When your child is sent home from school because he or she has head lice, the first thing you should say is, “You didn’t do anything wrong.” (You should say this to yourself as well!)
If your child comes home from school and says that another kid in school has lice, you can say the same thing. That child (and its parents) didn’t do anything wrong.
The myth that lice happen because of poor hygiene or subpar living conditions has been chipped away at over the years, but the myth and the stigma that follows it are still alive. Kids get lice from hair-to-hair contact with other kids. Period. There are certainly things you can do to help prevent lice from landing on your child’s head—keep long hair pulled tight; discourage sharing hats, brushes and anything else that touches hair—but no amount of hair-washing will prevent a live louse from crawling from one kid’s head to another if the opportunity arises.
Unfortunately, “you didn’t do anything wrong” may not be the message your child has already received at school or day care. School officials and other children may have reacted with fear or alarm that could be interpreted as blame or judgment.
Tell your child that “catching” head lice is like catching a cold. You get it from someone else, who got it from someone before that. No one did anything wrong. There is no morality involved.
You can also tell your child that head lice aren’t dangerous and that, like a cold, they will go away with appropriate treatment. No big deal. While you’re treating it, you’ll have to be careful not to let is spread to others—repeat the hats and brushes advice.
You can also make a lice encounter a learning experience. Tell your child that lice have been “bugging” people for thousands of years (see our blog post, A Brief History of Lice). Cleopatra had a lice comb in her tomb. Lice have influenced our vocabulary: A “louse” (singular for lice) is someone who behaves badly; “lousy” is defined as “very poor or bad;” a nitwit is someone or something stupid; and a nitpicker is someone who is overly critical. And remember, every time you decide to go through something “with a fine-toothed comb,” you are referring to lice treatment!