Parent Praise Might Encourage Children’s Persistent Toothbrushing Habit

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by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, Yale University, and the Sante Fe Institute, analyzed daily toothbrushing behaviors in three-year-olds and examined the relationship between their persistence on the task and parental praise.

Toothbrushing was selected as the task in this study as it is a naturalistic task that is not particularly interesting or fun for children but is important for children’s health.


The study included eighty-one three-year-olds learning to brush their teeth. The sample was 80% White, 14% Multiracial, 10% Hispanic or Latinx, 2% Asian, 1% Black, and 1% preferred not to answer.

Data was collected from families in Pennsylvania (94%) with the remaining in New Jersey, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Florida. Parental education averaged from 12 to 20 years and the annual income ranged from $14,000 to $200,000.

Data were collected throughout 16 days in two waves: January-June 2019 and March-May 2020 (during the COVID-19 pandemic). Families were recruited through partnerships with local preschools and through social media.

Parents submitted videos of toothbrushing over 16 days, capturing both children’s persistence and parent talk. Parents were instructed to start recording the video before the toothbrush was in their child’s mouth and to stop recording when they took the toothbrush back from their child.

Parents were asked to let their child brush their teeth by themselves for as long as they could before the parent stepped in to help. The videos also included parents talking to their child throughout the toothbrushing and “praise” used by parents throughout the nightly ritual.

Praise was broken into categories including “process praise” (e.g., “good job”), “person praise” (e.g., “good girl”), and “other praise” (e.g., “very good” or “nice”).

Other utterances from parents included “distraction” (e.g., singing, reading a book, invoking pretend play), and using expressions such as “brush the backs” and “keep brushing” as instruction.

Parents also completed daily surveys about the following:

• Stress level of parents: ranging from a scale of 0 (not stressed at all) to 10 (extremely stressed)

• Child’s mood: ranging from a scale of 0 (extremely bad) to 10 (extremely good)

• Sleep duration: daytime nap (if any) and length, nightly bedtime and morning wake up, periods of awake time during the night.

The study findings showed that children’s persistence fluctuates from day to day and is related to parent talk. Children brushed longer on days when their parents used more praise and less instruction.

Parent praise during toothbrushing mostly consisted of generic praise and process, with few instances of personal praise. Children varied in their sensitivity to mood, sleep, and parent stress.

There were several limitations in the study. The exact set of skills involved in toothbrushing is not yet known, the sample was skewed toward higher-income families, potential bias in parental reporting and modifications in their behavior, lack of data on the quality of children’s sleep and morning toothbrushing.

In addition, this study does not tell us whether parent praise causes positive changes in children’s behavior. To determine this, intervention studies are needed.

Future research should consider a larger sample, whether results will differ beyond the pandemic and whether variables such as a good night’s sleep make an impact in the response to children’s social input.

Researchers also should test whether these findings could be used to translate children’s daily fluctuations on other tasks that require persistence including those with more immediate and delayed rewards.

Source: Medindia



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