My five-year-old son was a booger eater. Actually, “booger eater” doesn’t even begin to do it justice. More like booger gourmand or booger zealot. He didn’t just casually ingest his bounty. He relished procuring and consuming the contents of his nose more than I enjoy that post-bedtime glass of wine.
It wasn’t the picking that actually bothered me. I’ll be the first to admit that I love a good nose pick, that feeling of satisfaction when you dislodge a stubborn clinger. But the sheer brazenness of his public picking and subsequent dining put me over the edge.
“Why do you like them so much?” I probed. “What do they taste like?”
“Sweet,” he said. “Tastes like ice cream.”
So I did what every parent does in this situation. Googled. From the hundreds of entries I found, apparently everyone wanted to know how to stop kids from picking, but no one knew how. Yet there was still plenty of advice.
In line with the Grimm’s Fairy Tales method of parenting, one suggested telling kids that their fingers would be eaten by monsters if they put them up their nose. But the majority recommended just handing kids a tissue, encouraging them to pick in private, and making them wash their hands.
Then I chanced upon a series of articles suggesting nose-picking and eating could be good for kids. This position was predicated on the “hygiene hypothesis,” a body of substantial research indicating that kids exposed to less bacteria and parasites during childhood have weaker immune systems, making them more susceptible to allergies and/or autoimmune issues.
So, hypothetically, ingesting boogers could introduce germs into our body, stimulating an immune system response that would strengthen it. One of the main proponents of this idea was Dr. Scott Napper, a well-accredited bio-chemist at The University of Saskatchewan. But as of 2013, when the articles were published, there was no research to support it.
My curiosity piqued. I sent Dr. Napper an email asking if he’d completed any research. Worried he’d think I was mocking him, I tried to shore up my credentials both as a “nose-picking sympathizer” and “professional writer.”
As I waited for a response – spoiler alert: it never came – I tried all the tactics to get my son to stop that didn’t ensure his need for therapy later. I ignored the behavior, hoping it would go away. I made a sticker chart where he could earn a star each day he didn’t pick (there were no stars on it). I even pulled out the almost-always-useless technique of reasoning.
Eventually, I threw down the big guns: bribery. “If you stop picking your nose, you can have pizza every night.”
“Forever?” he asked, his eyes wide. Whenever there was a wish to be made, pizza every night was his wish. Pennies tossed into wells, birthday candles, and shooting stars, I knew without asking that he was hoping for permanent pizza.
“Well, for a week,” I said. “Seven whole days.” With my son’s dubious understanding of time, seven days probably sounded like forever.
“I’ll try,” he said, giving me a look of intensity and hope.
Ten minutes later, his finger was lodged firmly in his nose. He saw me see him and sighed. “It’s just so hard.”
“If you had to choose between giving up pizza and giving up eating boogers, what would you do?” I asked.
“I couldn’t choose,” he said with a deep, serious sadness in his eyes, as if I’d just given him an impossible Sophie’s Choice. “I just couldn’t.”
A few weeks later, it even came up at parent-teacher conferences. His kindergarten teacher explained that his nose picking was a bit out of hand.
“I’m working on it,” I sighed. “But it’s normal, right? Don’t all kids do it?”
She agreed that many kids did, but not quite as much as mine did. Besides, other kids were noticing and refusing to hold his hand. She said, for now, she was making him wash his hands every time she noticed in the hope it would dissuade him.
I sat my son down after the conference and talked to him about it. He shrugged. “I just get so hungry when I’m at school,” he said.
“You could try finishing your lunch,” I said, as I unpacked his bag, holding out half a turkey sandwich and untouched carrots.
His nose picking and our constant monitoring continued until I finally realized that, in the range of things I wanted to waste my mom-splaining on, nose-picking was way down the list. I did encourage him to pick in private rather than at school assemblies or family reunions, but I let the constant nose-monitoring go.
By the end of the school year, his near constant activity petered off to special occasion picks, like right before bedtime, while relaxed, watching television or reading a book. I thought I was out of the woods.
Then, only a few weeks later, I was sitting on the couch with my daughter, two years his junior, when I thought I caught something out of the corner of my eye.
“Don’t look at me,” she said, as I turned towards her, catching her booger-handed, fingertip just brushing the edge of her nostril.
“Why?” I said. “Because you want to eat it but don’t want me to see?”
“Yes,” she said.
As she sat there watching “Shimmer and Shine” and quietly swallowing her boogers, I picked up my computer, curious to see if anything had changed in the booger-eating research world. I was shocked to see that it had.
A new study proving the benefits of nose-picking and eating had been published in the journal of the American Society for Microbiology. The study had been a collaboration of scientists at several universities, including Harvard and the University of Saskatchewan (maybe Dr. Napper had been too busy preparing his publication to respond to my e-mail).
The researchers determined that the “rich reservoir of good bacteria”[i] found in mucous prevented cavity causing bacteria from sticking to teeth and could defend against stomach ulcers, respiratory infections, and even HIV.
Faced with quantitative evidence that boogers are not only harmless, but also practically a “superfood,” I felt vindicated…dare I say, proud of my kids? But I wanted the qualitative research, too. I turned back to my daughter again, who was still sneakily eating away.
“Why do you like to eat it so much?” I asked.
“It’s delicious,” she laughed. “It tastes like ice cream.”