Monday, January 14, 2013

on nail biting

I have a confession: I am a life-long nail biter. I spent my whole life biting my nails. It seems that my parents spent their whole life trying to get me to stop. There were rewards: if your nails are a certain length, you will get nail polish. There were "cures": salt and pepper and pulling hands away. There was shame: how do you imagine it looks from the side? Are you still going to bite your nails when you grow up? (I do). It is embarrassing. The trump card, used by my grandmother, was a recall of some kind of TV satire (which I never saw), where there is an applicant to a culinary school biting his nails, and, apparently, that was very unappealing. At some point, she would just shout that at me: culinary school, and that was supposed to have a magical effect.

None of those things worked. I felt bad, and tried hard, but I still bit my nails. And I still do.

Nowadays most people know that nail biting is a bad habit, but it does not come out of a vacuum. Usually it is done for a few reasons:

  • boredom
  • sensory issue: nails are too long or too short, or catch on things
  • anxiety
  • nervousness
Nail biting is not done to spite anyone, so one cannot be shamed out of it. However, once the underlying issue is addressed, nail biting should decrease.

I try to clip my kids' nails once a week. A few years back I noticed that 6 yo had no nails to clip: he bit them all off. I was a bit taken aback, is he going to grow up like me? Am I going to make this into a power struggle? And am I bound to fail?

I thought about it. I very rarely saw him biting his nails in my presence, and whenever I did, I did not make a big deal about it. I asked him whether he liked his nails short. He is really bothered by hangnails, but he usually gets them on his feet, not his hands, so sensory issue was probably not it. Mulling it over some more, I decided that it might be a form of release for him of some anxiety. My strategy became to not draw any attention to the nails, and, once I sit him down to clip them, just notice whether there is any nails to clip, even if it is just a tiny sliver.

This went on for probably two years. Over this course, I noticed that there are more nails left, but some weeks there was nothing. 

Both boys have been clamoring to clip their own nails. I decided that turning seven is the arbitrary age at which one can manage to do a semi-decent job without major injury. 8 yo has been doing it, however imperfectly. In the past few months, 6 yo started looking forward to this, too. He asked to have a turn with the clippers. He also wanted to know how he can prepare to clip. I told him that handwriting, cutting with scissors and building with tiny legos all help.

Lo and behold, in the past week, his nails were all unbitten. I will celebrate this small success. Is it due to me feigning total disinterest or to his desire to have nails to clip? I do not know, and I do not know whether it will last. What I can celebrate is that he will not be scarred by his nailbitng.

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