A Macaroni Kid Reader Asks:
My five-year old daughter’s nail-biting seems to be getting worse and worse – her hands look awful. We tell her to stop when we see her do it and explain why she shouldn’t do it, but whatever we do doesn’t seem to make a difference. What do you suggest for bad habits like this?
Parents often come to us wanting to know how to help get rid of their child’s worrying habits, such as thumb-sucking or fingernail biting.
It’s certainly natural to point out our children’s worrisome or annoying habits when they are doing them because they just leap out at us, and of course we don’t want them to carry these habits into adolescence and beyond. But unfortunately telling our kids to stop and explaining why they shouldn’t do it is probably the least effective way to curb the bad habit.
One of the most effective strategies to stop a habit like nail-biting is by using Descriptive Praise. In earlier columns I’ve described how to use Descriptive Praise
to get more of the behavior you want by noticing and mentioning whenever your child does the right thing. We describe very specifically what our child has done right or even any tiny step in the right direction. But we can also use Descriptive Praise whenever our child is NOT doing the annoying thing. We can praise what I call the “absence of the negative”.
In the case of nail-biting, the old way of trying to get your child to stop would be to notice when she’s doing it and to ask her to take her fingers out of her mouth. You might explain all the reasons you can think of for why she shouldn’t do it: “It’s not good manners, it’s dirty, there are germs, etc. In my seminars, whenever I ask a parent if these strategies of pointing out the annoying behavior, reasoning and explaining, etc. are working to reduce the nail-biting, the answer is always no. Yet we continue to criticize, explain and reason even if that isn’t working, because we don’t know what else to do. Giving attention to negative behaviors doesn’t reduce them and in fact, it usually just makes them worse.
Here’s what to do instead. Start noticing and mentioning whenever your daughter isn’t biting her nails. You could say: “Your hands are down and you’re not biting your nails.” Or “I haven’t seen your fingers in your mouth all morning. You’ve been remembering to keep them in the right place. That’s very good manners.” Pretty soon, your child will start to automatically put her fingers in her mouth as she always has in the past, and then she will stop herself and bring her hands down. Descriptive Praise motivates kids to remember our rules and instructions. You may not believe it yet, but try it and you’ll see for yourself. You’ll need to make this a campaign for a few weeks, noticing and mentioning all the times when she isn’t biting her nails.
It’s easy and natural to point out what our kids are doing wrong. These things jump out at us because they are so irritating. It will take retraining on our part to start noticing what’s right instead of what’s wrong. But when we start relating to our kids more positively, they too will become more positive and more cooperative. A mom on my Descriptive Praise CD tells a story about how she used Descriptive Praise to quickly extinguish her three-year old daughter’s habit of excessive lip licking that was leaving her mouth red and chapped. This strategy may seem counter-intuitive to do, but it is absolutely effective.
Descriptive Praise is the most powerful motivator for children I’ve ever come across in my forty years of working with children and families. Start using Descriptive Praise to get more of the behavior you want and less of the annoying behavior. When you do, family life will become calmer, easier and happier.
Wishing all Macaroni Kid readers a wonderful holiday season.