Unlike playing or hanging out with friends, personal hygiene is an activity that doesn't seem to have any immediate rewards for a child. The younger the child, the harder it may be for her to understand why she should wash her hands after going to the bathroom or comb her hair after a shower. Though it may seem like an inconvenience, hygiene is important -- without it, it can be difficult for children to make friends and stay healthy.
Modeling Personal Hygiene
The best way to instill personal hygiene in your child is to model it yourself. Brush your teeth together at night, and explain that you can get cavities or tooth damage if food sits on your teeth too long. Explain that we change clothes daily because our skin is constantly shedding cells (plus the dirt and other matter that builds up on children's clothing can have germs on it). Offer a secondary pair of shoes for your child so the moisture can air out and prevent bacteria from growing. Trim your fingernails and toenails together. Explain that when they get too long, dirt collects under them, and it can make you sick if you touch your mouth, nose or eyes.
Teaching Kids About Germs
The foremost purpose of hygiene is to prevent the spread of disease. But because we can't see germs, it may be hard for a child to understand why we have to wash our bodies. Consider watching a kid's movie on germs, or getting your own microscope to show your child how small germs are. Explain that although not all germs are bad, some of them can cause fever, runny noses, rashes, vomiting and diarrhea. Show your child that you can keep germs from spreading by washing your hands, covering your nose and mouth when you sneeze and cough, and avoiding touching dirty surfaces like public doorknobs, toilets and old food.
Puberty and Hygiene
According to Kids Health, puberty causes hormonal changes that stimulate sweat glands, leading to embarrassing odors and skin changes. Encourage your child to shower daily with a mild soap, and help him pick out a shampoo that fits his hair type (dry, normal or oily, for example). If your teen is concerned about sweat and body odor, explain the difference between deodorant, which covers up odor, and antiperspirant, which actually absorbs sweat. Don't suggest these products unless your child is concerned with his odor, however -- he may take your observation as criticism.
Dealing With Hygiene Sensitively
Keep the focus on health when talking to a child about hygiene. Anything else may come across as a criticism of her physical appearance, which may lead to self-esteem issues. Keep in mind that there are certain preconceived ideas regarding "hygiene" that are misleading. For example, people may think serious acne is the result of a person who just doesn't wash her face, when in reality it's often caused by changing hormones, not surface dirt.