7 Ways Parents Spoil Their Kids' Smiles (and What to do Instead)

Kids’ Smiles and Self-Esteem

According to data from 138 studies that tested more than 11,000 people, facial expressions can influence how you feel. A smile–even a forced one–triggers brain chemicals that actually make you feel happier.

Not only that, but a smile affects how others perceive us. Friendly, approachable, confident–all of these perceptions shape how others respond to us, which in turn also affects how we feel about ourselves.

What happens when we are embarrassed to smile, either because of crooked, missing, or stained teeth or visible decay?

When we don’t share a smile, it affects our mood, how others perceive us, and how we feel about ourselves.

Children and teens who are self-conscious about their smiles may have trouble making friends, avoid social opportunities to connect with others and suffer from low self-esteem and self-image. The effects of these social deficits can last well into adulthood, especially if kids don’t receive the dental and orthodontic care they need to have a confident smile. (Read more about the impact smiles have on employability here.)

Parents may believe that since they have “bad” teeth their children are destined to as well, but this simply isn’t true. Genetics play a role in the shape and size of teeth, but diet, dental hygiene habits, and access to professional dental care determine whether or not children grow up with a smile they feel good about. When a child has a healthy smile they are more likely to be confident, miss less school, and grow up to have higher-paying jobs than those with missing or decayed teeth.

Here are seven ways parents spoil their child’s future smile (and job prospects) and what to do instead:

1. Believing that baby teeth don’t matter.

Why spend precious time, energy, and money on teeth that are only going to fall out and be replaced? Aside from being necessary to eat and speak correctly, baby teeth hold space for the permanent teeth that take their place.

A young girl with extensive tooth loss due to decay.

When primary teeth are lost too early to decay, the permanent teeth can emerge crooked. This leads to the need for more expensive orthodontic care or a teen who is embarrassed by their smile.

In addition to that, the infection from tooth decay can extend into the jawbone and the adult tooth below the surface causing permanent damage. It can also spread into the bloodstream causing infections in the heart, lungs, and brain that can be deadly!

Instead, make oral health a priority from the beginning.

Former U.S. Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop once said, “You’re not healthy without good oral health.” This is absolutely true. Taking care of a child’s smile should begin at birth:

• After each feeding, wipe the baby’s gums, cheeks, and tongue with a warm, damp cloth. This will prevent the growth of bacteria that can infect healthy teeth once they emerge. This process also gets the baby used to having their mouths cleaned.

If your baby has teeth they should be brushed.

• Brushing should begin as soon as the first tooth emerges. Use a soft toothbrush with just a smear of toothpaste (about the size of a grain of rice) after breakfast and again before bedtime. Sing a silly song and have a positive attitude to make toothbrushing something your child sees as a treat, not a chore.

• Your child’s first dental check-up should occur by their first birthday. The dentist can spot any potential problems early on and your child will be less likely to be afraid of going to the dentist if you start this healthy habit when they are little.

• Although it can be super cute, don’t allow your little one to suck their thumb or fingers. Doing so can lead to long-term dental consequences. (Read more about that here.)

2. Spreading infection.

Every mouth has a unique oral microbiome: microscopic bacteria and fungi that live on the teeth, tongue, cheeks, and gums. Some of these microorganisms are helpful. They help break down food and fight infections. But others are harmful. They feed on the sugar and starches that we eat, then they secrete acids that cause cavities and gum disease.

"Washing" a pacifier with your mouth only spreads cavity-causing germs with your baby.

When parents share eating utensils, straws, and cups, “wash” their baby’s pacifier with their own mouth, or kiss their child on the mouth, they spread the germs that cause tooth decay with their child.

Instead, prevent the spread of germs.

• Don’t share anything that goes into the mouth.
• Wash pacifiers and teething rings with soap and warm water.
• Don’t allow your curious baby to put their hands into your mouth.

3. Choosing foods and drinks that are sugary or starchy.

Most parents know that eating candy and sweets can “rot your teeth” but many don’t know that constantly sipping on juice or drinking soda and sports drinks also leads to tooth decay.

Not only that, but crackers, chips, pretzels, pasta, and other starchy foods cling to teeth and are quickly broken down into simple sugars that help cavity-causing bacteria to THRIVE!

Even foods and drinks that seem healthy can cause cavities. Don't put your baby to bed with a bottle of milk or juice. Be sure to clean young kids' teeth after eating bread, crackers, and other starchy foods.

Some parents put their babies to bed with a bottle of juice or milk. This harmful habit causes “bottlemouth syndrome,” a special form of tooth decay that is caused by prolonged exposure to sugary liquids or milk (yes, there are sugars in milk. One cup of milk contains 12 grams–that's three teaspoons–of lactose, a naturally-occurring sugar.)

