Jack has a very powerful Extinction Burst — the secret weapon your brain uses to fight off changing new behavior it doesn’t like — and it was in full display while we tried to get him to do regular teeth-brushing with REAL toothpaste. He had been brushing with the Orajel baby toothpaste for 6 years now, using a fluoride gel thing in the evenings to help… but he was already getting cavities. When our dentist had Peter move to real toothpaste (and he’s only 3!), we realized it was time to force the issue with Jack. Time to brush your teeth, with real toothpaste, both morning and evening.
First we tried rewards. “You get a sticker on the chart every time you brush; when it fills up you get a new $0.99 iPad app.” Not enough. “We’ll give you an extra $1 every day you brush your teeth.” Still not enough, even though he’s saving to buy a Wii game he really wants. That evening Katherine moved on to “just do it” and “because I said so” and “I’m your mother” and that brought out the expected obstinate stubborn boy we know and love (and fear). There was howling and crying.
A coworker told me she’s tackled her boys and held them down while she brushed their teeth. I was seriously considering it.
The next morning I started off with gentle encouragement, since Jack is better in the mornings. He made it to the sink, made it to holding the toothbrush, then balked. I escalated to threats. “You can’t watch any TV until you brush your teeth” was met with “Fine, I’m not gonna watch any TV today.” Finally, I said, “I won’t let you go downstairs until you brush your teeth.” That brought the extinction burst out in full force. “I don’t want this toothpaste — I wanted the watermelon one!” (This, after he picked out the toothpaste he wanted at the store.) “I don’t feel like this right now.” (Too bad.) “I want Mama to help, not you.” (Mama’s sleeping.) “I’m going to go say hi to Mama first.” (Okay, I’ll be right here, but you come right back…. tap tap tap…. tap tap tap… oh look, he’s now snuggled up with Mama in the bed.)
That morning we eventually got him to brush his teeth, practically wrestling him into the bathroom. That evening, I went to rehearsal, and when I came back, he had put up a huge fuss again in the evening. There were tears, there were I-hate-you’s, there were you’re-not-my-mama’s, the works.
The next morning, though, he brushed his teeth with the adult toothpaste without resistance. And ever since then, he’s done it with little to no fuss — he’s already up to 5 stickers on his new sticker chart, after all.
It’s so, so hard to see the other side of the hill when you’re climbing up it. There are so many things that Jack does that are hard to reinforce because it’s so much easier just to give in and say “Okay, buddy, I’ll let you do thing you probably shouldn’t be doing regularly just this one more time,” and then all our work is lost. So it was nice to see Jack, in a span of a couple hard-fought days, make it through to the other side. Of course I brush my teeth, morning and night, with regular toothpaste. Doesn’t everyone?