Care and Feeding

I Love Him to Pieces, but My Tween Is a Hygiene Nightmare

From bathing to brushing to, uh, wiping, he just doesn’t care! Help me make him care!

A sad mother holding a pile of dirty laundry.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Michael Blann/DigitalVision via Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am concerned about my 11-year-old son’s hygiene. When I was 11, I was showering every day of my own accord. My son does not shower unless and until someone tells him to. I am not convinced his showering involves more than rinsing, and I don’t trust him to be honest with me. He frequently lies about whether he’s brushed his teeth. I will tell him after breakfast to go upstairs and brush his teeth, and he will go upstairs and wet his toothbrush so it looks like he did, but then not brush his teeth. WHY???

Additionally, he does not seem to care about his clothes. I don’t mean he’s got a “grunge” look, I mean he will wear clothes that obviously clash horrifically or do not fit him correctly (think skinny jeans that he outgrew a year ago, shirts that are too small and let his belly come out, or pants that are so big they are falling off even though they’re not designed to be those kinds of pants). I’ve spoken to his father about it (we are divorced but co-parent together amicably), and he is also concerned, so it’s not just me having unreasonable expectations for a pre-adolescent boy.

Finally, and most distressing for me, he is clearly not doing a good job at wiping himself. When I do his laundry, I find skid marks on his underpants. I talked to him about it, and now he just avoids me doing his laundry and puts it into the wash himself. I suspect he is also throwing away underwear after they get very badly messed up because he seems to never have enough even though I buy them fairly often, and he hasn’t reported outgrowing any.

I want my son to take responsibility for his body and the image of himself he presents to the world. I don’t want to be looking over his shoulder and reminding him to shower and wipe his butt. He starts middle school next year, and we all know that’s hard enough without being the smelly kid! This is not a financial issue; his father and I buy him clothes regularly and would also buy any self-care products he would ask for. This year for back-to-school clothes, I got him an online subscription to clothes for a few months and set a generous budget for him to spend on it because I thought it would help to give him a sense of having more control over his clothes and possibly get him more interested in constructing “cool” outfits. It doesn’t seem to have had any effect, although he was enthusiastic about the clothes. What can I do to help/encourage him to prioritize his appearance and hygiene?

—Distraught Tween Mom

Dear DTM,

This can be an extremely gross age. I get a lot of letters about this exact phase in a young person’s hygienic journey (we cannot really smell ourselves reliably, and tweens do not necessarily detect the transition from having the sweat glands of a child to the stank glands of an adolescent). I remember a day in seventh grade (Grade 7, really, because of Canada) when our long-suffering teacher arrived carrying a crate of Teen Spirit, which he distributed to everyone and said “please do not enter my class without having put on deodorant, it’s like the ape enclosure at the zoo in here.” This is all to say: You are not alone.

There are things you can do! First of all, donate or toss the too-small clothes. Pack up the too-large clothes. You can also choose to purchase only clothes that do not hideously clash, but I would let him continue to dress like Pete Davidson if that is where his heart lies (the kids are all about power-clashing these days). It’s the hygiene you really want to focus on.

You cannot barge into the shower to ensure he is using soap, but you can sniff him when he exits (dressed or in a towel) and send him back in to get it right. You can absolutely stand over him while he correctly brushes his teeth, reminding him that tooth-brushing autonomy is something he has lost by his own duplicity and will have to be re-earned over time. You can insist he wear deodorant.

The skid marks. Sadly, many people far older than your son have chosen to decide that it’s totally normal to end the day with underwear that looks like it’s been dragged under a car. I appreciate that, anatomically, some people have sufficiently furry undercarriages that toilet paper doesn’t really do the trick, but your wetting-the-toothbrush son is unlikely to embrace a bidet, and I hate to contribute to climate change by encouraging daily baby wipe usage. If that winds up being the only solution, make sure he’s not flushing them. I think it’s great your son is taking on the laundry responsibility for his dirty underwear, but since you are losing them at a great rate, it is not at all unreasonable to inform him that he will be replacing future “missing” pairs out of his allowance, which may offer the necessary motivation to get the job done more reliably.

I advise you to ask your ex-husband to have the skid mark conversation, man to man, and also to tell him about your other hygiene strategies so he can enforce them on his own parenting time. It sounds like you have a very good co-parenting relationship, and share the same concerns, so I think this will go rather smoothly.

Tweens can be gross. Your tween is medium-to-high-gross in his habits. You have not failed. I think the situation will improve. Keep me posted, because I would love an update, and I think a lot of our readers will face this transition and it would be great to see what works and what doesn’t.

On a personal note, please consider watching John Mulaney’s New in Town special on Netflix, in which he discusses his lawyer father cross-examining him on his “BONE-dry” toothbrush. Mulaney wasn’t even sneaky enough to wet his toothbrush, and now he’s selling out Radio City Music Hall for multiple night engagements.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 3-year-old son, Max, and a daughter, Alice, who is almost 6. They have been sharing a bedroom since my son was 4 months old. Recently, my adult stepdaughter moved out, creating an open bedroom. My question is, do I separate the kids, or keep them together, and for how long? I know Alice would love her own room, but my little guy would have a hard time adjusting to not having his sister so close at night, and he would probably feel left behind. So far, Alice hasn’t asked to move into her sister’s old room but was very excited when she got to sleep there one night, when Max kept climbing up on her bed. Max cried for an hour that night.

