Thumbs up: Don't deny kids this comfort
It's been a long day, and the four-year-old has given into the bliss of sucking his thumb. His face is suffused with satisfaction. Vice presidential candidate John Edwards' adorable son Jack has forgotten the photographers in his private ecstasy of self-comfort.
But it can't last. As the shutter snaps, an elegant Teresa Heinz Kerry reaches across her presidential candidate husband to try to tap the tow-headed little boy's thumb out of his mouth. This is the kind of family photo that never makes it onto the annual Christmas card.
Politics makes strange everything. News coverage of the Kerry-Edwards four-day post-announcement trip was a collage of the kind of unrehearsed, let-it-all-hang-out pictures that the Republicans have never released to the public: Where are the Bush twins at play? Where are the Cheney children at all?
The Kerrys are impossibly tall and rich with straight, white teeth; the Edwards are also rich and gorgeous. But thrown together, they seem as quirky and homey as contestants on reality television. In clip after clip, the candidates played parking lot football, punched shoulders, mussed hair, romanced the microphone, and hugged each other a lot while their combined families– they have eight children between them– looked a little like deer caught in the headlights of the campaign bus.
My parents were short, poor, had crooked teeth and didn't run for office, but otherwise, this might have been a snapshot from my own childhood. Thumb sucking– my desire to do it and my parents' desire to stop me– was our principal battle. They took me to doctors and dentists who warned me about everything from impaired swallowing to brain damage. If I continued to suck my thumb, they threatened, I would definitely grow up to have crooked teeth. I continued to suck.
My parents painted my thumb with awful-tasting substances that they said were poisonous. I sucked them right off without even getting a stomachache. I sucked right through the cotton "thumb mittens" the pediatrician provided. When my right arm was tied behind me, I happily switched to my left thumb. At some point, I added a tattered old blue blanket off which I picked fur balls that felt wonderful against my skin. I named this beloved object Blankie.
There's a pure rapture to thumb sucking which I remember with great nostalgia. As I got older and continued to suck my thumb, I honed my verbal skills arguing for my habit. "Stop it!" my mother would say, reaching over to tap my thumb away from my mouth. "If God didn't want me to suck my thumb, he wouldn't have provided it," I'd say.
Thumb sucking never failed to transport me to another, calmer world. Sometimes I went outdoors where the birds and squirrels didn't seem to notice my dreadful transgression. After I got to college, I did eventually stop. Instead of sucking my thumb, I took up the various alternatives provided for teenagers who wish to calm and comfort themselves– alcohol, pills, binge eating, and inappropriate sex.
Thumb sucking is mysteriously horrifying to adults. It's taboo. Many parents would rather deform a child's face with a dopey-looking, brightly colored plastic pacifier than allow thumb sucking. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, most thumb sucking stops all by itself between the ages of 6 and 8.
Some psychologists believe teenage and adult thumb sucking is almost always the result of a childhood battle over thumb sucking.
On the website thumbsuckingadults.com, those who are still sucking can chat with each other and read each other's stories as well as take comfort in photographs of celebrity thumb suckers such as Madonna and Kyra Sedgwick. Walter Kirn in his 1999 novel Thumbsucker has his narrator point out that sucking his thumb is the one thing he has always done. Sonograms show babies sucking their thumbs in the womb before they have even learned to breathe.
So why do adults get so upset when children suck their thumbs? What could be more natural? Perhaps they should try it themselves before they pass judgment. I'd love to see all the candidates and their wives give it a try.
Thinking of other embarrassing acts recently committed by presidents and their children, it seems obvious that thumb sucking is an innocent, highly desirable and wholesome alternative. I think it's too bad that adults don't usually suck their thumbs; more thumb sucking might well lead to a more peaceful world. Democrats or Republicans, we could all use a little comfort right now.
Susan Cheever, a columnist at Newsday, is the author of 11 books, including "My Name Is Bill," a biography of Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.