Things Not To Do: Toddler Toothbrushing Edition

Our son Nicholas is seven years old now and sometimes puts up a fuss about brushing his teeth, but he’s nowhere near as resistant as he was when he was a toddler, and the lesson I learned then still seems to apply.

Soon after his teeth emerged and we started brushing them, the novelty wore off and he began to resist this drippy, tickling intrusion into his mouth.  I understand the objection, but I was determined both to take good care of his new little teeth and to teach him that toothbrushing is part of the daily routine.  He’d turn his head away, refuse to open his mouth, run away, and sometimes cry.  Some nights we’d let it slide, but one day when he was 22 months old he had sardines for lunch and garlic for dinner and horrible-smelling breath, so I was determined to brush his teeth…and it took forty-five minutes to get it done!  I wrote this account of the ordeal:

MAMA: “Time to brush teeth now.” We go into the bathroom.  I wet our toothbrushes and put toothpaste on them.  I offer Nick’s to him, but he won’t take it.  I put it on the edge of the sink within his reach.  I brush my teeth while he watches with interest.  I start to put my brush away.

NICK: “Mama! I do!”  He reaches for my brush.

MAMA: “This one is yours.”

NICK: “No!! That!”

MAMA: “Do you want to brush my teeth?”

NICK: “Yeah.”

I hand him my brush and open my mouth.  He waves the brush around in my mouth, barely touching my teeth.  He hands back the brush.
MAMA: “Okay, now it’s your turn.” I pick up his brush.  He rolls up into a ball with his face in the center.  “Would you rather do it yourself?”

NICK: “Yeah.”  He takes the brush and looks at it doubtfully.

MAMA: “Brush those teeth!”  I wait patiently.

NICK: “Wet.”

MAMA: “Yes, the toothbrush is wet.”

NICK: “Wet.”  He points to the drinking cup.  I put some water in it and give it to him.  He dunks the brush.

MAMA: “Okay, now the brush is even wetter.  Brush those teeth!”  I wait patiently. Nicholas slowly rubs off some of the toothpaste onto his clenched-shut lips, then hands the brush to me.

NICK: “Elmo!!”  He goes into his room, and I follow.  He is picking up his Elmo doll.

MAMA: “Do you want to brush Elmo’s teeth?”

NICK: “Yeah!!”  He takes the brush, then notices that Elmo does not, in fact, have teeth.  “Mouth?”

MAMA: “Yes, you can brush Elmo’s mouth.”

He spends a good five minutes carefully mashing toothpaste into the rim of Elmo’s mouth and red and black fuzzes into his toothbrush.
NICK: “All done now!”  He examines the brush.  “Uh-oh. Wet.”  He hands it to me.

MAMA: “I will get it wet and get the fuzzes out.  [Elmo voice] Elmo rinse!  [Mama voice] Yes, Elmo, you can rinse the toothpaste out of your mouth.”

NICK: “Elmo riss.”  Back to the bathroom.  I start to clean the toothbrush.  “No! Elmo riss!”  I clean Elmo with a damp cloth.  I finish cleaning the toothbrush.  I hold the toothbrush in Elmo’s hand.

MAMA: “[Elmo voice]  Now Elmo brush YOUR teeth!”

NICK: Starts to open mouth, then notices.  “Oh! Paste!”

MAMA: “Oh, Elmo, you forgot the toothpaste.  I will help you reach it.”  Elmo and I put paste on the brush.  “[Elmo voice] Okay, Elmo brush teeth!”

NICK: “NNOOOO!!!!!”  He runs out of the room.  Elmo and I follow and try to corner him and get him to open his mouth.  After quite a bit of that, Nicholas suddenly takes Elmo from me and holds him at arms’ length toward the stairs.  “Down!!!”

MAMA: “Do you want Elmo to go downstairs?”

NICK: “Yeah!”

MAMA: “Okay, come on, Elmo.  You can sleep on the couch tonight.” I take Elmo downstairs and come back.  “Now, let me see those teeth.”

NICK: “NO!!!”  He puts his hands over his mouth.  I sit down on the floor and put him in my lap, holding the toothbrush at some distance.

MAMA: “You know, my teeth feel really good now.  They are all clean and smooth and minty.  I like brushing my teeth because it makes them feel so good.”

Nicholas opens his mouth just until the toothbrush gets to it, then closes it so all the toothpaste comes off onto his lips.  He starts slapping and kicking me.  I pin his arms down with my arm, pin his legs down with my leg, and shove the toothbrush into his hollering mouth. I manage about 20 seconds of very basic brushing.

