The One Thing You Must Tell Your Kids to Do Amid Coronavirus

Experts say explaining this one practice to your children is essential to fighting COVID-19.

Trying to make sense of what you should and should not do during the pandemic has been a daily challenge for many adults. So, it's unrealistic to expect young people to fully grasp the new way of life brought on by COVID-19. However, in order to stop the spread, there is one thing that parents need to ensure their kids understand about the coronavirus: the importance of washing their hands—and watching what they touch.

According to Kelly Curtin, MD, pediatric expert for the Parenting Pod, "most people touch their faces at least 20 times an hour." But children? They most likely do it more often that that, she says.

"If an infected person has droplets on their hands, all the surfaces they touch can become infected," explains Curtin. "If a child touches these surfaces, this gives the virus additional opportunity to spread. Our skin is a protective barrier, but our nose, eyes, and mouth are openings that can give the virus entrance into our bodies."

Cropped shot of a man helping his son to wash his hands in the bathroom

The best way for parents to effectively convey this particular message? Practice what they preach.

"Parents need to try to help their children understand this by practicing social distancing and good hand hygiene themselves," says Norina Ocampo, MD, FAAP, a pediatrician with Tenet Florida Physician Services in Boca Raton, Fla. "Try to show them that keeping objects such as toys and surfaces clean will help fight the virus. If parents take the lead and act as role models, they can lead by example and continue with gentle reminders…and kids will copy them."

Depending on the developmental stage and age of the child, parents may vary their approach in how to best go about instilling this healthy habit in their kids.

"This means that you may be explaining or practicing with older children, while singing or dancing as you explain with younger children," says clinical health psychologistGeny Zapata, PsyD, who works with Adventist Health. "Pick a fun song that you can sing while practicing the hand washing steps."

If you're looking for a song to use, try singing the "Happy Birthday," which lasts the recommended 20 seconds you should spend washing your hands, according to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Parents may also consider implementing a reward system, says Jacqueline Jones, MD, a pediatric doctor and author of Medical ParentingFor younger children, she recommends making a sticker board and rewarding children with a sticker and treat when they go an entire day with good hand hygiene. For older children? Try using verbal praise of how their efforts are helping to keep the entire family safe, as this will "give them a sense of pride."

Whatever method you go with, Curtin says, finding the one that works best for your child is what's most important. As another potential approach, she suggests using washable paint and having your kids make handprints on paper. You can then explain that their paint mark represents the germs that they leave behind after touching something. She also recommends posting hand-washing pictures around the house as sign reminders, putting a step stool next to your sink for easy child access, and letting your child pick out soap in their preferred color or scent.

In the end, Zapata says to remember that these lifestyle changes cannot be expected to happen over night, and that "patience with the process" is vital to success. And for more help with children during this time, check out The One Thing You Shouldn't Let Your Kids Do Amid Coronavirus.

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