It takes 21 days to break an old habit, or form a new one.
That’s something I can work with. Of course to be all scientific about it, this isn’t based on any clinical evidence, only empirical data. So if, for example, you’re trying to quit smoking – don’t beat yourself up if you’re still craving a smoke after 21 days, because it’s going to take a lot more than that. But when it comes to breaking a child of a thumb-sucking habit, my pediatric dentist says that 21 days should do the trick.
21 days of sticker charts, three weeks of rewards and 504 hours of constant reminders.
Suddenly, 21 days is starting to sound like 21 months. It’s probably just me, but I’m the worst at trying to keep track of the sticker chart-reward system. I tried to use it for potty training and I was so inconsistent that I ended up just giving my kid the sheet of stickers. Of course, they immediately stuck them on the toilet. And it turns out, they didn’t need the system anyway – they just figured it out.
This isn’t the first time I’d heard this particular habit breaking/forming phenomenon. In my previous life (when I worked in marketing), we tossed around the idea of incentivizing the sales teams using the 21 day theory. If you upsell “XYZ” for 21 days straight, you get a huge reward. But what happens when someone is out for a day on the 18th day, do they start from day one when they get back? Well, yes. So in practice it was too hard to track and the idea fell by the wayside.
All of this was running through my head as I put my son to bed on our attempted first of 21 nights, especially because he was trying really hard not to suck his thumb. Do you have to start the week over if he sucks his thumb on the 6th night? Or the month over if its on the 19th night? That seems a little unfair.
As he lay wide awake almost an hour past his regular bedtime, my concern shifted from thumb-sucking to how tired he was going to be at school today. I finally caved and said, “You know what buddy, you did a great job. I’m proud of you for lasting this long, but you really need to sleep. So how about we restart this on Friday night when you don’t have to get up for school the next day.” With that, he resumed his thumb sucking and was asleep in less than a minute. And alas, my track record of success with sticker charts is right on course.
But I do like this 21 day idea and I think it will work. I like that it’s broken up into manageable bits of time (daily stickers, three weeks of rewards). And I already know that I can’t be hardcore about it because of my personal chart deficiencies, but it doesn’t have to be perfect.
If it can save us from footing a cajillion dollar orthodontic bill in the future, then we’ll give it our best shot!