Wednesday, January 26, 2000

Bad habits

Some people smoke. Some people gamble. Some eat too much or drink too much or shop too much. My son sucks his fingers. This behavior, harmless in a smaller child but socially unacceptable at six, earns him outspoken disapproval from those who feel he should know better. Yet he clings to those digits with the tenacity of a smoker standing outside in the rain to grab a puff or two. He doesn't care about disapproval or tooth damage or hygeine or drool. He needs to suck. And no parental tantrums or teacher edicts or two-bit behavior modification is gonna stop him.

Consequently, you rarely see him without his hand hanging out of his mouth. The two middle digits of his left hand seem to have magical qualities of comfort that the other fingers and even his thumbs cannot match. Oh, sometimes he'll suck on his shirt collar, or his cuffs, or his toys, but they're just placeholders. The fingers are his favorites, and he sucks them with the unbridled pleasure that some people reserve for fine cigars.

And so, of course, if it brings pleasure, it's got to stop. His teacher has put finger-sucking on her list of behaviors that must not be allowed. Also on that list are screaming in class and shouting out meaningless phrases repetitively at the top of his lungs. Now, it seems to me that on a scale of disruptiveness ranging from loud and hysterical noises to, I don't know, sitting comatose in the corner, finger-sucking skews far toward the latter. But the sight of it just drives some people crazy. Everybody knows of a child who was cured of this by tricks or threats or Tabasco, and so they think he should just cut it out already. "Fingers out!" "Fingers out!" is their refrain. This is like telling a smoker "Hey, cigarette out! I mean it! No more!"

If he's in a mellow mood, he might humor you and stop sucking until you stop watching. If he's in a mischievous mood, he'll take them out and put them in immediately, making a game out of your attempts to set him straight. If he's stressed, he will cling to those fingers for dear life, and you'd be surprised how hard it is to pry fingers from the mouth of a 35-pound boy who does not want them removed. It is a mighty struggle.

And one in which I am reluctant to engage. Frankly, this child has such an elaborate collection of issues--fetal alcohol effect, sensory integration disorder, autistic behaviors, developmental delays, and of course, the dreaded extreme stubborness syndrome--that I'm willing to let him have a little comfort. His array of comfort activities used to be much broader; they included banging his head against the floor, rocking in his bed so hard that he burned some hair off, and whipping his head back and forth like a spectator at some sort of turbo tennis game. Finger-sucking would have been my pick of that litter too, and I'm happy that that's the one that stuck.

The naysayers think this is a sign of lazy parenting, and so be it. We had these same arguments a couple of years ago when he still wasn't toilet trained at age five. Late mastery of this skill isn't uncommon in kids with his neurological makeup, yet there was a fair amount of zealotry on the part of some school personnel about making him get with the program. One therapist even suggested I use suppositories to get him to do the deed on demand. I passed on that proposal. I had tried before to force the issue, and found that this child will do things when he's good and ready, and not before. Any attempts to rush developmental milestones ended with me screaming at a calm child who held all the cards. Life is too short.

In the end, when the time was right, he was toilet-trained in a day. Dry during the day, dry at night, no problemo. And the same thing will happen with the finger-sucking. One day, he'll just pop them out and never pop them back in. I trust this will be sometime before his wedding day.
If not, then it's his wife's problem.

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