5 ways to prepare your child for a trip to the dentist

This week’s blog post is by The Paternity Test co-host Matt Boresi, who lives in the Edgewater Glen neighborhood of Chicago with his wife (“Professor Foster”) and their 4-year-old daughter Viva, who was born to fight the Cavity Creeps.

One of the most horrifying tropes in action movies or spy thrillers is when the hero finds himself strapped to a chair in a dimly lit warehouse, an interrogator unveiling a table full of power tools and sharp instruments about to be used for extraction. Going to the dentists is just like that, except with Christopher Cross tunes on the PA and a whopping price tag afterward. It’s really no wonder your child is losing their mind about getting a check up, a cleaning or a medieval dental appliance implanted in their face hole.

Dentistry is a part of life, though, and hopefully a regular one for you if you want to keep your teeth in your head. Orthodontics tends to be a regular part of life as well, unless you’re somehow blessed with good teeth or are British and don’t care. (I think they Brexited just so the EU couldn’t mandate braces on member states.) So how can you prepare your child for the whirling, slurping Grand Guignol they’re going to face in that little office with the neon smiling tooth in the window?

Set the stage

Soothing children’s anxiety usually means helping set expectations and making sure little imaginations don’t run wild. Let your child know that the dentist is a friendly professional who studied very hard to get where they are, if not quite so hard as to become a doctor. This means the dentist has a sense of moderation and work/life balance, and might work normal enough hours that they got some sleep the night before they drill into your mouth bones, which is a good thing.

Let them know everything they’ll see in the office, from the fun adjustable chair to the ceiling mounted flatscreens. Are there blood vacuums and gum saws? Well, sure. But there’s also Highlights for Kids, and who can’t learn something from the etiquette adventures of Goofus and Gallant?

Model good behavior

Some children develop behavior tics–beyond their control and with unclear causation–which forces them to act in ways society finds challenging. Much of the time, though, if your child has a bad habit, it is because you are a monster. Just as your constant bad mouthing of the world cuisine your wife orders has encouraged your child to arbitrarily dismiss half your dinner menus as “gross” without tasting them, your grousing about the dentist has made them fearful.

Make sure you’re getting regular check-ups and cleanings, and when you do go to the dentist, don’t act like you’re in a tumbrel off to meet Madame Guillotine. Children, like dogs, can smell fear, and children, like dogs, are trained by your actions to be either cuddly and bright or vicious and snarly. Leap out of bed in the morning and say to your family, “Today I get two root canals and new veneers and I couldn’t be more excited!” Then sob softly to yourself in the garage where the children can’t hear. The breakfast table is for eating. The car is where we cry.

Cooking with GIS

Visual references can be excellent tools for teaching children. A simple Google Image search can show the children beloved celebrities who are models of dental hygiene and healthy smiles: Beyonce, Bieber and the replacement Marina on The Fresh Beat Band have outstanding smiles you can show your child to encourage them to brush, floss and visit the dentist. Then pull up a picture of Lena Dunham, and after they stop sobbing and holding you tight, tell your little one, “This is what happens when you don’t got to the dentist. Even when you win two Golden Globes, no one loves you.”

Positive reinforcement

Reward good behavior and you stand a chance of it returning. This is why my wife brought Viva out for a milkshake after her last dentist’s visit. A delightful sugary treat after the dentist will create joyful associations that will keep your child excited about the idea of dentist visits and the rapid decay of your child’s sweet tooth will ensure that dentistry stays a $106 billion dollar industry right here the good ol’ U.S. of A. That’s good practice and economic stimulus!

Gather your arsenal

Back in my day, electric toothbrushes were designed for adults and were hideously loud machines you had to hook up to a gas powered generator in the garage. The only toothbrushes for kids came in two designs: Joanie or Chachi. Toothpaste all tasted like DDT and floss was sharp and weary from meditating on economic malaise. Nowadays, you can get a battery powered brush that looks like any Avenger or member of the First Order and toothpaste comes in every flavor from strawberry rhubarb to French Silk. A trip to the tooth care aisle at Target is barely less whimsical than a trip to the toy aisle and there’s so much Fluoride in the water you hardly need to swish with ACT. Buy your child a cart full of radical awesome tooth cleaning tchotchkes and let them know toothbrushing time can be fun.

… and if they don’t do it, bust out that pic of Lena Dunham again. They have to learn sometime.

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