Young athletes might believe that sports drinks are a healthy way to replace electrolytes lost during exercise but many are full of sugar and are very acidic, which can eat away at tooth enamel AND feed the bacteria that cause tooth decay.

Instead, be mindful of what food and beverages do to your teeth.

It’s much easier to instill healthy eating habits in very young children than to try to change unhealthy habits later on. Even if you’re getting a late start you can still make small changes that can make a big difference not only for your child’s oral health but also for their overall health.

• Say “no” to sticky and hard candies. They remain in the mouth much longer than treats like chocolate which dissolves quickly. Or opt for sugar-free candies instead.

• Save sweets for after a meal, then brush away the sugar.

Crisp foods like apples and carrots help to clean teeth and instill healthy eating habits.

• Skip the junk food (chips, crackers, etc.) and provide healthy snacks like cheese, crisp veggies, and fresh fruits. (For more information about foods that are good for teeth, check out this blog post.)

• Give your child water throughout the day. Serve milk and juice with meals only.

• Replace sodas with sugar-free, flavored water.

• Ditch the sports drinks. Simply drinking water and eating a banana are healthier and cheaper ways to recover and replenish after exercise.

4. Failing to set a good example.

You can tell your child to brush and floss every day until you’re blue in the face, but if they don’t see you taking care of your teeth they won’t believe it is important.

Instead, make it your mission to demonstrate healthy daily hygiene habits.
Brushing with your child for 2 minutes, 2 times every day is a great way to reinforce this healthy habit.

• Brush your teeth together (especially with young children) for two minutes, two times daily, and floss once every day.

• Visit your dental care provider two times each year.

• To help your kids develop daily dental hygiene habits read How to Teach Your Kids Healthy Habits.

5. Rejecting preventive treatments.

Many parents fail to sign permission forms for dental services that are available at their child’s school or daycare because they don’t understand the benefits. Dental sealants and fluoride treatments are safe and effective ways to prevent cavities. These services are provided by trained dental professionals who can also help kids get treatment if they find an urgent dental need.

Instead, take advantage of programs that help your child stay healthy.

• If you live in an area without enough dental care providers, or if lack of transportation makes it difficult for your child to get dental care, check with your child’s school to see if they have any planned dental service days.

Check our list of nonprofit dental clinics that provide affordable, preventive care to avoid costly oral health issues down the road.

Students receive screenings, sealants, and other preventive dental care at schools in California and Wisconsin. Be sure to provide permission for your child to receive school-based care to prevent tooth decay.

6. Avoiding routine dental care.

Some parents think it’s foolish to pay for a dental visit if there is nothing wrong with their child’s teeth, but since most medical insurance plans also cover routine dental care for children, it would be foolish not to go.

Routine dental visits not only help prevent tooth decay, but they also catch problems early when they are less expensive to treat, and before infection can spread to other teeth.

If you’re waiting for your child to let you know they have a cavity, it will likely be when the infection is causing pain and may need a root canal treatment and an expensive crown, or extraction.

Instead, prevent costly restorative care, tooth loss, and pain by taking your child for a dental check-up every six months.
A child receives a dental check-up from an America's ToothFairy program member in New Jersey.

These routine procedures are usually covered by insurance as preventive treatments:

• Oral evaluations
• Cleanings
• Fluoride treatment
• Sealants for first and second permanent molars
• X-rays to diagnose cavities in hard-to-see places like between teeth

7. Viewing orthodontic treatment as only for looks.

While it’s true that straight teeth are generally seen as more attractive, there are other oral health benefits of orthodontic treatment:
• Crooked, overcrowded teeth are harder to keep clean.
• Overbites and underbites (when the upper and lower jaws are not properly lined up,) and misaligned teeth can cause speech problems and pain.
• Not to mention, kids who are self-conscious about crooked teeth often miss out on the benefits of sharing their smiles with others.

Instead, be prepared for future orthodontic needs and accept that your child’s confidence is tied to how they feel about their looks.
A young patient receives a special spacer from her dentist to hold room for an adult tooth to emerge and prevent the need for costly orthodontic treatment.

Establish a relationship with a dentist you trust who can make you aware of the need for orthodontic treatment so you can save up or take advantage of lower-cost interventions before the problem gets worse.

Parents have a lot more influence over their child’s future success than they may think. Making sure they get to school, work hard, and take care of themselves and their oral health is something any parent can do to help their child be confident into adulthood. 


University of Tennessee at Knoxville. (2019, April 12). Psychologists find smiling really can make people happier. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 29, 2022

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