When my oldest son was seven and in second grade, we were living in Kansas. Some time after the school year started, he began licking his hands. He soon was doing so all day, every day.
His teacher wanted it to stop. So did his dad, my husband.
I was a young homemaker, financially dependent on my husband, and I was feeling enormously pressured by both of these people. I also felt they both had real careers and didn’t genuinely respect me. They both felt it was my job and mine alone to somehow make my son stop licking his hands entirely.
I caved to the pressure. I tried telling my child to stop. I tried spanking him. I tried putting unpleasant spices on his hands to deter him.
I tried grilling him about why he was doing this so I could find some solution. He couldn’t explain it and the terror in his eyes was disturbing.
None of it made any difference whatsoever. He continued to lick his hands all day, every day. He just tried to hide it a little better.
Meanwhile, our relationship grew more acrimonious. He clearly no longer trusted me and this was beginning to poison all our interactions.
Finally, I had this moment where I felt that my efforts to ramp up the pressure to force him to stop had crossed some line. I felt I was turning into an abusive parent.
At that moment, I decided this had to stop. I didn’t care if he licked his hands the rest of his life. It couldn’t be worse than this.
So I dropped the matter. I did so completely and totally.
I said not one word thereafter. I didn’t so much as sigh or roll my eyes. My moratorium on the topic was very thorough. It included all possible forms of communication.
It was his body. He could lick his hands if he wanted to. This was in line with longstanding policy on my part.
Coincidentally, the next few months were extremely busy. We were moving to another state and my sister had a new baby.
My husband was career military and he had orders for a new duty station. I talked to the school and asked what day was the earliest day we could pull our son out of school and have it count as him graduating from second grade so I wouldn’t have to put him in a new school in another state the last few weeks of the school year. My husband arranged to take some leave so we could make that work. My son got an extra long summer out of it by about a month.
My sister’s newborn baby had arrived a few weeks early. I had offered to take care of the baby for a month so her preemie didn’t have to go to daycare with strangers while she finished out her work obligation after her maternity leave ran out.
So we moved from Kansas to Washington state around the beginning of May and then in July I flew to Georgia with my two sons to take care of my infant niece for a month. Then we flew back to Washington in time for both boys to start school. My youngest was starting kindergarten that year.
With so much happening in such a short period of time, I forgot all about the hand licking. Besides, it seemed to have largely stopped on its own.
About a year after I decided to shut up completely and totally about the hand licking, my oldest began licking his hands in front of me one cold, blustery day as we walked to school. Out of curiosity, I quietly asked him “Why do you do that?”
The same child who could not give me a useful answer when I was grilling him to try to figure out how to make him stop answered very simply with “My hands get dry.”
That answer was given to me because he trusted me again. He knew I didn’t have an agenda. I wasn’t collecting intel on him in order to screw with his life and force him to be what adults wanted him to be. It was just a conversation with his mom who loved him and would never intentionally do anything to harm him in any way.
With hearing those words from him, a great many things fell into place in my mind. Winter in Kansas and winter in Washington are both cases of cold, harsh weather that’s hard on the skin, doubly so if you are a small child with health issues, as he was.
The saliva was digesting the oils on his skin and leaving his hands wet in windy weather, which was just making his problem worse. The moisture in his hands was being insidiously wicked away. The more he licked his hands, the more he needed to lick his hands. It was the worst possible solution, one that made his problem worse while seeming to make it better.
This was the crux of the issue. He felt we were interfering with his solution to his problem, not helping him. He was too young to understand the cause and effect relationship, and the way the adults around him had handled it just ensured that he would never come to us to ask for help with his real problem.
So I explained to him that licking his hands was just making it worse and then I listed out some easy solutions that would actually help. I told him he could stuff his hands into his pockets, he could wear mittens and/or he could use lotion.
After that, if I saw him lick his hands, I was helpful. Unlike when I had been scolding him, he was happy to get this new feedback and completely cooperative.
If we were at home, I offered to get him his mittens or some lotion. If we were out walking, I reminded him that he could put his mittens on or stuff his hands in his pockets.
After just two weeks, with no drama and no acrimony, he had established new and more effective habits that actually resolved his problem with his hands getting dry in the harsh winter weather. The hand licking never returned.
The hand licking incident strongly reinforced my commitment to just stop and not do things that I knew didn’t work. It made me more committed to not “put out the fire with gasoline,” even in the face of social pressure to the contrary.
Imagine you see some small fire in your house. Say, a match was dropped on the carpet or a small candle was knocked over. You just happen to be carrying something flammable, like an alcoholic beverage. You are surrounded by panicked people screaming at you to douse it with your drink before the house burns down.
It’s small and manageable and could still be safely put out. Unless you cave to social pressure and dump your beverage on it, thereby adding fuel to the fire.
Afterwards, you vow to yourself: Never again!
The hand licking incident brought it home to me in a big way that, yea, verily, it’s better to stand there dumbly and just watch it burn while trying to think of something better to do, even though that is extraordinarily stressful and can feel like the worst possible solution. When there is a crisis, it often feels like you should do Something! Anything!
Maybe. But sometimes you should do Anything — except that. Anything but that. So it reinforced my resolve to stand my ground when adults around me were haranguing me to do things I knew would not work and would, in fact, be counterproductive.
Once I returned to that place where my child fundamentally trusted me because I had no agenda to control him or his behavior, the problem was very easily solved. It had only been a big problem to begin with because other adults decided arbitrarily that hand licking was Bad Behavior and that this Bad Behavior Absolutely Must Stop At Any Cost.
A few years later, I told this story to my sister. She noted that her daughter, the infant niece I had taken care of the year this all happened, had recently started licking her hands. She was glad to know what the answer had been for us.
I never heard her mention her daughter licking her hands again. Presumably, it never became a big deal because her mother had good information to work with.
Thorny problems are only intractable as long as you don’t know the solution. Investing energy into fighting with someone because no one knows the solution is just an exercise in undermining trust. It only makes it harder to solve.
Trust is earned. You don’t get it by standing on authority. You absolutely don’t get it by bullying a child. In fact, that very much undermines it.
I had caved to pressure because I felt threatened. I felt like if I didn’t comply, then outside forces might interfere with my parental rights. It might result in worse things happening to my relationship to my child than him being mad at me about this one thing. So I tried to comply with this expectation that my child needed to stop and I needed to be the one to make that happen.
And it was the wrong thing to do. It just turned some small thing into a really big issue that could have gone even worse places had I not decided to reverse gears and reinstate my previous policies.
When the chips are down, that’s when you most need your child’s trust. Undermining their trust only comes back to bite you. It just turns minor problems into major ones and major ones into ruinous disasters.
The hand licking incident is the only exception I can recall to my policy to parent in a manner that earned the trust of my children. Fortunately, I was able to undo the damage and win my son’s trust back by returning to the set of deeply respectful principles that had long driven my parenting choices.