Column – Helping children build good habits

Published 5:57 pm Tuesday, July 19, 2022

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By Nathan Rice


He was digging through his suitcase and grabbing what he needed to go to bed.

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“Don’t forget to brush your teeth,” I said. “I know,” he said as he pulled out the needed items to clean his pearly whites. “You’ve told me every night this week, so it’s kind of a habit now.”

He comes from a home without much care, so a nightly reminder to take care of his teeth was something with which he is not familiar. However, oral hygiene habits began forming on the fourth night of our week together. The practice started to develop because he learned that brushing his teeth was an expected part of preparing for bed, and he knew that I would remind him every night.

As we work with children and youth to build good habits, we should set expectations, give constant reminders and follow up as needed.

The first key is to make sure that they understand the expectation that you are setting. There’s no expectation at Timothy’s home for him to brush his teeth, so I had to make sure that he knew that while we were together, brushing his teeth every evening before going to bed was an expectation.

I spoke with him several times before about the importance of brushing his teeth often, but I am unable to remind him to take care of this task before he heads to bed since I am not with him most evenings. This week, however, we were staying near each other, and I could work with him each night.

However, getting him to brush his teeth every evening didn’t come from my ability to share about oral hygiene, cavities or the connection between a healthy mouth and his overall health. He started brushing his teeth only when I was there to remind him every evening as he prepared for bed.

Next, constant reminders are important as they can help children and youth get into the habit of doing what they need to do. It lets them know, as well, that it is important enough for you to mention it over and over.

Lastly, it is important to follow up with them to ensure that what you have asked has been followed. A reminder without some verification may not be that helpful. I made sure I saw a toothbrush and toothpaste in his hands as he headed to the bathroom. I didn’t have to watch him brush his teeth. I trusted him enough to complete the task once he has the items needed and is heading to the bathroom, but I did make sure he had what he needed.

We shouldn’t have to be harsh investigators in most circumstances, but we should be looking to ensure that the steps we have asked that they take are being followed.

Building a good habit isn’t easy for most people, and it’s even more difficult for children who often lack the self-discipline to do necessary things or the foresight to understand the future consequences of poor habits. Therefore, it is up to the adults in their lives to set the exception, remind them consistently and follow up to ensure completing what is expected.

Nathan Rice, a Hampton Roads resident since 1988, is a branch operations manager for a regional credit union in Virginia and North Carolina. He has volunteered with children and youth through various organizations for over 15 years. He is interim pastor at Portsmouth Nazarene Church. His email address is