NORMAN — Q: 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?
A: 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 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 simply 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.