Most tasks and chores can be taught by letting the child experience consequences, because those consequences are mostly immediate and direct (e.g. not going to the playground if the child won't put on shoes). That's discussed in this question.

But some tasks are mandatory (like brushing the teeth in the morning, or other personal hygiene), but the negative consequence is neither immediate nor direct (e.g. possibly cavities after some months) and there might not be opportunity for removal of privileges before an extended separation from the parent (e.g. about to go to day care).

  • How do you deal with these mandatory tasks?
  • How do you come up with suitable consequences that are both immediate and reasonably linked to the task?
  • Why wouldn't refusal to do something like brush teeth also result in an immediate and direct penalty like not getting a bed time story? Sep 14, 2011 at 19:35
  • @Christopher, in the evening you'd be right, as long as the child is young enough to desire the removed privilege. I've updated the question: brushing teeth in the morning when you can't very well send them back to bed :-) Sep 14, 2011 at 19:55

6 Answers 6


I'm not 100% that this answers your questions, but I'll take a stab at it.

WhatToExpect.com has an entire article about getting toddlers (and, by extension, pre-schoolers) to brush their teeth. Their page has a number of tips for getting young ones into the habit of brushing, but the highlights, I thought, were:

  • Let your toddler pick the supplies. Take your tot to the store and let him choose his own toothbrush and toothpaste. A colorful character on the brush’s handle may not inspire you, but it might make all the difference in coaxing your toddler to brush his teeth. Let him pick the toothpaste too, so that he’s sure to like the flavor.
  • Take turns.
  • Brush along with him.

Similar tips are found here. This link emphasizes reward systems for teeth-brushing, but I'd be wary of this, myself.

As for punishments, the evening-time punishments are probably easier. The morning-time ones would be trickier, simply because getting ready for school/work is just generally stressful.

The one my parents used on me was, "You can do it, or I can do it for you," and I always choose to do it myself, 'cause my parents brushed hard. Other things that I've seen work: packing a less-than-stellar lunch as a result, remembering that they didn't brush their teeth and so not getting to watch TV after school, and, once, when it was a chronic problem, asking the teacher to keep the child inside during recess because they hadn't brushed! That last one is definitely extreme, but making it clear that consequences don't go away, even when they're later, are just as important, in my humble opinion.

  • 7
    +1 for "You can do it, or I can do it for you". However, not letting a child go to recess or watch TV after school because of not brushing teeth would only work on older kids. For younger ones, the punishment happens so much later than the crime, they won't really associate the two, even if you explain why they are being punished.
    – Sarato
    Sep 14, 2011 at 22:02
  • The UK is now recommending against any flavour other than mint (usually mild) to prevent problems when a child has to move to an adult toothpaste, which are almost all mint.
    – DanBeale
    Sep 15, 2011 at 8:30
  • But, @DanBeale, cinnamon and not mint is the natural antibacterial. I understand not using bubblegum flavor, but cinnamon or plain should be okay.
    – Aarthi
    Sep 15, 2011 at 13:07

This is probably not for everyone and some people probably don't have the patience or time for it but almost every daily routine in our family is done by the entire family at the same time. When it's time for the nightly routine of brushing the teeth we cram the whole pack (4 of us total) in the bathroom and do it together. My 1 year old LOVES brushing her teeth. We can't get the brush away from her. It also helps us make sure our 10 year old is brushing properly. Eventually it just becomes a habit and is usually pretty fun when the entire family is involved.


Perhaps you can work toward accomplishing two parenting goals in your efforts to address this challenge. Supporting responsible behavior AND creating a positive, fun-loving memory may be possible.

Natural and motivating rewards for responsible behavior (such as brushing teeth) may be the most effective. Discovering a reward that builds relationships is very positive for both you and your child. In other words, turn this potentially negative into a positive. Here are some suggestions that may be worth a try.

With a digital or camera phone, take a quick photo of each family member's shining" teeth (including mom and dad's) each morning they "remember" to brush. Make this a quick, playful, fun event. No picture is taken of "yucky" teeth and a "lecture" or "demand"to brush is avoided. If he forgets to brush, just say, "Oh, sorry!" "Don't forget to brush in the morning and we'll get your picture then." It will not ruin his teeth to go a single morning without brushing, and turning the requirement into an exclusive club that he wants to "join" may turn a battle into an adventure. Perhaps, only ones with super clean teeth get to see the pictures taken.

Before the novelty fades, change the reward up. Allow him to take your pictures, compete to see who can make the funniest "teeth" picture or have the biggest smile. Be creative.

