It's messy, it's fun, and it's a powerful way to teach kids a lesson that will serve them well this school year and all the way into adulthood.
Two years ago mom of two Amy Beth Gardner was preparing her oldest daughter Breonna, now 13, to start middle school the next day when she decided to create a memorable moment for Breonna that has since been replicated by parents all over the world.
"I gave her a tube of toothpaste and asked her to squirt it out onto a plate. When she finished, I calmly asked her to put all the toothpaste back in the tube," Gardner wrote in a Facebook post that has since been shared millions of times.
Of course, Breonna couldn't get the toothpaste back in the tube when her mother surprised her by asking her to. The visual, tactile lesson was her mother's metaphor for something else.
"Just like this toothpaste, once the words leave your mouth, you can't take them back," Gardner wrote.
It's been two years since Gardner posted her plate full of toothpaste to Facebook and went viral, and she's still hearing from fellow parents who are using the lesson to help teach their kids about kindness, sometimes years before middle school even. Gardner often hears from other parents who do the toothpaste ritual with kids much younger than her own and some have wondered why she didn't do it earlier. She says she absolutely would have incorporated this lesson into her daughters' earlier years if she'd had that chance.
"Breonna did not come to us until she was 9 years old," Gardner tells Motherly, explaining that Breonna and her younger sister, Bridgett, now 9 years old herself, first came to live with Gardner and her husband Paul in 2014. The couple fostered the girls for 509 days before adopting them.
Gardner says she's grieved for the experiences she missed with her daughters, like late newborn nights, first steps and the first day of Kindergarten. She doesn't have as many years to prepare her daughters for adulthood as most mothers do, so she's doing her best to make her lessons as impactful as possible. That's where the toothpaste came in.
Amy Beth Gardner with her daughters, Breonna and Bridgett
"We've been really playing catch up to what other parents have been doing, and so, approaching middle school that whole summer we had been having lots of conversations about this transitional time in her life, and it had really come to me that day when I was brushing my teeth that morning," she explains. "I'm sure plenty of people had thought of this before I did, but not I had personally never seen it done. It really just came up."
It came up, and she wrote about the experience on Facebook. Soon, friends were asking her to change the post from private to public so that they could share it. Not long after that, Gardner's post was everywhere. She says she can't even put a number on the amount of messages she's received about that post, but she's thrilled to be helping other parents pass on this important lesson in kindness.
"I think most people can remember a time in their lives when either someone treated them unkindly or, if we're going to be really honest with ourselves, we can all remember a time when we didn't show kindness. So it's a good message I think, no matter what stage of life you're in. I think that's why it resonates with such a wide variety of people," she tells Motherly.
Not the least of which is her own daughter.
"She didn't know where I was going with the toothpaste when I had her squirt it out. And so, I saw the message hit her. I saw it actually take root. She actually had mentioned to me before we were done that 'I think you should do this with me every year before I start school, in case I forget'."
It's fun, it's messy, and it's a back-to-school tradition that's totally worth copying.