Every single day you think about how to keep your children safe and healthy. You also do everything you can to help them to grow into smart people who will make good decisions for the rest of their lives, even when you’re not watching.

The bulk of your efforts are probably focused on academic, social and nutritional choices, which are all critical to your child’s future success. But, as a dentist, I’ve come to learn that many people reach adulthood without learning or internalizing good oral health habits.

While that may seem like a small thing compared to a great deal of other skills you’d like your little ones to have, remember that dental health is intimately linked to overall health. Not taking good care of your teeth can negatively impact several other critical aspects of one’s health.

Fortunately, it is within your power to help your kids get the right start.

1. Model Good Habits

Maybe parents used to be able to get away with the old, “Do as I say, not as I do” method, but we know now that this is pretty unrealistic in practice. You are your children’s first and most important role model, so your behavior is indelibly printed on their young minds and significantly influences their own choices later in life.

So it’s essential that you model great oral hygiene practices whenever possible – that doesn’t just mean taking care of your teeth, but actively involving your children by showing them that you brush and floss every day, avoid foods and drinks that are bad for your teeth, and visit the dentist regularly.

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2. Watch What You Say

You’ve probably learned the hard and comical way that children are always listening. That’s why even offhand remarks about dreading an upcoming dentist appointment or hating to floss can effect a child’s attitude about dental health.

If they hear you frequently talking about how much you dislike visiting the dentist or what a pain in the neck it is to take care of your teeth, it’s much more likely that they will grow to have the same feelings as you do. While it is important to be honest with your kids, it’s OK to be selective about your feelings if sharing them could do harm.

3. Link Nutrition & Oral Health

One of the biggest battles that parents face when it comes to their children’s teeth and health is nutrition. Unfortunately, most of the yummy treats that are so powerfully marketed to children are also the very same ones that do serious damage to their teeth as well as their general health.

No one likes getting cavities or more serious problems that can develop later in life, so try to teach children the link between junk food and unpleasant trips to the dentist and even losing their teeth when they’re older.

4. Floss Early, Floss Often

A major obstacle to good oral health is failure to floss. Although most adults are aware of the fact that daily flossing is required to keep teeth healthy, many do it inconsistently or not at all. Whether that’s because they never learned how to do it properly or simply don’t like it, this issue causes a great many dental problems that could easily be prevented.

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From a very early age, your children should see you floss every day and learn how to floss. You can do it for them as soon as their baby teeth start to fit in close to one another. And they can begin to floss on their own once they begin to develop the fine motor skills to do so, usually around age 10. You may also want to try having them use a water flossing system, which many find easier than traditional string floss.

5. Balance Supervision & Independence

Not only do you want your teaching and care of your children to keep them safe while they’re in your care, but you’d like them to learn how and why they should continue those practices even when you’re not watching. Your goal is to find a balance between using your authority to ensure that proper dental health habits are followed and encouraging them to take responsibility for their own well-being.

When they’re young, you may need to physically stand there and watch them brush and floss every day to make sure it’s getting done properly. But as they begin to reach the pre-teen years, you should develop a system that has them tracking their own care so that they don’t abandon those good habits you taught them when they’re at a sleepover or camp, or when they move out of your house to live on their own.

You may spend more time than you’d like asking your kids if they’ve brushed or standing in the bathroom with them to supervise. Just rest assured that the time you’re putting in now will benefit your children for a lifetime of good health.

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