Question: How can I teach my little three year-old girl that “cleanliness is next to godliness?” How can germs and sickness from dirty fingers and toys in the mouth be explained without instilling unnecessary fears in the small child’s mind?
Answer: The answer to your first question is that “you can’t.”
Cleanliness is an adult standard based upon knowledge of germs and diseases that children do not have and upon an aesthetic appreciation that is not to be expected of them. Children like to play in the mud, dig in the dirt and get as dirty as they possibly can, and within limits, they should be permitted to do so.
Think for a moment of how unnatural and absurd it would be to hear a three-year-old tell her playmate that she couldn’t play on the floor or in the mud because she might get dirty.
The answer to your second question is much the same as the answer to the first. If a three-year-old got the impression that germs that caused sickness were on his dirty fingers, in the mud, on his toys, etc., he would probably develop fears that would make an emotional cripple of him the rest of his life. We do not want our children to become hypochondriacs, which they may become if we place too much emphasis upon germs.
It is inevitable that children should be exposed to germs. Fortunately, most of them are harmless, especially the germs that may be attained from the child’s own toys or hands.
It is well, of course, to encourage children to wash their hands occasionally, but again, parents cannot expect their children to be too clean. It is important, however, that children should be protected from other children or adults who have colds or who are otherwise ill. This can be done without going into an explanation of germs or without creating unnecessary fears.