MAMA: “There! Good enough!”

Nicholas is wailing and flailing.

MAMA: “You did not want me to brush your teeth.”

NICK: “No! No!”  He jumps up and grabs for the brush.

MAMA: “You want to do it yourself now.”

NICK: “No! Paste!”  I put more paste on the brush and hand it to him.  “No!”  He hands it back to me and stands there with his mouth open.

I brush his teeth thoroughly while he stands calmly.  He spits into the bathtub, supervises the rinsing of his brush, then toddles off to bed.

I ended up feeling like I’d tried all the correct, gentle, creative approaches and succeeded only in wasting time, but then when I gave in and did the “wrong” thing, it worked wonders!  I was so puzzled that I posted the above account on a discussion board, where I got a very clear-headed assessment from someone called Bellingham Crunchie:

It looks to me like he became cooperative when he realized he had no choice. Everything before that was successfully delaying the toothbrushing. I think it would look exactly the same (him fighting you just as hard) whether you started out forcing the toothbrush into his mouth at the beginning or after 45 minutes. In other words, all the delaying tactics, brushing Elmo’s teeth, etc, didn’t help him get any closer to being able to accept the toothbrush.

She’s right.  Maybe it’s not true of all kids, but with Nicholas, a power struggle will be prolonged as long as we parents allow it to be.  Once he’s shown that he’s not going to accept the inevitable without a fight, instead of engaging in the fight, we need to impose the inevitable.  Anything else is just delay.  If anything, further delay increases his negative reaction to the imposition of the inevitable.

I don’t like overpowering anybody–it doesn’t make me feel like I’ve won; it makes me feel like we’ve all lost–and it was disturbing to see that tactic achieve the goal when nothing else would.  But as the days went on, I found that having been forced into it just once had left him a little more resigned to the fact that his teeth were going to get brushed every night between putting on pajamas and hearing stories.  All I had to do was act firm and confident while bringing him into the bathroom and closing the door, setting up both toothbrushes, brushing my own teeth, then sitting down and putting him in my lap and brushing his teeth.  He still didn’t seem happy about it, but at least he was opening his mouth for me.  He sometimes shrieked for Elmo, but I’d tell him he could brush Elmo’s mouth after I brushed his…and after I was done, he showed no interest in Elmo.  He was just testing to see whether the Elmo tangent could get him out of having his teeth brushed.

I’d love not to have power struggles like this.  I wish we could get along all the time and be reasonable.  When Nicholas starts defying instructions and raising distractions and yelling at me, I feel just sick inside, and I want to set an example of being very sweet and gentle.  I want to be like those parents in the gentle discipline books who pull creative solutions out of thin air and get everyone to agree!  Sometimes, I am.

But it’s possible to offer too many choices about things for which there really is no choice.  You have to brush your teeth.  There might be some options about exactly how and exactly when, but it’s got to get done.  I’ve seen many situations over the years in which we try to make these inevitable things easy for Nicholas, yet he resists and resists and resists endlessly.  We are giving him too much control of the situation.  When we take charge and make it happen, he may be very upset and angry, but at least it got done.  [Note to neighbors: That horrific shrieking you hear once in a while–like earlier this week–is the result of our insisting that Nicholas have his hair washed.  We are not murdering him.]  And occasionally–this toothbrushing struggle was the first time I saw it clearly–he responds to having been forced into it by demanding a second chance to demonstrate how he can cooperate.  (The sooner we take charge, the more likely that is.  After a longer struggle, he tends to hold a grudge for a while.)

I’m not saying that letting your child brush your teeth, dunk his brush in a drinking glass, or brush a stuffed animal’s teeth are Things Not To Do.  You can try them.  You might even find that one of them is the super magic trick that works with your child!  But if you find that a simple task of routine hygiene has become a lengthy struggle requiring your full creative resources, yet it’s still not getting anywhere…count to three, maybe, and then just make it happen.  It won’t be fun.  You will feel like a horrible ogre.  But if you go through a long, drawn-out negotiation every single time you try to do anything, because you’ve been showing your child that you’re willing to do that, and he enjoys the game of seeing how long he can delay, you know what?  You will turn into a horrible ogre anyway, and it will happen very suddenly, when your frustration and resentment finally explode at a level that isn’t really fair to a little kid who’s living in the moment and has been unaware of the cumulative stress he’s been causing you with the negotiations you have been accepting.

