Small children readily and unwittingly spread viruses. Yet, they can learn safe hygiene quickly, says Vanessa LoBue, a professor of child psychology.

Vanessa LoBue is an associate professor of psychology and the director of  the Child Study Center at Rutgers University–Newark.
Vanessa LoBue is an associate professor of psychology and the director of the Child Study Center at Rutgers University–Newark.
Photography by Nick Romanenko

Sing “Happy Birthday” twice while you wash your hands. Nope, no friends allowed. In the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, parents and other caregivers are at battle, barking dos and don’ts to keep their loved ones safe. Young children especially have a hard time complying, and yet it is vital that they do because they are “copious germ spreaders,” says psychologist Vanessa LoBue, who directs the Child Study Center at Rutgers University–Newark and writes The Baby Scientist blog for Psychology Today. In her March blog, LoBue offered research-backed advice on how to up the chances little ones will follow orders and why that’s important.

“Kids are germ factories,” says LoBue. They get sick more often than adults because building immunity happens slowly, but at the same time they are more resilient than sick adults, showing fewer symptoms and bouncing back faster. That means they are more likely to unknowingly spread pathogens to others. Research suggests that they also “may shed greater numbers of infectious viral particles into the environment than do adults.”

Like the flu, according to LoBue, “COVID-19 spreads from coughs and sneezes of infected people; enters our body through the eyes, nose, or mouth; and attaches to the cells in our respiratory tract. There is also evidence that it can remain infectious in the environment on various surfaces for a couple of days.”

Unlike adults, it’s hard to gross out a young child, so they are less likely to have an adverse reaction to their own or others’ hacking coughs, drippy noses, and other obvious symptoms of illness. According to LoBue, research confirms that “children’s disgust responses take a pretty long time to develop, and many kids don’t have adult-like disgust responses until middle childhood.” So, impressing upon children the “ick” factor is not necessarily a route to getting them to remember to wash their hands or use and properly dispose of tissues and toilet paper.

Repeated requests to wash their hands just sound like nagging, LoBue says, “but knowledge is power.” Recent research in her lab suggests that “children as young as 4 can learn healthy habits if we give them the right kind of information about germs.” In one experiment, the lab found that “4- to 7-year-olds who knew that touching a sick person might make them sick later were the ones who avoided touching the toys of someone they thought might have a cold.” So “young children are capable of learning how germs are spread and using that knowledge to keep themselves healthy”—becoming tiny anti-COVID-19 warriors themselves.