It takes 21 days to break a habit, or create a new one if you’d rather.
That is something I can work with. Of course to be all scientific about it, this isn’t based on any clinical evidence, only empirical data – which means that if you’re trying to quit smoking don’t beat yourself up if after 21 days it hasn’t worked because it is going to take a lot more than that. However to break a child of a thumb sucking habit, 21 days, so my pediatric dentist says, should do the trick. 21 days of sticker charts and rewards and constant reminders. Suddenly 21 days is starting to sound like 21 months. Its probably just me but I am 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 with it that I ended up just giving my kid the sheet of stickers which of course ended up getting put on the toilet. Turns out they didn’t need it anyway, they just figured it out.
This isn’t the first time I had heard of the 21 day habit breaking/forming phenomenon. In my previous life in marketing we tossed around the idea of incenting the sales teams by using the 21 day theory. Upsell, xyz for 21 days straight and 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 disbanded.
This was running through my head last night as I was putting my son to sleep on our attempted first of 21 nights and 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 and my concern shifted from thumb sucking to how tired he was going to be at school today. I 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. So alas, my track record of success with sticker charts is right on course.
But I like this 21 day idea, I think it will work. It is broken up into manageable bits of time (daily stickers, 3 weeks of rewards) so we’ll see. I already know that I can’t be hard core about it because of my chart deficiencies, but it doesn’t have to be perfect. If it can save us from a cajillion dollar orthodontic bill then we’ll give it our best shot.
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