Things Not To Do:

  • Don’t spend more than ten minutes trying to get a toddler to agree to do something that really must be done.  Make it happen.  (You might extend the time for an older child, but still, there’s got to be a limit.)
  • Don’t keep on waiting to act as you’re starting to get really angry.  When you are yelling, “JUST HOLD STILL!!!” over and over again and feel like strangling the kid, you’ve already lost control of the situation, and the longer you go on letting the kid wriggle and filibuster, the more parental authority you’ll lose.  Also, it’s much easier to be firm without hurting anyone when you are relatively calm.
  • Don’t feel guilty about taking control in a way that is firm and might be uncomfortable if the kid struggles but does not injure him and does not involve yelling, shaming, overburdened sighing, or abandonment.  You could do worse.  I know I have.  It usually comes about because I did not take control but only resented him for not giving it to me!
  • Don’t assume that if a child wants to brush Elmo’s teeth, he also would like to have Elmo brush his teeth.  The toddler Nicholas, who had never yet seen Elmo on TV, found the character appealing on T-shirts and books, but when a friend gave him the Tickle Me Elmo doll he was quite disturbed by his vibrating and imprisoned him under a laundry basket.  (I squeaked, “Freeeee Elmo!” and Nicholas laughed meanly, keeping his distance.)  By the time of this toothbrushing struggle, we had removed the batteries to render Elmo just a stuffed animal, but his large staring eyes remained a bit troubling.  Eventually I realized Nicholas liked to do things to Elmo by way of proving to himself that Elmo was not scary.  If I gave Elmo some initiative and control–as above–Nicholas became frightened and needed Elmo to go far away.

Things To Do: Visit Works-for-Me Wednesday and Mom’s Library for more good advice!

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8 thoughts on “Things Not To Do: Toddler Toothbrushing Edition

    • I read that book! Yes, having too many choices can be a problem for anybody. I think it’s particularly overwhelming to children because it seems to put their fate (sometimes, everyone’s fate) in their hands, and even when they are acting very bossy they may actually be frightened by that responsibility…and act even bossier to fight the fear. I certainly see this with Nicholas sometimes.

      • I agree. Too much responsibility when they are not ready can be a scary thing. I think it really makes them feel safe when their are rules and they know someone else is in charge. You make a great point Becca, we need to remain calm and react to the situation the way we want our children to react. It is really hard at those times when you want things done right away. Thanks for sharing at Mom’s Library!

  1. I totally agree with this! I have a distinct memory from when I was very young of wanting my parents to just tell me what to do and stop putting all the decision-making power on my shoulders. There is a particular incident that my parents like to relate about how I threw a tantrum because I wanted to keep my kids’ placemat at a restaurant, but when they let me keep it I said I didn’t want it, and then when we got home I said I wanted it again, and my dad DROVE back to the restaurant but they’d already thrown it away. I have a very clear memory of wanting one of my parents to just say, “NO” and make a decision for me about what to do with it.

    I am spending time this week with my cousin and her two little ones, and I realized how often non-negotiable things are framed as questions; e.g., “Would you like to go in your high chair now?” at mealtime. I’ve tucked that away as a tip not to give my child a choice if there’s only one right answer.

    • Your story sounds very familiar to me! Nicholas does things like that, changing his mind about what he wants and demanding that we go out of our way to fulfill his desires. Now, there are some times when he truly does want something very much and will be thrilled if we can help him get it. But at other times there’s a certain desperate, irrational tone that means, “I’m saying this, I totally believe in my conscious mind that I want it, but if you get it for me I will realize that EVERYTHING IS STILL WRONG!!!” Daniel is better at recognizing this tone than I am (but he tends to sound very angry in his response, which doesn’t help Nicholas get any more rational and tends to trigger me to protect my little fluffkin from being yelled at rather than to rationally consider whether little fluffkin is making an unreasonable request) but neither one of us has yet gotten a handle on how to talk him down from it.

      I feel very lucky to have avoided the “Would you like to go in your high chair now?” trap from the beginning, thanks to my grandma, who told me that was one of her big mistakes as a parent of young children; when she learned to say, “Time to get into your high chair!” things went more smoothly. I did realize yesterday morning that I’ve been saying, “Are you ready for breakfast?” but we’re about to get back on the school-year schedule where there’s less slack in the morning and he really can’t wait an hour to eat even if that’s what his stomach would prefer…so this morning I said, “I’m going to make Cinnamon Apples for breakfast. I think I’ll put mine on top of a bowl of oatmeal squares. Do you want that too?” and there was no problem getting him to eat as soon as it was ready. But as I’m writing this, I realize I forgot to put away the leftover apples, so I guess I shouldn’t feel too competent….

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