old twin nephews prefer to wear their favorite shirts. . . every day. Often my sister lovingly washes and dries them at night so the boys can don clean shirts the next day. But that can’t go on forever.

Vanderhoek’s daughter “wears a school uniform, thank God.” She recommends involving children in buying their own clothes. In the store, “give them choices among three things,” she says. Then when they get the clothes home, the children seem more inclined to wear the items they helped pick out. “My battle is the hair because you just can’t fight every battle.”

Vanderhoek thinks television could help parents in this area. “On TV you never see any of these girls grooming themselves,” she notes. Our children “never see them (the actors and actresses) putting any effort into their appearance at all. They never bathe or shower or pick up their room or do any chores.” Yet the stars and their homes look great.

Maybe those TV directors have the answers to getting kids to magically appear well-kept and not unkempt. But they’re not telling, either.

Eileen Gilligan, a mother of two, lives in Baldwinsville.

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York