Care and Feeding

My Son Won’t Stop Sucking His Thumb! Which Would Be One Thing if He Were 4, but He’s 12.

How do I rectify this parenting fail?

A teenage boy sucking his thumb.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I need advice on a clear parenting fail that we don’t know how to rectify. My son is a thumb sucker—which isn’t the end of the world, except that he’s almost 12. Yes, we should have dealt with it earlier, yes to all the things we should have done instead of thinking he’d grow out of it (or peer pressure would end it). I sucked my fingers as a kid, and I’ve mostly tried to be sympathetic, but at some age I think it’s not unreasonable to have at least some concern. I don’t think it’s a matter of self-soothing anymore so much as it’s become a reflex. My husband is a lecturer, which isn’t helping and just upsets my kid. I vacillate between lecturing, telling him to stop when he’s doing it, and trying to reason with him about why he needs to try to stop.

We’ve recently thought to try one of those rubber thimble things with bumps so he’ll (at a minimum) realize he’s doing it. He doesn’t want to do something that tastes bad. We’ve tried fidget spinners, spinner rings, chewy necklace things, and we’re running out of options. Thoughts? Guidance? Frankly I’m worried this will stunt his interaction with other kids, and he’ll end up getting bullied. He’s doing it at school, and a lot of adults have brought it to my attention. To the extent that a school administrator mocked him for it. She received my scolding that day, but it does make it stand out. He’s also just too old to do this and needs to find other coping mechanisms (if it is a self-soothing thing at times).

—It Sucks

Dear It Sucks,

Ahhh, jeez. OK, it feels to me as though you would have told me if he had any other sort of developmental delays or general sensory issues, which makes this simpler. I also want you to roll back the personal guilt trip a bit. We all assume kids will grow out of stuff like this. Your doctor tells you they’ll grow out of stuff like this. Don’t beat yourself up.

He’s 12. I think that puberty is going to give him a whole new and exciting set of things to … do with his hands, and this is finally going to actually “take care of itself.” I’m hearing that adults are riding him about it, but not that his fellow students are, as yet. I’m Team Stop Talking About It and Team Get Your Husband on That Same Team.

If he starts getting social blowback, or someone he’s romantically interested in says something, he’ll stop. Or maybe he’ll just do it in private until he dies. You’ve tried all the other things I would usually recommend (other, perhaps, than having an orthodontist put the fear of God into him), but I do think it’s going to fade with puberty.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My school-age stepkids won’t speak up for themselves. They walk into a room and literally just stand there looking at you until you begin to offer things that they might want or need (hungry? thirsty? bored?).

We have never said no to any of their requests; we don’t restrict food or activities, etc.; we give permission and ask them to use their words to ask for what they need or seriously just do what they want to do … no dice. It’s a long-standing issue and goes across all settings. We have ruled out specific language delays.

Here’s the problem: We are the only household that sees any issue with this. Their bio mom and both grandparents are perfectly happy to go through life anticipating their needs and speaking for them, so I get that our expectations are different. It’s now gotten to the point that our preschool-age bio kid will ask them what they need since they won’t speak up (“Do you need a cup? I’ll get a stool and get it for you!”). I’m stuck. It may seem like a small issue, but seriously, it’s like Children of the Corn over here.

—Use Your Frigging Words

Dear UYFW,

This is … kinda funny. It is! I’m sure it drives you bonkers, but it has a fairly simple solution: stop asking them what they want! Next time they arrive, just say, “Please let us know if you need anything. You’re so welcome in our home,” and then if they just stand there for the next three days like it’s an Entmoot, swaying in the breeze and slowly dehydrating, so be it.

If they’re hungry, they’ll tell you before they literally die. If they’re bored, they’ll figure something out.

I give you permission to be amused! Laugh quietly about it when they go. I know you’re funny, because the Children of the Corn line was clutch.

Please keep me posted.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My mother requires an unbearable (to me, at least) level of appreciation. In my mind, if I ask someone to do something and they do it, a sincere thank-you is adequate (possibly more if it is something big). However, my mother seems to expect more than this.

She will often say something like, “Aren’t you appreciative of me driving you to the airport?” which somehow kills all the gratefulness that I had. It especially bothers me when she asks that after doing something that you would expect a normal parental figure to do, like when she picked me up when my car broke down.

Overall, I can’t figure out what she expects from me, and it has led to a lot of conflict over the years. So what are your thoughts? Am I really being that entitled/ungrateful? Is she being unreasonable?

—I Said “Thank You” Already!

Dear ISTYA,

She sounds deeply aggravating. And you’re not going to change her. I recommend continuing to warmly thank her in the moment, and then when she breaks out a “Why aren’t you more appreciative of … ?” just tilt your head to the side like a confused dog and then look at her until she explains. Which I doubt she can! Because this is about her being a weirdo.

If she continues to really spit in your oatmeal on this front, you can go with warm and concerned: “Mom, I notice that I always say ‘thank you,’ and you never seem to remember I have done so. Are you finding yourself to be more forgetful in general?”

That’s a bitch move, but she’s been doing this for years, and you sound real close to pushing her out of a moving car if it continues.

I will pray for her.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My son just started first grade, and because of the way his school is structured, he’s with the same kids from kindergarten. He’s a happy kid and a very accurate reporter of events. Already this year he’s told me that a couple of his classmates are calling him names. Nothing major or that I would consider bullying. For example: calling someone stinky, poopy head, or not potty trained. But I know because I’m friendly with the parents of his classmates that these kids all have diagnosed learning differences (think ADD or ADHD). My question is this: How do I teach my son to be empathetic and kind to these kids without making him hang around people who are a little mean (for first graders)?

—Slack and Cutting It

Dear Slack,

This sounds pretty manageable. You can tell him that he should walk away unless they become more aggressive, at which point you should speak very gently to their parents about working on these particular issues. He doesn’t seem overly bothered by the situation, and also it’s good for kids with any kind of neuroatypical issues to experience the logical consequences of their behavior, in a kind and low-stakes manner.

If he plays a little less with kids who are rude to him, if he pushes back and says, “That’s mean,” that’s a teachable moment. This is very normal kid stuff. He’s a good kid; they’re good kids; it’ll shake out in the wash.

—Nicole

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