Return of the Thumb-Sucking


    Getting my youngest to break his thumb-sucking habit in kindergarten was surprisingly easy. But now, six months later, he's back at it. Have I enabled him by trusting that he will give it up when he is ready? 

    I knew Ezra was a thumb-sucker before he was born. Somehow I sensed him enjoying it in the womb. Once he was born, he found his thumb pretty quickly. Despite my efforts at trying to get him to choose the pacifier over the thumb (and let’s be frank, I didn’t try that hard at 3 in the morning) he became a full-on thumb junkie. Right thumb, left thumb, day, night, dirty, clean, didn’t matter. Those thumbs had a mouth to call home.

    But when he got to kindergarten, the teachers were concerned about hygiene. They waren’t so cool with all the other kids sharing toys and musical instruments with Thumby McGee.

    So I broke out the Malvada Stop, the bitter tasting nail paint I was so familiar with as a lifetime cuticle biter. To my surprise, he was off the thumb within a few days. I bought him the Playmobil castle that I had promised as a thumb-free reward. I marvelled at his ability to overcome a habit that seemed to have such a hold on him.

    Until …

    Toward the end of last school year, things started getting pretty difficult for Ezra. He has what some might call a rigid personality. Transitions are hard for him, as is disappointment, which he is not yet fully capable of managing. Battles ensue regularly over breakfast choices, bathing, brushing teeth – battles that wear us both out because he struggles so with calming himself down, and I struggle so with kids not listening to me. Once his temper rises, he disappears into his tilting pinball brain, shouting and crying, hot with frustration because he is seven and I make the rules.  

    Enter thumbs.

    Ezra is now in first grade. When he was just a few months old and I let him have his thumb at 3 a.m., I never imagined that he would still be holding on at age 7. When I told him it was time to try to stop again, he said, “When I am mad it helps me calm down.”

    Has his thumb too long been a substitute for more sophisticated emotional management? Have I enabled him by being too lenient about it, by trusting that he will give it up when he is ready? Will he grow into a young man, in a twist over an argument, sucking his thumb in the aftermath? Impossible, right? Some kid in his class will have words against it, surely – words more powerful than mine.

    So I asked him: “What are you going to do when you’re a grown-up to calm down?”

    “I don’t know,” he said, shrugging. “I’ll figure it out.”