Stinky Kids: Bad Hygeine or Neglect?


I’m tempted to write a dozen disclaimers about how I do not condone jumping to conclusions about other parents or assuming the worst about them.  I won’t offer the disclaimers because (1) they’re boring, (2) you wouldn’t believe them anyway and (3) I’m more focused on the instances where it may be in a kid’s best interest for nonparents to be judgmental. Or discerning.  Or suspicious.  Or concerned. Or nosy.

I’m talking about those instances where you observe something in children that you know reasonably well– something that seems off.  At first you can’t decide if you are just being Judge McJudgerson or if it is something that should be explained away with “well, some families do things differently than ours.”

For example, how do you know if a family simply has different hygiene standards or if the kids are being neglected?

This inquiry was sparked by my observations of some neighborhood kids that were part of a playgroup with my kids.  To this day, I don’t know if my concerns about their situation (showing up borderline filthy and reeking of human body odor) was an offensive and arrogant insistence that other people bathe their children as often as I do, (which, in all honesty, probably isn’t nearly often enough) or if it was compassionate engagement.  (For more on this, please check out my recent post on Mom.Me.)

I have no idea.

I suspect it’s not the last time I face this quandary.  What do you do when a family’s decisions are so different from your own, but you’re not sure if a child’s safety and welfare are at stake?  Maybe it’s all a matter of taste? But then again, what if it’s not?


38 thoughts on “Stinky Kids: Bad Hygeine or Neglect?

  1. Definitely a tough call, my standard of clean and another persons are probably way different. I have 2 HUGE German Shepherds, who are indoor pets. Some people consider that FILTHY. LOL. No, they are not allowed on the furniture, but their hair is everywhere, (they do sleep on my bed and the children’s beds). I own them for protection, they are very obedient, well trained animals, (better than some children I’ve witnessed). I have them groomed, still big hairy beasts! My house is clean, but we live in it. There is no maid. I pay when the chores are done, to my satisfaction. Your 12 and 10. I’ve been your mother your whole life, you know what my idea of clean is! So don’t think mediocre is cool, because it’s not. So I think it’s just what people are willing to accept and how they grew up.

  2. Well, the CPS here would say that bad hygiene isn’t neglect unless the bad hygiene is adversely affecting the children in some way. For instance, if they were being made fun of in school because they smelled bad or something.

  3. My first thought was: “I wonder if this is a case of ‘free-range children,’ where the parents’ philosophy is to not make the kids bathe unless they want to or decide to on their own.” If that were the case, I don’t care if I’m Judgy McJudgerson; I do not approve. But I don’t know them. It’s likely something else entirely is going on.

  4. MY 5-yr-old is like Pigpen: he attracts dirt. I swear the boy gets dirty between the bathtub and the towel. I’ve been criticized for his “poor hygiene”, but we do our best. I wish I could Scotch-Guard him.

    My house is cluttered, but not dirty. There’s a difference. There are 3 kids and two adults, and there is just NO WAY we are all going to have everything put away at the same time.

    My sister called CPS on me a few years ago because she didn’t aporove. They investigated and dismissed her complaint, but as far as I am concerned, she is no longer my sister. So .. . I guess I’ m saying people should be REALLY careful before judging and making that call.

  5. I think that we as a society need to be careful about making accusations based solely on our limited observations or opinions. It’s one thing if you know for a fact that a child is in real danger, of course the appropriate actions should be taken.

    However, sending a person of authority into someone’s home without true knowledge of endangerment is morally questionable to me. You never know what a person or family’s situation is unless you are either walking in their shoes or they disclose information to you. There is far too much gossip and far too many people sticking their noses where they don’t belong.

    I’m sure a lot of these people truly have good intentions, others not so much. I do know one thing. If a person starts something based on opinions or “gut feelings”, that person gets to go home and resume their normal life.

    But the family who has been reported etc. now has a huge mess to deal with on top of whatever problems they had to begin with.

    Messing with someones family, their children, their lives is not something that should be taken lightly.

  6. As the adoptive parent of three children through CPS, two of whom were so severely physically abused and neglected that they required hospital treatment, I can say that we, as a society, have decided to turn a blind eye – look the other way – mind our own business – be careful not to judge, far too often. If you have any suspicion, there is never an excuse not to say something. I am not saying run to CPS or the police, but stop the child, stop the caregiver, stop someone and ask a few questions. You can generally get a pretty good feel for something with a 5 minute conversation face-to-face. Why not offer the mother some help? Why not ask children old enough to talk if they’d like some help finding a safe adult to talk with?

    What I’m trying to say, is that far too often your gut is right. Far too often, it gets ignored. Five children will die from abuse or neglect today alone. One is too many. Five is grossly unacceptable. Every 13 seconds, another child will be abused in the U.S, and 80% of perpetrators are parents. “Abuse often leaves visible bruises and scars, whereas the signs of neglect tend to be less visible. However, the effects of neglect can be just as detrimental. In fact, some studies have shown that neglect may be more detrimental to children’s early brain development than physical or sexual abuse.” – The US Dept. of Health and Human Services.

    Stop and talk. It’s just that simple.

    My children could communicate. They were young toddlers. But nobody looked long and hard enough at the mother or her string of men to see what was going on in the home. Five minutes would have saved years of neglect, pain and suffering, suffering that will take a lifetime to heal.
    Educate yourself. Recognize the signs. Do something.

      • I can honestly say that I am never deterred because I might offend some kids’ parents when I have a legitimate concern about a child’s safety or well being. I’m sorry if my compassion hurts your feelings, but honestly, as a parent, I don’t give a crap if someone doesn’t like a few questions geared towards making sure a child is alright.

        I think the perfect thing to ask a young child is, “is everything okay?” “Are you alright?” “Can I help you with something?” But, in this instance, I think a better approach might be to talk to the parents. You might be deterred by a desire not to make a child feel uncomfortable about his hygiene, and that should push you towards the parent. Why not ask the mother if she needs any help? Any thing you can do for her? If she seems suspicious or like her feelings are hurt, then just be honest and say, “I noticed things didn’t seem to be like they are normally are with you guys, and I just wanted to be sure you didn’t need some help or something. You know, everyone in this play group is available to help each other out, that’s why we do this. So we’re always here for you.” See how she reacts. What if she just needs some help because something in life got in the way. I’m confident in saying that not saying anything won’t give you any more information to alleviate your concerns or suspicions. If you do say something, what’s the worst that can happen? Some adult gets his or her feelings hurt or offended. In the name of a child, I can promise you that’s a risk I will take 100% of the time.

        I could tell you a hundred stories of children we knew or learned of in our very short time as foster parents. Children who should have – and could have – been helped a lot earlier if someone had cared enough to embrace an awkward, uncomfortable situation for the sake of a child. I live in a small, semi-rural east Texas town, and we mean it when we say it takes a village. There’s never any shame in asking for – or even offering – some help. But, imagine the guilt in the reverse.

  7. If you run into my adolescent girls and smell anything ranging from tacos to full on BO, please mention it loudly since they don’t listen to their mother.

  8. My guess is that 99% of the time, it’s best not to interfere. However, I think that’s where your instincts have to come in. I like to think that if something is truly off (like it needs to be reported to Child Protective Services) then you will have a gut feeling that you can’t let go of. It’s just important to be aware when you get those gut feelings!

  9. So hard. First, my kid is the one whose fingernails are always too long and seem to always have dirt. No matter what I do, this is how his hands look. It baffles me and I’m sure it makes me look bad. On the other hand, I know a dirty family. They are close enough to me that I feel like I should say something because I know enough about them, but how can I? I just can’t.

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