Dear Mr. Dad: For some reason, getting my kids (and my husband) to wash their hands—whether it’s after going to the bathroom or before dinner—is a huge battle. Any suggestions on how to deal with this situation?

A: You’ve stumbled into one of the great mysteries of parenting (and, for that matter, life): Why do so many otherwise intelligent people overlook the most obvious—and most important—thing they can do to keep from getting sick? Since trying to answer that question would be futile, let me focus instead on some steps you can take to encourage the folks who share your house (and their germs) to keep their hands clean.

  1. Start ‘em young. When it comes to washing hands, there’s no such thing as too early. If your child isn’t able to rub his hands together, you can do it for him. As his coordination improves, turn over more of the responsibilities.
  2. Make it fun. The children’s products industry has an ear on the ground and they know that kids aren’t overly excited about hand washing. Squidsoap ( ) is a fun soap dispenser which puts a small ink spot on the child’s palm. It takes about 15-20 seconds of rubbing to get the ink off.
  3. Set a good example. If you don’t walk the talk, you’ll have no credibility. So make sure your kids (and your spouse) see you washing your hands at least as often as you want them to.
  4. Warn them. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Keeping hands clean is one of the most important steps we can take to avoid getting sick.” Young kids can’t understand that something they can’t see can make them sick, but they need to know that washing their hands helps keep germs from spreading, in the same way that covering their mouth while coughing or sneezing does. You don’t want to scare them too much—just enough so they’ll wash their hands even when you’re not standing over their shoulder.
  5. Know when to do it. The CDC recommends that hands be washed:

· Before preparing or eating food

· After going to the bathroom

· After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has gone to the bathroom

· Before and after tending to someone who is sick

· After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing

· After handling an animal or animal waste

· After handling garbage

· Before and after treating a cut or wound

  1. Keep it simple. Wet your hands, rub them together for 15-20 seconds (that’s twice through the ABC song), making sure to get the back of the hands and under the fingernails. Despite the ad campaigns, there is no evidence that antibacterial soap is any more effective than good old soap and warm water, so stick with that. Alcohol gels are fine, but they don’t work on visible dirt, so you’ll still have to wash the big chunks off. Take a glob as big as a quarter and keep rubbing until your hands are dry.
  2. Hand washing is only the beginning. Remind your children (and yourself) to try to keep hands away from the mouth, nose, and eyes. And be careful what you touch. That pen you just borrowed at the Post Office and that quarter you picked up off the street are covered with minute traces of all sorts of nasty things you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley (including germs and human waste). When using public restrooms, use a paper towel to turn off the water (you don’t know how well the people who used the sink before you washed their hands) and to open the door (you don’t actually know whether the people before you washed their hands at all).