Friday, December 10, 2010

Rule of Thumb

Oh the thumb-sucker's thumb
May look wrinkled and wet
And withered, and white as the snow,
But the taste of a thumb
Is the sweetest taste yet
(As only we thumb-suckers know)
Shel Silverstein

My Jonah has loved his thumb since he was just a few days old. Truly, he has ADORED it. That thumb has been his trusty companion for five years, always faithful when he was feeling a little sad, a little sleepy, or even a little bored. It's wrinkled and amazingly soft, and when inserted in mouth has provided an excellent platform for an index finger curled comfortingly around his little nose. When he was a baby, a few observers of Jonah's thumb habit "tsk, tsk"ed it, lamenting the fact that a thumb was much more difficult to remove than, say, a pacifier. I wholly disagreed...I've loved that thumb, too. With Jonah, I never had to keep track of pacis, wash pacis, retrieve lost pacis when dropped in the car or hurled from the crib at three in the morning. His good old thumb was always at the ready. Jonah knew how to soothe himself and he alone controlled when he needed it, instead of being gagged into silence with a pacifier as so many paci parents (myself included, with Eli) can be tempted to do. And man, especially when he was really small, it was just so darn cute. Who could resist this thumb-sweetened face?

But a few months ago, we decided that the time had come for Jonah to bid his trusty thumb friend goodbye. Warnings of potential problems with his permanent teeth from the dentist and concerns from his kindergarten teacher about his sucking at school convinced us that the time for a thumb intervention was now. Jonah seemed amenable, but so much of his thumb sucking was subconscious that we made little progress, especially at night. Reminders didn't work. Band-aids didn't work. Secret signals, gum, and even a few mocking comments from other kids didn't seem to help. We wanted to avoid being punitive or manipulative, and Jonah burst into tears when we even mentioned coating his thumb in nasty tasting stuff. We had reached a thumb impasse.

Enter "The Magic Lady". Our dentist had mentioned that if Jonah was really having trouble giving up his thumb, he would recommend a speech therapist who specialized in helping kids eliminate thumb and finger sucking habits, and that his patients had had such good luck with one particular therapist, that he affectionately referred to her as "The Magic Lady". I kid you not. We were skeptical at first, particularly because the The Magic Lady was magically expensive, and also because as parents, we like to think that we can handle these things on our own. Shouldn't be that hard, right? But as the weeks passed and Jonah's thumb sucking did not decrease, we got a little desperate and reluctantly scheduled an appointment in the hopes of experiencing a little magic for ourselves.

Well, in the interest of expediency I'll spare you all the details, but let me just say that after fifteen minutes of winning Jonah's heart and an hour of completely positive and non-manipulative discussion, Jonah mustered up the courage to give up his thumb for good. As if he were a tiny AA member, he trooped around the office and told everyone he could find, "I'm Jonah, and I've decided to stop sucking my thumb today!" ("Hi, Jonah.") It's been three full weeks now, and he hasn't looked back. It's pretty amazing, but there really is no magic here... just plenty of logic and some some simple tools to help keep his hands and mouth "happy". We are thrilled, and Jonah could not be prouder of his discovery that, at the ripe old age of five, he has the strength to conquer a powerful life-long habit.

In the midst of all this, I think I've learned (or re-learned, as always seems to be the case with me) some really precious lessons about parenting:

1. It takes a village... Yeah, yeah, it's a cliche', but time after time, I tend to think that Steve and I should capable of raising these kids on our own. And maybe we are, but we can do it a whole lot better with some others along for the ride. In this whole thumb journey, we are not only indebted to the Magic Lady herself, but also to the three groups of "supporters" that the Magic Lady insisted we involve in the process. Jonah's supporters called and emailed daily with an encouraging word and plenty of praise. It was a beautiful thing to watch his face light up as he recounted another thumb-free day to his grandparents or family friends. Part of me is always so tempted to sweep a guilty habit like our five-year old's thumb sucking under the rug and pretend we're not struggling, but it is inevitably better when we admit we all need a little help sometimes.

2. Put the kids in charge (sometimes)... So often, I feel like the "responsible parent" would take a situation into his/her own hands and lay down the law, and I'm often tempted to take this approach with the boys. But truthfully, when we work WITH our kiddos, involve them in the solution, and put the responsibility in their hands instead of gripping it so tightly ourselves, we all feel a whole lot better. Sure, we could have started nagging Jonah endlessly about his thumb and coating it with tobasco (certainly no offense to parents who have found success with this approach), but we might have robbed him of the opportunity to feel so in control and proud of his own accomplishments. With just a little help, he made the decision to stop for himself, he did it himself, and he knows it. And what could be easier, or more rewarding, for me than to watch my children develop a healthy sense of personal responsibility? I love it, and he loves it.

It's almost like magic.


  1. Some great thoughts here. Really helpful. M

  2. Thanks, Michelle. Miss you guys!

  3. Connor will be 3 in Feb. and he is such a fiercely independent "me do" soul. I think it's terrific when they are part of the solution. I tend to want to lay down the law too, but when they make good choices for themselves, it's so rewarding. Congrats to Jonah! Leigh (ATL Pat.)

  4. Yay Jonah! Send the Magic this way to our little "night" (pacifier) stealer and hider.

  5. Hi, Kristin,
    I wasn't sure how to get a hold of you except through your blog. Nice seeing you at the library the other day. But just in case you are interested.... dancers from Dance Express are performing in Fort Collins as a part of Streetmosphere on Saturday, July 16th; Saturday, August 20th, and Sunday, September 4th from 12:30 to 3:30. We perform and take breaks throughout the three-hour period and we have been on the Oak Street Plaza which has little fountains that children play in.
    Mary Elizabeth