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Kids will follow COVID-19 health measures better if they know why they should: researcher

How explanations help young children stick with new habits
WATCH: Anyone with a kindergartener knows their favourite question is "why." while parents have struggled to answer all the "whys" over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, Laurel Gregory explain why mom and dad may want to indulge the ones around prevention.

For the last few months, many parents have attempted to educate their children about COVID-19 in a way that empowers them with information without scaring them.

As a result, they’ve focused their attention on building habits like hand washing and social distancing without getting into too many details about the virus itself.

Vanessa LoBue, the lab director at The Child Study Center at Rutgers University, says prevention may be important, but the way to get children to stick with new habits is to explain why they need to do them.

Global News’ Laurel Gregory spoke with LoBue about how parents can do that.

Laurel Gregory: I would love to know your advice to parents about describing this virus to their children?

Vanessa LoBue: We started this research before COVID-19. We look at how to teach kids healthy behaviours for keeping themselves healthy and what we found is often when parents talk to their kids about illness transmission they usually just say risk prevention behaviours like wash your hands before you eat, stuff like that, or wash your hands after you blow your nose, cough into your arm.

Those things don’t actually tell them that much in terms of how illness is transmitted.

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To get them to generalize these behaviours into new situations, it’s better to give them a causal explanation instead of just citing some sort of risk-prevention behaviour.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Toronto’s SickKids Hospital provides recommendations on how to safely reopen schools

So when you tell them to cough into their shoulder or their arm or whatever, you tell them it’s because you have germs inside your body and when you sneeze or cough, they come out of your nose and your mouth [and] you don’t want to get them on other people. So when we cough on our arm, they go on to our arm.

That means when they are in a new situation, they might be more likely to apply that than if you aren’t giving them a reason.

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Challenges of enforcing distancing at spray parks

LG: Why do you think so many parents limit their children’s knowledge?

VB: Not on purpose! It’s just — I mean I did the same thing at home. At least I did before I started this research. We just don’t think about it. We often assume preschool-age kids can’t really understand transmission so we don’t try to explain it to them.

It’s also just not intuitive. We don’t think to ourselves, ‘Well,  if I teach them why they are washing their hands, they might apply that to other situations like when they play with dirt or when they play with other kids.’

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LG: How old are your children?

VB: Mine are two and five.

LG: Can you walk me through exactly what you tell your children? I mean, what have you told them about coronavirus?

VB: Well, a two year old is a little bit too young so we haven’t told our two year old anything. We just have him wash his hands whenever we can possibly get him to.

For our five year old we have tried to explain to him what germs are, and how you can’t see them and how they’re in your body. Some germs are are good and some germs are bad.

When you sneeze or cough or when you stick your fingers in your mouth, or nose – that’s how germs get out of your body. We want to protect other people from getting our germs so we shouldn’t do these things and when we do them we should wash our hands to wash those germs off.

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So we say things like that.

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How COVID-19 is bringing Canadian dads and kids closer together

We’ve also used this to explain why we’re at home. So if germs travel from one person to another, if we stay home and we aren’t seeing other people right now, that’s how we can protect them from our germs and how we can protect ourselves from their germs… It also helps explain why people are wearing masks.

READ MORE: Does my child need a face mask? Depends on age, experts say

LG: Why does having that explanation change their behaviour so they’re more compliant?

VB: I think it’s more likely to change their behaviour. I think they are not going to change their behaviour if they don’t know why they are doing it.

So, it’s sort of like the rules of: ‘Because I said so’ versus, ‘Wow, this is why we don’t steal,’ ‘This is why we don’t hit our brother,’ ‘This is why we clean up our mess.’

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So, I think that kids are more likely to listen and change their behaviour if they understand why they’re doing it.

So if I say, ‘Don’t hit your brother,’ they might think that that’s the rule but why would they apply that to ‘Don’t hit the dog,’ or ‘Don’t hit other people.’

If they understand that hitting hurts people or it can hurt another person, they might be more likely to apply that rule to other situations if they understand why the rule is in place in the first place.