Question: We are having a problem with our 32-month-old son. He picks his nose — most often in a public setting — and then proceeds to wipe it on other family members. It's disgusting. We have tried ignoring his behavior and mildly smacking his hand away when he tries to wipe it on us. Neither approach is working. Do you have any suggestions?
Answer: Psychologists are not trained to deal with this sort of thing. That's bad news because I am a psychologist. Lucky for you, however, I am also a grandfather, and grandparents know how to handle stuff (pun intended) like this.
As I have said many times, most notably in my book Making the 'Terrible' Twos Terrific!, consequences do not work reliably with toddlers. First, their attention span is too short. As such, they are not likely to remember what happened the last time they misbehaved in a certain way, so they do it again ... and they get punished again, and they do it again, and so on. A toddler and a parent can go round this mulberry bush forever. Second, their impulses rule. Impulse usually overrides the "Don't do that!" message. Third, they seem to take perverse delight in doing things that people make a big deal over. You have obviously been making a big deal over him wiping snot on other people. You swat his hand away, you probably jump around and yell and run around looking for something to wipe it off with, all the while complaining in a loud, agitated voice. The fact that he can get an adult so worked up is just too much fun! So, he does it again.
No, ignoring this isn't going to work. You didn't ignore it, anyway. You simply reduced the number of times you paid attention to it in relation to the number of times it happened. So, instead of getting all worked up every time he wiped snot on someone, you got worked up one out of four times he wiped snot on someone. (By the way, if you want to get fancy, psychologists would refer to it as "interpersonal snot-wiping behavior"). One out of four is enough to keep ISWB going. One out of 10 will do it, in fact. Whenever parents tell me they've ignored something, I know they're not telling the truth. They ignored it "some" is more like it.
Let's face it: This is not malicious behavior, and it does not constitute a real and present public health menace. His snot has not caused anyone to become ill, much less precipitated a worldwide epidemic. It has caused you consternation. You think it's disgusting, which is subjective. In all honesty, given my vast experience with toddler behavior, this is not serious. Furthermore, I seriously doubt he will be smearing snot on people two years from now, and that time line is pessimistic. One year is more like it.
One thing's for sure: If you continue to swat, scream, and run around like a headless chicken when ISWB occurs, it will continue to occur, and probably get worse. Pin a handkerchief to his clothing so that it hangs in front of his shirt. Tell him that it's for wiping snot from his nose and show him how to use it. Then, when you see him picking his nose, ask him, "Where do you put stuff from your nose?" Help him understand the concept of using a handkerchief. And if he smears it on you anyway, simply take his handkerchief and wipe it off, with dignity.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents' questions on his Web site, Rosemond.com.
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