How to break a child’s habit of nail biting

(or) Exhausted PA Mother Wins Lengthy Battle with Son, Lives to Tell About It

(or) Chapter VIII: In Which Little Johnny Breaks a Bad Habit


Once upon a time, perhaps nine months ago, a small boy whom we shall call Johnny suddenly contracted the habit of nail biting. Bad. Perhaps he first copied the habit from a friend, just for fun—and all of a sudden whenever he was bored he was gnawing away. His fingernails lost all of their white and some of their pink. Once in a while they bled.

This went on for weeks and weeks.

His mother was determined to stop him before it got worse, before he ended up with half nails and a bad habit for the rest of his natural life. She and his father tried plan after plan, all excellent ideas even though they didn’t work [cough], and finally found one that did. Please to observe:

Plan A: In which we try Strong Language

STOP BITING!! I MEAN NOW!! Okay, that’s not working—

Plan B: In which we offer a Powerful Incentive

Johnny’s parents promised him an entire Lego set if he could stop biting for good. This formed the backdrop for all their succeeding plans, and culminated in success; but it was not nearly enough by itself.

Plan C: In which we apply Nasty-flavored Nail Polish

His mother was sure this would work, but it did not. She had to apply it numerous times a day (so hard to remember and enforce), and it would wash off when she didn’t realize it, or Johnny would chew till it didn’t taste bad anymore. Perhaps she chose too weak a variety, but she worried that getting something stronger might burn his eyes or mouth.

Plan D: In which we launch out on our own with Rubber Bands

His father volunteered this one as a team effort, since he had been breaking the habit himself for the last 25 years. He and Johnny each wore a rubber band around his wrist. Anyone in the family who saw them biting their nails was free to pull the rubber band, snapping it against their wrist. This was cause for great joy for several days, and then… well… little Johnny took his band off.

Plan E: In which we provide Melty Beads

His parents decided to offer an alternate chew toy, so they pulled out a stash of melty beads—you know, those little craft rings that you put in patterns on a pegboard and then iron? All three of their little Johnnies began to love chewing these. They bit them into all sorts of fun shapes. This helped, but sometimes the Johnny in question didn’t have one in his mouth and it was too far to run get one…

melty beads
A melty bead, front aspect: before and after

Plan F: In which, running out of options, we fall back on the “Ick Factor”

“I mean, think about what you’re eating, trapped under that nail!!” his mother ranted.

[No measurable impression formed on Johnny’s mind]

Plan G: In which our strength is failing, but we attempt The One Nail Challenge

“Alright, Johnny,” his parents coaxed, “Let’s see if you can grow us a thumbnail. You can bite any of your other nails for a few days, just not your thumbnail. If you can grow us a thumbnail you can earn a dollar.”

For three days, the thumbnail was sacred—just long enough for it to pause and take a deep breath—and then the nibbling started again.

Plan H: In which we are endowed with a stroke of genius: Blue Nail Polish

Johnny’s mother bought ordinary nail polish and painted all ten nails bright blue—the color Johnny picked out. His brother could not believe how girlish this looked, but Johnny thought it was quite handsome: a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for this Mennonite kid. His mother told him two things—First, that it would probably make him sick if he ate it. And second, that beneath the blue a surprise was growing: REAL. NAILS.

This is the one part of the affair on which she does not reflect with satisfaction: She is not sure if a falsehood was involved or not. Would it make Johnny sick? Certainly in quantity. If he had been an obsessive biter, driven by need, she would have felt worse introducing any sense of danger. She didn’t dwell on it, honest. But the truth is, Johnny didn’t want to stop biting… until a small, a very small safety hazard convinced him to.

For some time, she could not tell if Plan H was working. She just painted the polish on again when it began to wear off, once every few days. She kept talking about the two facets: sickness and surprise. He never worried about it; he never stressed or obsessed. He just stopped. One week, two weeks—and his mother saw that he had pink growing up from the bottom of the nail, below the blue. Soon after that, she found that his nails’ top edges were perfectly smooth.

Shrieks of joy.

When at last they allowed the polish to wear off, little Johnny was so proud of those white nails. (So was his mother.)

coming off the blue
incredibly dirty–but WHITE!

He had one regression, returning home from a long and boring road trip with decimated digits. His mother just painted them blue again, and repeated the training process (shorter this time). That was the only setback he had, and he was done.

At the time of this writing, it’s two months post-treatment and Johnny’s got the loveliest nails… his mom can’t get used to trimming them.

training complete

He sure loves that Lego set.

johnny with prize


What’s the hardest habit you’ve had to help your child break? How did you do it?

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10 years ago

Wow! You hung in there! The incentive we used on a son was to offer “whatever he wants at Wal-mart” when all ten nails needed to be trimmed at once. He chose a red cowboy hat, and years later, still has it.

It's Just Me
10 years ago

My “Johnny” sucked his thumb. It was quite darling when he was a newborn…not so much when he was SIX! We went thru very similar steps…scolding, nagging, pleading, bribing, threatening…even the bad tasting stuff. One time I told him a big old lie that if you suck your thumb too long, it might turn green and fall off. One morning while he was still asleep, I used food coloring to make it, yes, green. He came out with a green mouth and a faintly green thumb, and I had to confess. I felt TERRIBLE.
Then I put $10.00 worth of dimes in a jar, told him we’d take one out every time we saw him with his thumb in his mouth. At the end of 2 weeks, he could keep what was left. He never sucked his thumb again…greedy little critter! Lol

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