If someone were to guess what I was doing based on the sounds being emitted from my child they would probably say:

  1. You’re ripping out her toenails.
  2. You’re trying to inject poison into her eyeballs.
  3. You’re trying to wipe her hands and face.

If you haven’t spent much time with a toddler you might think that one of these options doesn’t belong. But it does…it really does.

Why on earth do children protest so vociferously at the mere suggestion of such a necessary and routine task?

enjoying Daddy's birthday breakfast

What it looks like: Intense protests in response to wiping face and hands, often in the form of screaming, crying and wriggling away.

Mistaken for: Wanting to be dirty or trying to be difficult.

Why she does it: Next time you eat a meal use only your hands to get the food to your mouth. Then, when you’re all finished and have something that you really want to jump up and do, get an adult to leap into action, taking hold of your hands and head to scrap off the food. Make sure they use a cold scratchy cloth and speak in gibberish, if they speak at all. Oh, and if you show signs of dismay the adult should definitely respond with exasperation, saying something like, ‘I’m only wiping your hands. It doesn’t hurt. Why can’t you just sit still?’

That’s why she does it.

How to support: As with all care-taking tasks, children need us to slow down and communicate:

  1. Explain what you need to do – I need to clean your hands and face. I’ve brought a cloth to wipe them. Try to avoid asking Can I…? if No is not an option.
  2. Allow time for child to process – Only about 10 or 20 seconds. But don’t rush right in just after (or during) your explanation.
  3. Wait for permission (or refusal) – To give consent a child may simply make eye contact, hold out her hands or reach for the cloth. Or, at least at our house, she will say ‘No!’ and swat at the cloth.

If a child refuses a necessary care-taking task it’s important to acknowledge her refusal but then explain why it must be done anyways. She will likely continue to protest which simply shows that she needs extra support to cope with this frustrating situation. There are all kinds of ways to offer support; here are some that I’ve found helpful:

  • Involve her in the process – Give her the option of washing her hands and face herself. You may still need to ‘touch up’ after she’s finished but she’ll be much more agreeable to this once she’s had a go herself.
  • Choose to see the learning opportunity – Point out the spots that are ‘dirty’ and narrate what happens as she wipes them clean. Use a mirror to show her where to wipe on her face. Identify body parts as she cleans them or ask her to wipe certain parts by name. Use lots of positional language like on, under, between, beside.
  • Don’t rush or pressure her – Protests are a sign that she’s not yet ready to get cleaned up. As long as you’re not pressed for time, allow her to stay at the table until she is ready. Be sure not to imply through tone or body language that staying at the table is a punishment.

What’s wrong with saying nothing, pinning a child down and quickly wiping her hands and face yourself? This method certainly gets the job done but it’s also likely to cause feelings of confusion, helplessness, and frustration…for everyone! Working through the situation together does take time and patience but turns a power struggle into an opportunity to build mutual trust and respect. How beautiful!

If you have any further suggestions of how to offer support during post-meal clean up please leave them in the comments section. We’re always needing new ideas at our house!