A Boy and His Tongue

Sometimes kids do weird things, most of which are yucky to adult ears and eyes. While parents shouldn’t overreact to such things, they can put parameters around the weird impulse. Here’s what I advised one mom whose son constantly licked things.

Kids don’t listen when we launch into lecture mode, and who can blame them? Their brains aren’t developed enough to follow our logic.

Q: Our 7-year-old boy has been licking things (like most of us would smell). We went to the fair and I watched him lick the handle bar of one of the rides. Today, I went outside to check on him and his 4-year-old brother playing in the yard, and watched him “play sweep” with a branch, then pick it up and lick it as he walked away (he didn’t know I was watching).

After many lectures over the past week (and a threat last night to not let him ride rides if he didn’t control himself), I called him inside for a spanking (we give three whacks with hand). He immediately denied doing it (lying, which we’ve consistently had problems with, recently when he was caught at school with a pocketknife that we found out him and his older brother had been hiding in our house for two weeks).

He finally admitted to the lying about the stick lickings (when I explained a couple times that I knew what had seem with my own eyes), but I ended up putting him in his bed with no books or toys for the afternoon/evening and early lights out for the lying instead of the spanking.  (although I did end up spanking him for the huge fit he threw when I explained he had earned a no-play evening in his room.)

It seems to be a compulsive behavior, but I am afraid he’s going to get really sick!  How would you handle this?

A: I had a licker, one who literally stuck her tongue out and ran it along the hallway wall in our home. Fun times. Kids do weird stuff, and licking things is one of them. Your son doesn’t know why he does it—it just seems like a good idea at the time. Some kids are more oral in nature, and put things in their mouths, or lick things, or suck on things.

As for him getting sick from licking, yeah, that might happen, but he might get sick in other ways too, so I wouldn’t worry overmuch about him getting sick from licking things.

Now, how to get him to stop? Number one, stop lecturing him! Kids don’t listen when we launch into lecture mode, and who can blame them? Their brains aren’t developed enough to follow our logic, and frankly, the point of much of our lecturing is to get the kid to say, “Gee, Mom, when you put it that way, of course I shouldn’t lick.” Which ain’t gonna happen, so save your breath.

Number two, stop talking about licking. Just stop all conversations surrounding his licking. All this talk and drama is contributing to the licking problem.

Number three, take him into a little-used bathroom or guest bedroom and tell him that he can lick there to his heart’s content. Make it sound like the most wonderful place in the world for him to lick—point out all the shiny surfaces (toilet handle, faucets, etc.), the floor, the walls. Really “sell” it as his licking place. Yeah, it’s kind of gross, but don’t worry about that! He’ll look at you as if you’ve lost your marbles, but be cheery about it.

Number four, when he licks, send him to the licking room. Tell him he can come out when he’s ready to stop licking. No lecture, no punishment, just banish him to the boring powder room for a lick-fest each time.

Number five, give it some time, but I bet within a week, he’s licking much less. You might not get him to stop completely, but you help him to learn to control his licking impulse by giving him a place to do it.

This method also works for potty talk, too. We sent our two boys when they were about your son’s age to the bathroom every time they wanted to use those benign potty words, and it helped them learn to control their impulse to use that language at the dinner table and beyond.

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