Stop Shaming The Big Kids Who Suck Their Thumbs

by Christine Organ
Originally Published: 
Image via India Picture/Shutterstock

My son has spent approximately 3,642 nights sleeping with his blankie, and he has probably spent about 6,783 hours sucking his thumb. You know that old adage that goes something like, Your kid won’t go to college or get married sucking his thumb or sleeping with his blankie or [insert whatever bad habit a parent is stressed about]?

Well, my kid might be the exception to that rule.

Like most parents, I worried about my big kid’s thumb-sucking habit. At nearly 10 years old, my son was undoubtedly on the far end of the acceptable range — whatever “acceptable” means. I worried about whether he would be teased by his friends. I worried whether he was causing permanent damage to his teeth. I worried that I was being a bad parent for not being more concerned about his blankie-and-thumb-sucking habit and putting my foot down.

I worried, but not enough to actually force him to stop. He was a good sleeper, as long as he had his blankie and his thumb, so why mess with that?

Of course, not everyone agreed with my kinda-worried-but-not-really-worried attitude. A couple years ago, I took my son to see an orthodontist. He had lost a few teeth sooner than usual, and his dentist recommended a consult. I told the orthodontist that my then 8-year-old son was a thumb-sucker, and this wasn’t likely to change anytime soon. After all, what’s the rush to rid ourselves of these childhood comforts? What’s the hurry for our children to grow up? And why, for heaven’s sake, would I want to throw our bedtime routine into chaos when what we had going was working pretty well for everyone?

But as my son sat in the chair, the orthodontist decided to take it upon himself to use that age-old technique called shame to get him to quit. The orthodontist asked my son a bunch of questions about school and sports, and then said: “What would your friends say if they knew you sucked your thumb?”

Immediately I was fuming, but my child knew how to respond.

“They wouldn’t say anything…because they’re my friends,” he said. A-freaking-men!

Needless to say, we immediately found a new orthodontist — one who not only didn’t shame my son, but also reminded me that he’d stop sucking this thumb when he was ready. In the meantime, he assured me that it was nothing to be concerned about.

Parents often worry about prolonged thumb-sucking and comfort objects like pacifiers or blankies, but the experts remind us to CTFD. Not only are thumb-sucking and blankies not “bad,” they might actually be good for a child. “[I]t’s important to remember that thumb or finger sucking is a normal, natural way for a young child to comfort himself,” the American Academy of Pediatrics says on its Healthy Children website. “[A child will] gradually give up both the transitional object and the sucking as he matures and finds other ways to cope with stress.”

Most children stop their sucking habits before they get very far in school, the AAP says, but even if they don’t stop before school, putting too much pressure on the child to stop may cause more harm than good. Be assured your child will eventually stop the habit on her own, the pediatric tell us.

For nearly 10 years, my son took “snugs” with his blankie while he sucked his thumb and we didn’t stop him, even if we did stress out at times. Then, suddenly, he stopped — just like that. He hasn’t sucked his thumb for months, and his blankie is currently balled up at the bottom of my nightstand. No one is more surprised (and a little sad) about that than I am.

Was my son a bit old for his thumb-sucking habit? Probably so. Could we have taken his blankie away or pressured him to stop? Definitely. But why? To what end? And more importantly, at what price? What would we have lost by pushing him to “grow up” sooner? What price would have been paid for the loss of comfort? And most importantly, wouldn’t we have been showing him that what others think is more important than how he feels?

Regardless of whether one considers thumb-sucking or any other childhood soothing behavior to be a bad habit, one thing is clear: Shame doesn’t help; it hurts. True friends will accept our quirks and idiosyncrasies as long we accept their quirks as well. True friends don’t care if someone sucks their thumb or wets the bed or needs a parent to lie down with them at night. Kids know this; it’s we adults who forget.

So despite my fears, my son probably won’t go to college sucking his thumb, and he won’t get married with his blankie (unless, of course, it’s in a box of childhood mementos he takes with him when he moves out). Just like the experts say, kids move on when they are ready to. They aren’t robots, but people. They’re all different. Kids develop and change on their own timetables.

And eventually, they grow up. Whether we want them to or not.

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