Reading Time: 4 minutes

(Please forgive the parental preening below. Ghastly stuff, but with a purpose.)

fingers095My daughter Delaney (7) is a wonder. I’ve never seen a kid so completely engaged in the world, so committed to life and happy for the chance at it.

At age five, she’d sometimes giggle quietly to herself in her car seat. I asked once what that was about. “Sometimes it’s just so amazing to be alive in my body,” she said.

She is the orchestrator of creative play in our neighborhood. It isn’t unusual to find seven kids in our front yard between the ages of five and ten: two building a tent, two hanging hula hoops on tree branches, one busily mashing seed pods in a bucket, one spreading open umbrellas and safety cones meaningfully across the lawn — and Delaney directing the works.

She wants to be a scientist. Her favorite word is “Awesome!”, used in its original meaning and intoned over an enormous orange spider or under a freaky yellow moon. She reads at an insanely high level, and when she reaches a word she doesn’t know — obfuscate, maybe, or ennui — she asks what it means. When I pause to figure out how to explain it to a second grader, she says, without a trace of arrogance, “Dad…just tell me the regular way.”

And then there’s this: Since the first week of her life, this awesome, smart, creative kid has sucked on the tips of the two middle fingers of her right hand. Never wanted a pacifier, wouldn’t take a bottle. Only the breast and her fingers, then finally just her fingers, would do.

At first it was nearly constant. By the time she was three, it was only when she was tired, worried, or asleep. But at those times, it was a guarantee.

We began to wonder if it could cause problems. Dental experts warned of possible splaying or malocclusion of permanent teeth, possible speech impairments. But they often cited frequent and intense sucking as the most likely to produce these. At age five, she had deep calloused dents just above the nail beds where her teeth rested. By six, she seemed to be resting the tips more lightly between her teeth, but still persisted.

Becca and I were not entirely unconcerned. We discussed it casually with Laney, told her about the dental worries, offered some ideas for stopping. She’d shake her head. Sometimes her eyes would well up, and we’d drop it. Then the same night, I’d tiptoe into her room and find that she had taped her own fingers together to dissuade her sleeping self…and was sucking on the sad little cellophaned flipper anyway.

It seemed for a while like she was finding her own way out of the habit. Other days, not so much.

One night I was about to enter the girls’ room to sing them to sleep. By this time, Laney’s fingers were only in the hatch at night, something we had all noticed. But as they crept into place that night, big sister Erin (11) couldn’t leave it.

“Laney, take your fingers out,” I heard her say.

I watched unseen from the doorway. Laney glared across at Erin and left them in.

“Laney! You need to stop sucking your fingers or your teeth will be weird!”


“Fine, suck your fingers if you want to be a baby. None of your friends suck their fingers.”

Laney made searing, defiant eye contact with Erin — and slowly slid her fingers further in, all the way to the second knuckle…then closed her eyes and sucked hard.

I entered the silent room and went to straight to Erin.

“I’m just trying to help her,” she said, half believing it.

I leaned down and whispered back, “I know, but that’s not the way. The more we force it, the harder she’ll resist.”

I switched to Laney’s bedside. Her cheeks were streaked with tears, fingers firmly enhatched. I asked what was up.

“I want to stop sucking my fingers, but I can’t,” she sobbed.

“Well, it’s hard,” I said. “You’ve always done it, right? But I don’t think you should rush it. You’ll know when it’s time.”

“I’m gonna try tonight.”

“Sweetie, I think you can just leave it for tonight. Maybe tomorrow.”

“I think I can do it.”

I smiled at her. “It’s up to you, punkin. Either way is fine.”

Whether she did or didn’t that night is unimportant. What matters is that by morning, she was convinced she had. Which made the next night a piece of cake. And the next. And she never went back.

You see where I’m going with this.

No, I’m not making a simple and cheap analogy between religious belief and thumbsucking. As much of a thigh-slapper as that is, it oversimplifies. I will point out, however, that this habit was a great comfort to Delaney, something she had never been without, something she was convinced she needed. When she felt it was threatened, she clung to it. She sucked harder. Only when I told her that she was in control, that there was no rush — only when we stopped trying to snatch it from her was she able to let it go.

When and if someone lets go of religious belief, I think the same simple principle is at work. Badgering them and ridiculing their beliefs might work for a few, but for most it has the opposite effect. The more you attack, the more they retreat into the very thing. Only when you look someone in the eye and say, in essence, “It’s your call,” can most people see their way clear.

I wouldn’t want to do without Myers and Hitchens and Condell. They speak to me. I think they tell the damn truth. They voice my frustration and outrage. I would never want them shut down. But there’s another thing that needs doing as well — an opening of space around people so they can think clearly, sometimes for the first time in their lives, about their beliefs and the consequences of those beliefs. And it takes place, more often then not, one on one.

My hope in this series is to offer some tips that I’ve found effective. I hope it’s useful.

SO THEN, tell me, secular readers (which again is who this series is primarily for): If you were once religious, what was the nature of your de-conversion?  Were you at the wheel, or was someone else pushing, or some combination? Do tell.

[Complete series]

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.