Toothbrushing struggles and dropping the rope

We often get pushback when it comes time to brush Chickpea’s teeth. DD and I take turns, but Chickpea will demand that I do it, even if it’s DD’s turn. Or she will go hide in some corner of the house and refuse to come out. She doesn’t always resist. Sometimes she waltzes into the bathroom and jumps up on the stool, eager to get teethbrushing done and move on to stories. But a non-negligible fraction of the time, we get pushback.

It often comes up when DD wants to brush Chickpea’s teeth at night. He says “Let’s brush teeth and then read some stories.” She refuses, or demands that I do it. He encourages / cajoles her. She refuses again. He tells her that if she doesn’t brush teeth in the next 3 minutes they aren’t going to have time for stories. She feels threatened, and howls in protest, gets mad, and kicks at DD’s legs—but still won’t brush her teeth.

This is the perfect opportunity for what Robin Einzig calls “dropping the rope.” I think when a lot of people hear the expression “drop the rope” they think it means just give in and do what your kid wants. That’s not at all how I understand it. Consider the example above. When I’m faced with this same refusal, I usually say “I can see you’re not wanting to brush your teeth right now. We need to brush your teeth before you go to bed, but if you’re not ready I’ll go work on cleaning up the kitchen. Come get me when you’re ready. As long as you get me before 8pm, we’ll have time for some stories. Otherwise we will just do a quick tickle, cuddle, and song.

This approach works much, much better in my experience. I’m not standing there yanking on the rope, so she doesn’t feel compelled to yank back. I’m not threatening her, so she doesn’t feel pissed and angry at me, and like she has to refuse to do want just on a matter of principle.

And usually there is some reason she was refusing to brush her teeth, which (for whatever reason) she was incapable of communicating to me directly in the moment. But if I just step away and give her time, the reason will make itself known. Last time, for example, it turned out she was still hungry, but didn’t want to tell me. When I was in the kitchen “cleaning up” she sat back down at the table and poured herself another bowl of kidney beans, sprinkled on some nutritional yeast, and quietly ate them. When she was done she told me “Mom, if you hurry and brush my teeth now, we will still have 5 minutes for stories!” Other times there have been other reasons (the details of which I of course now forget). But just waiting has given her the space she needed to make them known.

In DD’s case, I think part of the problem is that he is asking Chickpea to do something unpleasant before he connects with her. Yes, we might have just enjoyed a pleasant dinner together, but that’s not really one-on-one “connection” in Chickpea’s book. And if DD was working most of the day, then I notice that Chickpea doesn’t feel very connected and prefers it if I brush her teeth, and acts somewhat cold and resistant towards DD. Even if he spent an hour in the morning playing Set with her (thanks Covid!), if he’s been holed up in the bedroom on his laptop all afternoon, she feels bitter.

I think in his case then, just saying “I’ll do it when you’re ready” may not work so well. Instead, before even suggesting that they brush teeth he might take a few minutes or two to connect with her. Have a snuggle in the bed. If she’s still resistant, maybe agree to read one story or half a chapter and then brush teeth before finishing up stories. Just get some positive momentum going before starting in on the unpleasant necessities.

A more detailed example from yesterday morning:

Today I wanted to brush Chickpea’s teeth after breakfast. Pre-Covid, DD always used to brush her teeth before taking her to preschool. And she was excited to go to preschool, so she had incentive to get her teeth brushed quickly and get out the door. But now she has no incentive, plus our schedule is a mess. More often then not, we don’t finish breakfast until 10:30, and then it feels like we’re about to eat lunch, and we want to get outside before lunch, so we skip it, or forget. But I have been feeling quite guilty about it, and decided that we really need to get back to our old routine of brushing twice a day. Unfortunately, I forgot to communicate that new resolution to Chickpea. So I totally understood why she didn’t like me suddenly “deciding” that today we really needed to brush teeth after breakfast. And naturally, she refused.

I empathized, and again reiterated that I wanted to brush her teeth before we went outside. She refused, so I said I would brush my teeth while I waited for her to be ready. When I was done I found her in her playroom and asked her to come in the bathroom to brush her teeth.

“I’m NOT going to brush my teeth!” she yelled, and ran to the bedroom, slammed the door, and got under her covers, cuddling Tigger. I gave her a little time then entered the bedroom and tried to talk with her. She didn’t want me to touch her since she was mad, so I lay on the grownup bed and just waited. I told her again I was sorry for just springing it on her and I know we’ve been pretty inconsistent lately. I said I know that brushing teeth isn’t so fun, that I also find it annoying and wish I could skip it. We talked about cavity bacteria and how they like to eat the food on our teeth, and then they “poop” (giggle, giggle) their waste on our teeth, and their waste is acidic and makes holes in our teeth. I told her what it feels like to get a cavity filled. We talked about the roots/nerves in our teeth that carry the sensations when we chew from our teeth to our brain. We talked about when cavities get deep and how you have to get root canals. We had a long, relaxed chat and when we were done she hopped up and went to the bathroom to brush her teeth.

I could have insisted. “You are going to brush your teeth even if I have to sit here all day.” I could have threatened “Fine, but I’m not going to play any games with you until your teeth are brushed.” But instead we just talked and I gave her time, and eventually she came around to it, as I knew she would. For Chickpea is a sensible person, and she doesn’t want to get cavities. And ultimately, we have a good relationship, and deep down she wants to please me. As long as she feels like I respect her, she will almost always respect my requests. It might just take her a while to get there.

Of course, if your relationship with your child is currently not very healthy, and you aren’t approaching them from a foundation of mutual trust and respect, then they might never get to the point where they agree to brush their teeth. You will have to repair the relationship before you can expect your kid to willingly cooperate with you.

Another caveat: this “I’ll wait until you’re ready” approach doesn’t work great when you are in a big rush. Sometimes we just don’t have the luxury of time. In that case, I think you may have to accept a modified routine (“I am going to bring the toothbrush in the car and let you brush your teeth while we’re driving to my appointment.”) Or you may just have to skip it entirely. Pushing harder isn’t going to make things happen any faster, in my experience, and generally just makes them slower. If this situation happens routinely though, you will either need to change something up on your part (plan to leave an extra 30 minutes before leaving the house for appointments, switch to brushing on wake up instead of after breakfast, or create a visual routine chart together with your kid so they know what the steps in the morning/evening routine are). Or alternatively, if your kid is old enough, then you can try to have a later problem-solving session a la Jen Lumalan.

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