You’ve got your own habits under control, but the more you manage to squash those cravings, the more you notice your little bean’s nail-biting/thumb-sucking/hair-pulling. You’ve been told to ignore it, she’ll grow out of it, but it seems to be getting worse. And as you watch her while biting your tongue, it only deepens your desire for wine/choc/caff/McD’s. So much for control.
I’m always trying to habit-tweak, so I picked up a copy of The Power of Habit. It’s super interesting to read stories about how toothpaste became addictive for a nation of non-brushers, a new industrial CEO totally revitalized the biz by prioritizing safety above profit margins, and Proctor & Gamble marketed a cool scientific discovery into essentially a bottle of perfume (the total opposite of its initial odour-eliminating gameplan). And made billions. But I digress.
Our oldest has always loved fabric. He’s not a fashionista, at least, we don’t think so… but something about sucking fabric is incredibly soothing to him. It started when he was a baby. He never took a pacifier but eagerly sucked on receiving blankets to catch some shut-eye. Gross much? We phased it out when he turned three because our dentist recommended it. The blankets had been washed so many times they were disintegrating anyway. We did it the same way we would have cut a susu cord: had that big-boy conversation, set a date on the calendar a couple of weeks away so he could prepare, let him pick out a replacement sleeping buddy as a reward, and hyped it up. On D-Day, we boxed the blankets and made a Goodwill trip together. There were no tears, he didn’t suck his new attachment object, life went on. No prob.
Or so we thought. But habits run deep, especially those born during babyhood. We first noticed just how addicted he was the following winter when he could. not. stop sucking the zipper on his coat. It was right at mouth level, so pretty much taunted him until he caved, luring him back to his old ways. We asked him to stop whenever we noticed, and he would, for about a minute. I wasn’t about to wash his coat every day, so again, gross much? Luckily spring rolled around. We caught him sucking his shirt sleeve/collar, every day or three, but it wasn’t as often so we relented on the harping and let it slide. He’ll grow out of it… right?! Nope. And we don’t even want to think about what toxins he might have ingested over the years from lingering fire retardents or laundry detergent post-wash, never mind whatever structural damage he’s causing his teeth. He knows it’s not cool, we remind him it’s not cool, but it’s simply not within his control to change it. Unless… we work together.
The first step is paying attention to when he commits the crime. For our not-so-little guy, that’d be when he’s tired, bored, or feeling a little anxious. Second step: figure out a replacement habit for those situations. Cold turkey won’t work. He needs something physical, so we brainstormed a few options together. I thought tongue clucking would satisfy what seems like an oral-sensation craving, but he chose to finger snap it. He hasn’t mastered the in yo face click avec head shake yet, so is taking the two birds one stone approach by trying to learn a new skill while eliminating something undesirable. I’m guessing he takes after the multi-tasking one of us. But on to step three: rewards. If this was hair-pulling, the reward could be a new brush, barrettes, fancy elastics, and eventually a salon date (once the beast’s really slayed). A nail-biter’s reward might be new polish and a manicure after a week or so of success. Our smart seven year-old had tons of suggestions involving sugar, Lego, video games or cool hard cash. Yup, life was sweet back when he was satisfied by stickers, tattoos, and Lightning McQueen pencils.
For our three-step plan to work, the most important thing is for us to be onboard. It’s so ingrained he honestly doesn’t notice he’s doing it until we point it out, and he won’t unless we help to make him more aware. Instead of nagging like a broken record, we all agreed on a physical reminder: we make eye contact and snap our fingers, which reminds him to stop what he’s doing and snap his. It’s been less than a week but he’s improving already, so we’re finally confident that pretty soon it WILL be a thing of the past… fingers crossed.
Nagging, yelling, and punishing won’t work. The only way anyone can kick a bad habit is with support. And a replacement behaviour. And a reward. But mostly support.
Email us if you want to know the only reward we could all agree on.