A month or two ago, I realized that I hadn't cut my younger son Simon's fingernails in, oh, a while. I took a close look at his hands and discovered that the nails were bitten down to the quick. Past the quick, maybe. They were so short they were more like quarter-moons than half-moons. The skin around them had that telltale ragged look I know so well.
I've been biting and picking at my fingernails and cuticles since I was about 5, the age Simon is now. I have periodically gotten myself to stop. But never for good. And now Simon, it seems, is making one of my worst habits his own. Lots of parents, I'm sure, have a moment (or a lifetime) of seeing the traits they're least proud of show up in their children. Simon could do a lot worse than nail biting, I know. Still, this small glimpse of my unflattering reflection makes me cringe. It also makes me feel close to my small gnawing son, and protective of him.
"Fingernail biting is a disgusting habit cursed by nervousness, often accelerated by masturbation or astigmatism." Thus intoned Ray C. Beery in 1917 in his Practical Child Training Book. Public tolerance of the habit hasn't increased much since, though the nature of the health warnings has changed. "Forget everyone smirking, what about all the germs that you put with our own fingers into your mouth," scolds the Web site Pediatric Oncall. A 2003 study in Russia's Ural region, where environmental lead concentrations are high, found an association between nail biting, lead poisoning, and lower IQ. Also charming are reports of periodontal infections caused by chewed-off nails that get stuck under the gum.
These are rare cases that don't warrant a full public health alert; still, the habit is indefensible. Also, I think, untethered to any one trigger: My interpretation is that nail biting is about an insatiable need to fidget, not a specific anxiety. And so it becomes pervasive. This is where the protective instinct comes in: I look at Simon's face, one part ashamed and one part rebel in training, and I wish I could somehow save him.
How do you help a nail biter? Naturally, the Internet is brimming with advice. Treat your child to a regular manicure. Use a star chart to reward him for bite-free days (hours or minutes might be more realistic). Try to persuade him to stop biting one finger at a time. Slather a bad-tasting potion on the end of his fingers. A manicure didn't move Simon, though it's the strategy that helps me most. I didn't have the heart for a star chart, and I couldn't imagine it working with a constant and almost unconscious behavior.
The foul-tasting potions, of which there are several varieties on the market, reminded me of the sadistic children's story about the mother cat who wants to stop her kitten's thumb sucking and consults with her neighbors, who tell her, "Put bitters on his thumb!" Still, I thought I'd give one of the nasty concoctions a try. I found a Web site that disparaged products that use pepper, acetone, or lacquer and promised a "unique blend of all natural ingredients" that "delivers vitamins and nutrients to the nails and cuticles." I also ordered a squeeze ball and some putty, which are supposed to provide an alternate means of distraction.
Simon liked the ball, though he has mostly watched his older brother toss it against the living room wall rather than squeeze it. The putty went over fine, too. At first, Simon was curious about the bitters, which came in an appealing tiny white jar. "What does it taste like?" he asked. I put some on his fingers. A few minutes later he breezily announced that it didn't taste bad, just like soap. I put some on my own fingers, forgetfully popped a piece of cheese in my mouth, and ran off to brush my teeth. It didn't sting or make me choke, but my mouth felt as if I'd licked about 500 envelopes. When I came back, Simon was crying. "TAKE THIS OFF MY FINGERS!" he screamed. So I did. And we both kept on chewing our nails.
The obvious lesson is that addicts don't quit unless they want to. Dr. Marilyn Heins, a sensible-seeming soul, makes this point on her Web site. She suggests the following approach: "Ask your child about nail-biting. Do you know why you do it? Does it bother you? Do you want to stop? If they answer to all three questions is 'No' the child doesn't want to play and the game is over." I tried this on Simon. He said no. He also laughed at me.
Heins calls nail biting (and thumb sucking, headbanging, and nose picking) a "tensional outlet" for young kids. She argues that "children are more limited in their choices but have as much need to relieve tension as adults do." Good point. Heins also says that most kids stop by the time they grow up. (The estimates of nail biters range from 6 percent to 60 percent of the population; in other words, nobody knows.) Maybe that's partly because for kids, nail biting offers the thrill of flouting your parents. Simon knows we can't really make him stop, and he undoubtedly revels in that fact, since he's a child who craves more autonomy than any 5-year-old can safely have. For now, then, I'm the one slathering my fingers with the all-natural bitters. If I can't save Simon, maybe I can save myself.
Watch Slate V's new series "House Calls With Dr. Syd"