How to Brush Your Teeth


The most recent lessons in our writing curriculum involved having the student read a short narrative explaining how to do something, then having them summarize the steps verbally back to me. This has proven to be a challenge, because my kids don’t see why it matters if you skip a step or list something out of order. And my kids don’t like to put effort into something they don’t find important or interesting.

I know, I know. It’s a super-unique problem to have and you must be wondering how I deal.

Last week they presented me with those bored you’ve-got-to-be-kidding expressions when I tried to explain the importance of both following and giving instructions. So I gave them a new assignment. I told them they had to write down step-by-step instructions on how to brush your teeth, and I would follow them exactly. They were to use numbered instructions that didn’t have to be in complete sentences, and spelling didn’t matter. I emphasized that they had to list EVERYTHING involved; if they didn’t specifically tell me to do it, then I wouldn’t. I would also write instructions for them to follow. Whoever’s instructions resulted in the successful brushing of teeth would have a treat after supper that night. If all three of us wrote successful instructions, then all three of us would have a treat.

Minecraft Steve was finished in less than five minutes and went to have ‘recess’ in the playroom while Princess Playtime and I finished. He got nervous when he came upstairs twenty minutes later and found us both still writing. We had each used up the front and back of one piece of paper and were both on our second. He decided to take another look at his and expand it a bit. A few minutes later we were all finished. Minecraft Steve had about a page and a half of instructions. Princess Playtime had almost four, and I had six.

We all went into the bathroom where I stood in front of the sink, toothbrush and toothpaste on the counter next to the basin, and I told Minecraft Steve to read me his instructions.

We stalled when he told me to put my toothbrush under the faucet, and I held it vertically under the dry tap. He never told me to turn on the water or which part of the toothbrush to wet.

Minecraft Steve is a perfectionist who doesn’t take failure very well, and I decided to add a three-strike rule. I counted both omissions as a single strike, and was relieved that Princess Playtime, a.k.a the Queen of Fairness, didn’t notice.

He got his second strike when he failed to instruct me to remove the cap from the toothpaste.

He got his third strike when he told me to put my toothbrush in my mouth but didn’t specify where or what I was to do with it once it was there. I couldn’t give him any more passes, and I had to tell him that his instructions did not result in the successful brushing of my teeth.

I rinsed off my brush and reset so I could follow Princess Playtime’s instructions. She remembered to specify which part of the brush should go under the faucet, but she too forgot about turning on the water. Strike one. She also forgot about taking the cap off the toothpaste. Strike two. After that she gave fairly detailed instructions on which teeth to brush when, including that I should move the brush from side to side.

But she forgot to tell me to spit. Strike three.

Then it was their turn to follow my instructions. They both hoped that I would strike out as well.

I almost did.

I got through their first two strikes without a hitch, even specifying that they were to remove the toothpaste cap by twisting it. But then I noted that people don’t usually hold the toothpaste cap in their hand while brushing, so my first strike was not telling them to put the cap back down on the counter.

Several times they began to do something automatically before I instructed it, and I pointed that out whenever it happened. They had to follow my instructions exactly, and not do anything I didn’t specifically tell them to do.

When we were at the point where I instructed them to put the cap back on the toothpaste, Princess Playtime noticed that I neglected to tell them to twist it. I argued briefly that I had already told them how to operate the cap when they took it off, but she reminded me that I hadn’t specifically told them to twist it back on (using my own words against me), and I conceded. Strike two.

Fortunately I didn’t get a third strike, despite their careful observation, and they had to agree that I had written successful instructions.

Minecraft Steve grumped that it wasn’t fair because I had a big Mama-brain, and they didn’t.

We sat down to talk about the assignment. They were both pretty upset, and that’s when the teaching moment happened. Princess Playtime asked if I had expected them to write successful instructions, and I admitted that I hadn’t. Following instructions is hard, and writing them is even harder. I reminded Minecraft Steve that even with my big Mama-brain, I still got two strikes.

Then I told them they were getting treats after supper anyway. I’d made my point, and there was no reason to prolong the disappointment. I certainly wasn’t going to eat a treat in front of them, and they both would have squawked if I skipped it entirely. They’re pretty consistent with their sense of justice.

They argued with me a bit, saying they hadn’t earned the treats, but accepted my decision when I told them the treats had nothing to do with the assignment.

That day just happened to be a treat day.

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