The kids have very different personalities; Alice enjoys making up stories with her dolls and drawing. She is generally very cautious, follows rules well, but sometimes gets upset at night, because she is afraid of having a bad dream, or saw something scary on the news. Max will dive right into anything and can be a bit wild. He can’t always sit still for bedtime stories, and sometimes has trouble settling down at night. However, they get along very well, and clearly love each other tremendously.

—To Share or Not to Share

Dear TSoNtS,

Oh, this is so convenient, because I have handled a very similar issue! I would tell Alice and Max that continuing to share a room depends on Max’s behavior. If Alice’s sleep is disturbed because Max is pestering her, she is welcome to get up and move to the other bedroom. If it happens enough that she says, “Hey, I really want my own room,” then she should be allowed to make it hers permanently. This will sadden Max, but life is full of consequences for our goofy behavior, and they would not have shared a room until college anyway.

My kids have worked it out and continue to enjoy sharing a room. Some mornings I find one of them in the other bedroom, for whatever reason (coughing, jumping, an argument), but for now, they’d rather be together. Having an extra bedroom is a very rare and easy way to sort out squabbles, and we are both lucky to have that option. Keep it as an option for now, but let Alice decide when she’s ready. She may immediately jump to the other room, and that’s just fine. Max will be OK.

• If you missed Sunday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

We have allowed our very responsible 12-year-old son to start an Instagram account to feature our dog. The stipulation he agreed to was that I get full access to his account to view private chats. There is a group of kids in his class who chat on this forum. I have noticed some serious concerns about online bullying between other children (not involving my son), and I am wondering if I should let the parents know? There is one boy in particular who has told another child that he is fat and should just “go kill himself.” I know this child’s mother and as a mom myself, I would want to hear that my child is saying these hurtful and damaging things to another child. On the other hand, my son is adamant that I not get involved so he is not implicated in being the snitch. Thoughts?

—Concerned in Canada

Dear Concerned in Canada,

I would screenshot those messages and send them to the parents of the kid being bullied, asking them (strongly!) not to share their provenance. I would allow your son to keep his account, because then you retain the ability to see what’s going on. If you make him delete it, he’s absolutely likely to start a secret account (which he may well have anyway, the kids are way ahead of us), and then if he becomes a target, you will not know about it.

Instagram has an age limit set to 13, which is close enough to your son’s age that I think allowing him to have a dog-photo account was reasonable enough parenting. He hasn’t done anything wrong with it, but he also doesn’t get to be “adamant” in a situation where you have seen a kid being told to kill himself. That’s not a keepable secret.

If he is very upset with you sharing the screenshots, even with the proviso that they be screenshotted in a way to keep his identity private and a very firm request to the other boy’s parents that they not reveal who sent them, he’ll look back on this as an adult (let alone as a parent) and realize you did exactly what had to be done. And if he doesn’t … you still did the right thing.

Is It OK to Intervene With Other People’s Bad Kids on the Playground?

Dan Kois and Jamilah Lemieux are joined by Elizabeth Newcamp on this week’s episode of Slate’s parenting podcast, Mom and Dad Are Fighting.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I recently walked in on my 14-year-old daughter and her best (female) friend kissing. My husband and I have no particular problem with this—the two girls have a sweet, supportive friendship; the fact that they’re both girls is immaterial to us; and we have no problem with our daughter exploring her sexuality. We’ve talked to my daughter, both before this incident and since, about relationships, safe sex, and the physical and emotional issues that both those topics bring. We’ve also made it clear that she’s welcome to talk to us about this development in her relationship with her friend, but we respect her privacy (so far, she’s declined any further conversation).

My question is whether I should tell the friend’s parents. The parents are friends of ours, though not especially close. I don’t know their position on romantic relationships for their daughter at her age, but I’m reasonably certain that the girls’ gender won’t be an issue for them. I haven’t spoken to my daughter’s friend about this at all, so I’ve made no promises, and she hasn’t asked me not to tell her parents. I feel like I owe it to my daughter’s friend to extend the same courtesy I extended my daughter—to respect her privacy. But at the same time, if I were in the parents’ shoes, I’d want to know. What’s your advice?

—Sitting on a Secret

Dear SoaS,

I wouldn’t tell them. They’re 14, and it’s just kissing (to the best of your knowledge). Fourteen is a great age to start just-kissing, in my personal opinion. I would deliver a brief speech to both of them that I do not wish to violate their privacy, but in return, I trust and expect them to abide by my house rules. In this particular instance, that would be “no sleepovers, and no closed doors while the friend is over.” If you find them feeling each other up in your pantry, they’ve lost their right to privacy, and you’ll call the friend’s parents.

Now, what may well happen is that your daughter and her friend go to the friend’s house to enjoy making out (everyone’s kids seem to be making out on Care and Feeding right now, perhaps this is truly the first sign of spring!), at which point they will get sloppy with their op-sec and the friend’s parents will catch them. And those parents can react however they wish to react. There is a very good chance they will react in a way that causes your daughter’s friend to say “BUT SUSIE’S PARENTS ARE COOL WITH IT” and then you have to have an unpleasant conversation with them. Please do not ask the friend to lie to her parents in an attempt to avoid this. If it happens, it happens. You can tell them that you felt it was harmless behavior, took your own steps to limit age-inappropriate escalation in your home, and wanted to protect your daughter’s privacy.

They can set their own house rules. They can tell their daughter she can’t hang out with yours anymore. That is their right as parents. But I think that remaining silent at the moment is completely defensible. Would I be more cautious if one of the kissees was a 14-year-old boy? Probably. But with pregnancy being off the table, I would extend a little trust and a little space.

— Nicole

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