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Don't forget to wash your hands

March 17, 2006|by Lisa Tedrick Prejean

On a recent airline flight, my 7-year-old could barely wait until the pilot turned off the "fasten seatbelts" sign so she could move about the cabin and check out the unique features in the standing-room-only restroom.

Being the protective mother that I am, I accompanied her down the aisle and waited outside the door until she was finished.

"Did you wash your hands?" I asked when she opened the door. The flight attendant smiled knowingly at the question. My daughter nodded.

"With soap?"

A sheepish grin formed at the corners of her mouth as she returned to the sink.

The flight attendant laughed as I shrugged my shoulders. "At least she's honest."

At times, keeping children healthy seems to be a full-time job. Think of all the reminders we parents give each day:


"Zip your jacket."

"Eat your vegetables."

"Don't stick that in your mouth. You don't know where it's been."

And the aforementioned, "Wash your hands."

Because properly washing hands can help prevent the onset and spread of infectious diseases and foodborne illnesses, children should be taught how to do it properly, says Jerry Bowman, spokesman for NSF International, a nonprofit public health and safety organization.

"Hand-washing is one of the building blocks of public health," says Bowman, whose organization was originally founded in 1944 as the National Sanitation Foundation.

It isn't enough for children to just swish their hands under water, Bowman says. Children need to learn the six steps of washing their hands.

NSF International has developed a Web site,, complete with games and "soaper-heroes" to educate children on this topic.

Here are the steps children should learn:

Step 1: Wet hands with warm water.

Step 2: Apply soap.

Step 3: Rub hands together - between fingers too - for 20 seconds. (That's about as long as it takes to sing the ABCs or "Happy Birthday to You" twice.)

Step 4: Don't forget your fingernails.

Step 5: Rinse all soap down the sink.

Step 6: Dry hands with paper towel or warm-air dryer.

The Web site also contains downloadable activities for kids, educational materials for teachers and information for parents.

It's important for parents and teachers to educate children about cleanliness, Bowman says. Challenge kids to think about germs that could be hiding.

Items that are shared or areas that are frequently touched by many people often harbor germs. In school, pencils, crayons, doorknobs, drinking fountains, chalk or dry-erase markers should be cleaned regularly. In one study, the NSF found that there were more germs on a school water fountain spigot than a school restroom toilet seat.

At home, counter surfaces, phones, keyboards and remotes could be the culprits.

People often are more diligent about cleaning the areas where they expect germs to be, such as toilet seats. They might overlook places such as doorknobs and sink faucets because they don't expect germs to be there, Bowman says.

If parents and educators emphasize washing hands, children will learn that it is important and will make a habit of doing it properly ... most of the time.

They'll probably still need a "With soap?" question from time to time.

For an additional resource, parents can check out the book "Germs Are Not for Sharing" by Elizabeth Verdick, part of the Best Behavior series published by Free Spirit Publishing,

Written for ages 4 to 7, the book helps children understand what germs are and what they can do.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

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