The gross stuff
Gross behaviors are often habitual — meaning that once the behavior begins, it is often repeated without the child even being aware that he or she is engaging in the action. It's up to you to bring it to your child's attention and to have an action plan to help them to tone it down. Here are the top five nasty behaviors that tend to gross me out every time that I see them occurring:
Bodily function noises without regard to others.
Yes, it happens even to the most polite and well-intentioned of us, but burping and other body noises sure are embarrassing. Problem is, many kids think that these events are downright funny, and they often learn how to purposefully stimulate their occurrence. My son could burp out the first half of the alphabet in one fell swoop — very impressive to his buddies, but less well-accepted in my presence. Let the little heathen know that if the noise (from either end of his body) comes out unintentionally, then an "Excuse me" is in order. And, if you think that it's been accomplished on purpose, then several minutes in timeout may be in order so that he'll think twice before doing it again!
Picking scabs on wounds.
Sure scabs are itchy, but the wound may not heal properly if touched by dirty fingers. And, even when the wound does heal, there may be discoloration of the skin. If the perpetrator is little, keep the lesion or scrape covered with antibiotic ointment and a bandage — bright- colored, interesting bandages are often held in high esteem by little ones, and they just may leave it alone. For older children, explain how the scab-picking is only lengthening the time until the wound heals, and how friends may recoil from the behavior and question the youngster's hygiene.
Just thinking of this creeps me out. How could a parent allow such a disgusting habit to have developed? Well, just about every child goes through a phase of picking their nose — they've either seen someone else do it and are mimicking the older sibling or even the parent. Often, though, little ones' fingers just naturally find their way to their noses (and mouths, ears and most other orifices of their bodies). It's natural to stick fingers in things, and if it feels good, or produces a substance (such as is often the case in nose-picking) well, even better! With little ones, distraction is often the best technique — remove the child's finger from the nose and hand her an item to hold — it's difficult to shove a ball up your nose if your fingers are occupied. When slightly older, hand the child a tissue and help instruct her to blow her nose using the paper. For chronic nose-pickers I've had success with wrapping a bandage on the index finger to make it harder to go up the nose, keeping the fingernails clipped short, using a "secret word or signal" to bring to the child's attention that he's engaging in the inappropriate behavior, or having the child wash her hands after every nose-pick. That gets real old real fast, and most children will cease the behavior in order to avoid having to hit the sink several times a day.
Eating food from the floor.
OK, here comes the "five-second rule" debate. I can't tell you how many times my own two kids have tried to convince me that anything snatched from the floor within five seconds of it's hitting the ground was safe to eat. As if germs need five seconds to attach to the potato chip! Yeah, right. Tell your children that food becomes inedible the second it touches the floor, and if you see them throwing it away you'll give them another piece. If they hit you up with the starving kids in Third-World countries argument, remind them that your kitchen is not Third-World material and that the debate is over. Throw the food away and replace it if you can — end of story. And, be careful about using the dog as a canine vacuum cleaner. Most "people food" wreaks havoc with the canine tummy and even if Fido doesn't care about germs, it's not good for him either.
Using the bathroom without washing up.
Of all of these unsavory behaviors, this is the one most based on children modeling what's seen in the home. Even if your child's teacher insists on hand-washing after using the restroom, if the child does not see the parents washing up, then it probably won't become habitual. Studies show that a majority of women wash their hands in public restrooms, but that most men do not. So guys, if you want to keep your kids from getting all kinds of scary illnesses, you need to be a good role model and wash up yourself. Also set up the habit of washing hands after outside play and definitely before all meals.
Usually this is performed by boys, but I have seen this in preschool girls as well. Generally it's a learned habit, one that the child sees older kids do and follows the pattern. The generally negative attention received actually can be rewarding — attention is attention for the preschooler. Mom or dad should tell the child that it is a nasty behavior and that if it continues there will be a negative consequence (timeout, loss of a privilege). Teachers can place the child in timeout or send him or her to the office for a talking-to. Also, parents need to assess whether the child needs more attention in general, or needs to be given a "special" task to accomplish in the classroom so that they feel special. Explain to the little one how other kids will not want to play with them if the spitting continues.
For older kids, especially boys, spitting is not unusual. Again it is a learned behavior that is often rewarded by the social group. It can be seen as cool, manly and a bit rebellious. Let your young man know that it is a bad behavior that will not be tolerated in the home, car or in your presence. Review what the school rules are, and let him know that it can be seen as aggressive, inappropriate, disrespectful and will probably lead to at least a detention, if not more. Socially, it is unacceptable to adults, and best kept to the baseball dugout. Other parents may not want their child hanging around a spitter, as it suggests a less than civil upbringing! Tell your child that although this may be seen as acceptable behavior around some of his friends, that it becomes such a habit that he may not realize that he's spitting in front of adults. It's a habit that indicates a lack of civility. Certainly his girlfriend's folks will judge him poorly if they see spittle on the floor!
See your child in any of the above? If so, not to worry — it's perfectly normal, but it's up to you as a parent to teach your kid to tone down, or maybe to even cease, some of these normal, but somewhat gross, behaviors!
Dr. Ruth Peters is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to “Today.” For more information, you can visit her Web site at www.ruthpeters.com. Copyright ©2008 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved.
PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.