Suck it Up

Ok, she is almost 3. I’ve tried to be patient. I’ve read all the warm-fuzzy parenting stuff about letting them work it out on their own, hounding them about it will just make it worse, attachment issues and comfort zones, blah blah blah. But now, it is time.

The thumb has got to go.

I remember the blessed day when, around 6 weeks of age, I watched my sweet baby girl learn that she had the powers of coordination needed to get that appendage into her toothless mouth, all by herself. I remember watching the relief flood over her up-till-then tense and anxious little body, and i remember the sleep that fell almost immediately in the wake of the thumb’s landing. For her and for us.

But, I also remember the flood of illnesses that came home from daycare on that cute little finger.  For her, and for us. It didn’t matter that she was only going 2 days a week. Those places are a zoo, don’t let the feel-good parenting books lie to you. They are a zoo, and those little people are like little animals. Everything goes into their mouths, they stick their fingers in each others noses, they feed each other gummed-to-death graham crackers… it’s gross. So, you can imagine the extent to which all this saliva and snot sharing escalates when thumb-sucking is involved.

Now that we are closing in on the big 3, i am noticing a slight lisp. This in a child who has excellent vocabulary and above average language skills… A lisp, and an overbite, and the beginnings of buck teeth. Forgive a mother’s vanity here, but being related to me (and my brother) the odds are already against her in the Worst Teeth in the World department. And while I fully expect to have to pay for some orthodontia for my kids, i’d like also to send them to college. If she keeps sucking…well, she’s going to have to NOT suck in every other area, because she will need a scholarship. Because we will have spent all her college money on corrective dental work.

I welcome any and all suggestions for home remedies, but let me just say, we have tried hot sauce, lemon juice, salt…none of it works. I swear, with the lemon juice, the girl looked me in the eye and said “mmmm…nummy.” It was a moment of pure defiance. I’m trying bribery at the moment, holding out the possibility of the Tangled doll she saw at the store awhile back. On a good day, all i have to do is say “Rapunzel doll!” and out comes the thumb. But get her tired or stressed or nervous about something and she announces “I don’t want a Punzel doll!” and promptly inserts thumb in mouth.

So, send your “what worked for us” stories my way, but my sense is, this is not something that can be cured with bad-tasting things or mittens or duct tape. (I tried. My husband protested. I was outnumbered). The urge to suck is innate and primal, and when she is in an unfamiliar situation, when she is sleepy, when she is feeling small in the world, she can’t help herself.

What’s at stake here is not just a lisp or a bite problem or an unfortunate picture in the 8th grade year book (i think everybody should have one of those). What we are dealing with is the basis for all future coping mechanisms, and on that ground, I want to tread lightly.

I am a pastor and I see alot. I also watch reality tv–well, only Project Runway, but that is enough. And what I see in adult America is an utter lack of healthy coping skills. We see people fall apart on national television when they are kicked or voted out or off of whatever island is sucking the life from them… And in the “real” real world, beyond the screen, we see broken relationships, rampant addiction problems, a rise in childhood obesity, and any other brand of dysfunction you can think of. And at the heart of all this pandemic falling apart-ness, there lies a huge gap in the ways we communicate frustration with others, the ways that we deal with personal failure, and the ways we navigate the unexpected, unforeseen, and generally unfortunate things that befall us daily.

Ultimately, as a society, we suck on alot of things that make us sick. And get your minds out of the gutter, you know what i mean. We have lots of things that pacify us, but are ultimately unhealthy ways of dealing with our struggles. And like drooling, teething toddlers, we are happy to pass the germs of malcontent right along to our neighbor.

I decided long ago that the best gift I could give my children is the ability to cope. Those mechanisms stem from being well-loved, which is a simple enough thing to start with. I’m sure, somewhere down the line, coping skills flow naturally from living with one’s mistakes, from having people trust and depend on you, and from learning that not getting one’s own way is not the end of the world. Those things are a little harder to come by, but I hope, with some intentionality, we are setting the rhythm in place for all of those other learnings to come as they will.

Meanwhile, i realize that thumb-sucking IS a coping device. I just don’t want it to be the only one she has. Rather than snatching the thumb away (ok, i still do that sometimes) or saying “Gee, I bet Fancy Nancy doesn’t suck her thumb!” (yeah, still do that too), I am trying to start another conversation. What is more fun than your thumb? i say. What is more important than your thumb? What else makes you feel happy and safe? And then we start to talk about bubbles, and the park, and music and dancing, and big bear and Van and baby brother, and making muffins, and playing at the beach, and going on adventures, and reading books, and birthday presents, and the moon, and yes, a new Rapunzel doll…

Somewhere in that litany, lies her happy place. Somewhere in that long list of blessings is the soul place she will find, again and again, when life does not go the way she planned, or when people suck, or when she is just plain tired. I trust that she will find her own way of reaching that place, in good time. I just hope she finds it before the orthodontist bill outweighs the tuition hikes…

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About Erin Wathen

Rev. Erin Wathen is the Senior Pastor of Saint Andrew Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Olathe, KS (www.sacchome.org). She's a Kentucky native, a long-time desert dweller, and she writes about the sacred thread that runs through pretty much everything. For more info, click the 'about' tab above...

  • http://www.facebook.com/skingsbery Sarah Kingsbery

    When I was around 5 I was still sucking my thumb and I was getting an overbite so the pediatric dentist put a plate on the roof of my mouth that poked my finger every time I went to suck my thumb. It worked…that’s all I can say about it because the only memory I have of it was the yucky tasting stuff in my mouth while they were taking a mold.

  • http://johnjdavidson.wordpress.com johnjdavidson

    You could try utter butter… used to help farmers and their chapped hands… taste is terrible… it is available at most tractor supply stores (please check for chemicals).

  • http://sethandashleyfamily.blogspot.com ashley

    I wish I knew what to tell you. Lyla was a paci kid and we broke her of that at 9 months. I saw one of Lyla’s preschool classmates sucking her thumb this morning & have a friend with a 5-year old who still sucks her thumb but they wrap it in a bandage when they are in public during flu season. I want to say they tried a nail polish specifically made to break thumb-sucking. Not sure, though. I commend you for your efforts. I would have said tabasco. We used that to break Lyla of nail-biting. Yeah, she bit her nails as a 2-year old. No clue where she picked that up. Good luck.

  • Pingback: Thumb Suckers « Learning As I Go


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