Thursday, February 02, 2023

I have a child who sucks her thumb. She began at 4 months old and did it constantly, for three years straight, and it was wonderful because it kept her quiet, eliminated the need for toys or food, and she always put herself to bed. But the thing is with these habits, sometimes they come along with other, less adorable quirks, which I won’t mention because then she may not get a shidduch.

When she turned 3, I had enough. I bought a fake-American Girl Doll, wrapped it up, and left it in her room. I put a chart on her wall, bought some “spicy nail polish” from Switzerland (via Amazon, but this makes it sound more exotic), and a Costco-sized box of bandaids. At night, we put the bandaids on her thumbs, and with the reinforcement of the chart, she willingly shed the habit. “That was a breeze!” I thought, and happily let her unwrap the doll after 30 successful days of abstinence.

But she relapsed around six months later, and I was advised to let it slide because I was pregnant and maybe it was how she was coping with the impending arrival of the new baby. It snowballed, going from an occasional comfort-suck to a nightly festival of thumb plus “other annoying quirk,” which happened to involve some damage to her nasal passages and an onslaught of blood that would drench her pillow.

So, we did it again. But the “spicy nail polish” was not so spicy anymore and was no longer a deterrent. The bandaids were slipped off. The chart sat empty and unappealingly on her door. And she was doing it at school, when I wasn’t there to scathingly glare at her. So I purchased “thumbusters” a jail cell for thumbs that cannot be removed by children. But after several days using it, I noticed she could slip her thumb out of this too, and then secretly push it back in, without actually removing the device. I gave up, and after a few weeks, with the help of self-adhesive wraps on her thumbs, so did she. A new prize was bought, this time, a real American Girl Doll, and we were all so very happy.

I thought I was in the clear, but every now and then, I’d peek at her while she’d sleep to make sure there was no thumb-sucking going on. There wasn’t. that is until she started kindergarten and was immersed in what I imagine must be a conglomerate of bad habits: nose pickers, shirt chewers, nail-biters, and zillions of wild, undisciplined thumb-suckers. It crept into her life again, and here I am, battling it.

It’s a genius ploy on her part: “How to get a huge collection of fake/real American Girl Dolls in a few years,” by stopping and starting the habit, by leading me on to believe the behavior has been eradicated, and then slipping back into it. We rejoice, and then regress. It just gets harder.

After a huge bloodletting one night, I drafted a new chart to hang on her wall. We got out the cohesive wrap-bandages to tape up her thumbs, and I asked her what prize she wanted? She had been working on learning to tie laces, and I knew she was yearning for high-tops, so I offered that to her as an incentive gift. “I’d like Bitty Twins,” she said, referring to the twin-set of American Girl dolls. A two-for-one deal. More dolls to add to the collection. I acquiesced, desperate to offer whatever it would take to curtail the behavior, and so far, she has been motivated.

But my other kids get jealous. “Can I do something for 30 days and get a prize too?” One offers to write neatly. Another says he will make his bed every day (he already does this). The baby can’t say such long sentences, but I’m willing to offer him a 24-hour Elmo’s World TV-marathon if he can sit nicely in his high-chair for every meal. And change his own diaper. The truth is, I would post charts on every wall, buy hundreds of gifts, if I thought there was some hope in permanently changing who my kids may become. Ultimately, it has to blossom from their own desires as we try to shape, mold, and coerce, but a little American Girl bribery never hurt along the way.

Sarah Abenaim is a freelance writer living in Teaneck. She can be reached at [email protected]

By Sarah Abenaim

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