Limit the photo to just one each person per day to keep it a special event/reward, save time, and keep the novelty interest high". Perhaps some days, his reward for responsible behavior will be a shoulder ride to the car as "King Responsible" or he can wear dad's/mom's sunglasses or carry dad's phone if he is very careful.

Night time brushing can become "practice times" for the morning photos.

The idea is to connect "responsible behavior" with special privileges and life/task related rewards and have fun, free of the "you've-gotta-do-this-because-I-said- so" demands.

This is also a great opportunity to have discussions about being responsible and how it means he is growing up and how proud you are of him.

As a parent, I usually thought of the negative consequence that would "pressure" my son into compliance because those were the strategies my parents used. I wish I had pursued ways of using the "carrot" instead of the "stick".

With fore thought and creativity, you can likely match other tasks to positive rewards and turn parenting struggles into family victories.

  • 1
    I like the idea of turning the task upside down; to "connect "responsible behavior" with special privileges". Sep 16, 2011 at 13:35

This is an interesting question!

I think the answer is as least two-fold:

First, I think parents today have to really make sure that the requested action is age-appropriate and provide the proper support to the child. In the case of teeth-brushing, our local news did a story a few months ago about pediatric dentistry and one of the dentists they interviewed pointed out that a child really lacks the manual dexterity to properly brush his/her teeth until they are close to six or seven. This, of course, doesn't mean that you shouldn't teach your child how to brush his/her teeth on his/her own, but it does mean that a parent should be supervising the brushing and ensuring the process is done and done properly, and if that means that you have to get in there and do it yourself then so be it. Now, I know for a fact that my parents weren't brushing my teeth anymore at six years old, and I am also certain that they weren't supervising my efforts, either. No wonder kids don't want to brush their teeth! Not only is it boring, but it's hard and it makes you gag and you have to put this funny tasting stuff in your mouth--I mean, the only redeeming aspect of this whole process is getting to spit. Likewise, it has been my experience that many things are more successful any time parents are involved.

As for rewarding/punishing, I agree with Marie Hendrix. While sometimes punishments are warranted, I would have to think that punishing should be kept to a minimum whereas rewarding should be done on a more frequent basis. The last thing you want to do is to make the unpleasant mandatory task even more unpleasant than it is by constantly punishing your child when it doesn't get done or done correctly. If a child refuses to brush his/her teeth simply because they are being defiant, that's a completely different situation than a child not wanting to brush his/her teeth because they are tired or need help or are just avoiding it because it's not fun and there's something else they'd rather do.


From experience (twins):

I think that any consideration here must be made with a sense of what is age-appropriate along with understanding the child's own personal development and where this sets against what is being demanded.

Everything has certain consequences. The experience of the consequence is a teaching tool, but consider that it may teach something quite unintended, therefore enter into these decisions with a clear mind and well-considered intent.

Example: A child is really not ready to ride a bicycle safely - either because they are not ready physically, or have no sense of what the consequence may be if they fail. The parent (who may have no clue) feels it's best that the child learn how by experiencing the consequence and therefore sends them off, only to watch them crash and bleed.

The child may learn that bicycle riding is no fun and never get on it again. They may also draw from the experience the question, "Where was mommy when I needed her most?"

I have discovered that this negative consequence is recoverable, but it takes time.

All this came down, for me, to the question "what is my role?".

Another thing to consider: children are natural born learners. They are eager to do things on their own, but only when the time is right.

Regarding teeth, my son was encouraged to brush twice daily, once he took over the process, but sometimes forgot or just skipped it. A visit to the dentist, with two cavity fillings, altered his habits. So in this case, we did our best, and left it to him as his age and ability were appropriate to the task. The result was, following the dentist visit, renewed interest in brushing and in subsequent checkups no more cavities.

  • 1
    how old was your son as he got the 2 fillings from the dentist?
    – BBM
    Sep 20, 2011 at 18:24

At a certain time, the answer would have been a quick spanking or at least a swat on the behind.

Essentially, the parent always need to have something that can be done on a moments notice. Many of the parents I talk to allow children to pick one song on CD (or iPod) during the car ride and this is an easy privilege to take away. Some children have favorite articles of clothing. Taking it away and forcing them to change

Depending on where the child is going, it might also be possible for the care giver to help enforce the rule by taking away a privilege there. This is one reason why care givers and parents need to act as a team. So that rules and discipline are constant and don't change from environment to environment. Letting your child know that parents and care givers talk about behavior can be risky. Sometimes the negative attention can satisfy that emotional need so caution needs to be taken in how visible the conversation is.

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