Sometimes it’s funny. Sometimes it’s embarrassing. Sometimes it’s just downright disgusting. Regardless of how you feel about the activity, what’s the best way to respond to a child who insists on picking her nose?

What it looks like:  The above video says it all. No concern for propriety or cleanliness, when there’s something in her nose it has to come out…now. Forget tissues, the best tool for the job is always a handy finger.

Mistaken for: Being rude or impolite.

What child is learning:
The human body – Children are ceaselessly fascinated with the human body, especially it’s nooks and crannies. Early investigations usually involve touch and taste so it’s not surprising that treasures found in the nose usually end up in the mouth.

How to explore the body safely – The body can’t be poked and prodded quite as vigorously as toys. Since some parts carry or are sensitive to germs cleanliness is also a factor.

Appropriate behaviours in public – Children have yet to learn which bodily nooks and crannies are acceptable to explore in public and which are not. The most common approach to learning this lesson is through trial and error.

How to support: It’s important to remember that nose-picking is a learning experience for children. And as always, the way in which adults respond determines how constructive the experience is. A response of disgust and embarrassment is not only confusing but can dampen a child’s sense of curiosity. If this is what happens when I put my finger in my nose, what will happen when I explore other parts of my body? I don’t want to find out! Alternatively, such a response may just encourage more inappropriate exploration. If this is what happens when I put my finger in my nose, what will happen when I explore other parts of my body? Let’s find out!

So how can you respond in a way that helps children to learn? Here are a few ideas:

Be proactive – I’ve been having a great time teaching Primary Ones (5-year-olds) all about noses. It all started with a great book called The Holes in Your Nose by Genichiro Yagyu. This book covers it all: mucus, nose bleeds, bogies and nose hair. It clarifies the mystery surrounding noses with no judgement or drama. And if you want to take it to the next level, you can even make your own fake snot. The kids in my class loved this activity and figured out how to make fake bogies by adding bits of dirt to the mucus (just like it explains in the book). Once you’ve gone through all this learning together it’s much easier for children to see why it’s not a good idea to engage in public nose-picking.

Avoid scolding – Nose-picking in and of itself is not innately wrong and children shouldn’t be made to feel naughty for engaging in it. Adding on moral value will only make the issue more confusing.

Avoid dramatizing it – In our culture, picking one’s nose has somehow become one of the most disgusting things a person can do in public. When I stop to think about it I’m not sure why it’s so dramatized…and children won’t get it either. It helps to be honest when explaining social and cultural expectations to children. Acknowledge the fact that these norms don’t always make sense but that following them can show respect for others.

Teach her how – It’s silly to assume that a child is never going to pick her nose. Of course she is. We all do. What she needs to know is how to do it safely (use a tissue, wash hands after, don’t poke to high up) and when it is appropriate to do so (at home, perhaps in the bathroom). Go ahead and begin teaching her these things as soon as you observe her starting to explore her nose.

I hope you enjoy embracing the reality of nose-picking as much as I have. Just another one of those times when childlike innocence can bring out the fun in life!