“Mommy, why do you always make this face?” my younger daughter asked me one afternoon last year, contorting her lips into what resembled an angry cow. I didn’t even have to look to know to what she was referring. It was my habit of the past five years, biting at my lips, something I had transitioned into in an effort to stop picking at them with my nails. The biting was harmless, did no damage, but left me looking like I was always making strange faces. Lately, I had noticed that I was constantly engaged in this, and probably left people wondering what exactly I was doing, much as my daughter had expressed.
“I’m just biting my lips. It’s a habit that I can’t stop,” I confessed. I had tried recently to give it up, but after a few minutes, I caved to my weakness. It just didn’t seem manageable to quit, nor did I really want to.
“If I see you do it again,” she lectured, “I’ll just tape your lip down with some duct tape so you can’t do it anymore.” I laughed at her threat, at her attempt to parent me and help me overcome this habit with her tools of restraint. Duct tape had fixed a lot of problems in our home; clearly she thought it was a viable solution for this, too.
I continued in my lip-biting-bliss, until one Friday evening where I felt fed up with the newly developed habits of one of my children. It was a constant neck-twitch that had landed him in physical therapy due to some discomfort that I’m not sure was imagined or real. We felt that the twitch was a habit, and I decided to encourage him to stop on his own.
“Let’s have a competition,” I announced, all eyes on me. “Whoever breaks a habit after 30 days will get a prize!” Surely there was something everyone could afford to kick. We quickly put our heads together and came up with a list of goals for each child; one kid had to stop picking her lips, an obsession that was clearly inherited from me. The neck twitching needed to be abolished, and another kid was going to stop screeching when things didn’t go her way. “I’ll join too!” I said, excited to enter the contest with them. “I’ll stop biting.” I didn’t think it was possible but the competition spurred me on.
“What about me?” Liad, who was then almost four, asked. He had no annoying habits, or maybe most things about him are annoying habits that I just generally hope he’ll outgrow, but I couldn’t deny his eagerness to be included in the game. Suddenly, it dawned on me.
“You can put away your Puppy,” I said, referring to his sacred lovey, “and stop sucking your fingers.” I figured he and I would be the losers in the contest.
The kids decided that the winner would get a gift worth fifty dollars if they won, and if I won, they’d have to cook and clean up dinner for me for an evening. Liad had already envisioned that his prize would be the Paw Patroller truck if he came in first place, a toy he’d had his eye on for some time, but I’d deemed overpriced.
That very first night, he willingly put his Puppy away and I lay with him for probably around 20 minutes until he finally fell asleep. I was elated! He actually could do this! He was on his way to adulthood!
The next day, most of us slipped up and did our habits, but after that, it was smooth sailing for both Liad and me. Everyone else failed, and while some kids agreed to begin again and keep trying, others just threw in the towel and admitted they enjoyed their habit too much or felt unable to part ways. Some habits just need more time to die out on their own.
Surprisingly, Liad came in first place, and after 30 days of being finger-free, I purchased for him his beloved Paw Patroller. As much as I’d been pushing him to give up his habit in previous years, when he finally did let go of his Puppy, it seemed sad to me, another step away from being a baby. After all, that was my solace when I weaned him; at least he still could curl up in my lap and suck his fingers, could venture into the warmth of my blanket in the early morning hours, and lie quietly in his soothed stupor, waiting for me to wake up. Now, there was nothing but a big boy standing by my bedside in the mornings, one who wanted me to get him breakfast, sometimes before the sun even came up.
A day later, I hit my 30-day mark, and for some reason, I neglected to enforce the “Kids cook and clean for an evening” reward that I had earned. It’s probably my fault because I don’t really want them messing up the kitchen or experimenting with food items. It’s bad enough that at least twice a night, there is slime-making going on in the kitchen, or sometimes in worse places, like over a shag rug. So really, my prize is that I’ll make dinner and clean it up. Like I do every night. Maybe I should just go back to biting my lip, then.
By Sarah Abenaim
So I did.