Raising Richmond: Torture by grooming (apparently)

About once a week, my son thinks I’m trying to kill him. Well, I’m not sure if that’s what he actually thinks, but judging by the thrashing, shrieking, and multiple escape attempts, it’s my best guess.


I really don’t mind most of the grunt work that comes with parenting. It works out well because as our son JR’s primary caregiver—and as the partner of someone who works a gazillion hours overseeing some website—most tasks involving child maintenance fall on me.

Sorting, washing, and folding a preschooler’s comically small socks and underwear are actually quite enjoyable tasks in my book. As a dental hygiene enthusiast,1 I relish the opportunity to brush someone else’s teeth two or three times a day.2 I’ve even come to accept that I will be responsible for the cleanliness of a butt that isn’t mine for at least another year.3

But there’s one task that I dread with pretty much everything I am. I only dread it because JR dreads it, too. Although “dreads” doesn’t even really begin to describe how he feels about it.

Basically, about once a week, my son thinks I’m trying to kill him.

Well, I’m not sure if that’s what he actually thinks, but judging by the thrashing, shrieking, and multiple escape attempts, it’s my best guess.

All it takes to set JR off is to pull these out of the medicine cabinet.

The horror. THE HORROR.

He cries. He sits on his feet and shoves his hands in his lap. He pleads with me to cut his nails “not on this day, another day, Mama, ok?” He cowers in the corner, for crying out loud.

Now before you feel too bad for JR, let me assure you that his fear is not the result of prior trauma. I have never drawn blood or clipped his skin; I don’t think I’ve ever even cut his nails a bit too short for his taste. He’s just made the connection that, in theory, nail clippers could potentially hurt him. And while I’m grateful that his inferring skills are quite sharp, it’s really getting to be a pain in the ass.

In the event that I actually convince JR to unfold himself and let me at least try to tame the talons,4 it typically goes like this:

Me: (singing ever-so-sweetly, as only a mother can) This little piggie went to–


Me: I promise, I’m not going to cut you. Mama would never hurt you on purpose. OK?

JR: (whining ever-so-brain-meltingly, as only a three-year-old can) …OK.

Me: Let’s try again. This litt–


We do that over and over again until A) I give up after two fingers and he’s left with eight still-scraggly claws or B) I bargain/scold/threaten him into submission and he shlumps out of the bathroom with his trimmed nails and a tear-stained face.

Nail trimmings weren’t always so dramatic for us. Back when JR was a gurgling blob of baby, I would just wait until it was time to nurse him. As he curled up next to me, I would gently snip away at each impossibly tiny fingernail until it was time to switch sides and do the same to his other hand.

But once JR weaned, I quickly learned that my technique, while wildly successful for nine solid months, was also seriously flawed. Since I’d only ever clipped his nails while he was in a nursing-induced stupor he’d never even realized I’d been doing it. So basically we were at square one—and not even at square one with a tiny, clueless newborn like all the other rookie parents. Instead we were left to convince a relatively cognizant and very mobile child to sit still while we attempted to remove part of his body with a sharp object.

No wonder the poor kid kept (and keeps) going batshit crazy at the sight of those things.

But regardless of his perhaps very valid fear, we need to get this situation figured out. It’s not like a fear of the ocean or of flying; one can steer clear of both of those without risking ostracism at the hands of his fellow preschoolers. Meanwhile I’d prefer JR to fully embrace the ins-and-outs of personal grooming so he can avoid becoming That Kid one day.

So what we do? Tie him down? Promise him a puppy for each trimmed nail? Leave him be until his own nails gross him out? Encourage a nail biting habit? Lay it on me, fellow parents. I know I’m not the only one who’s ever faced this challenge—and I’m pretty sure you’d all support me in my efforts to keep my child from quivering in fear whenever I reach for the medicine cabinet.

— ∮∮∮ —


  1. 30 years old and only one cavity. Not that I’m bragging or anything.5 
  2. Really not kidding about the dental hygiene enthusiast thing. 
  3. Nothing is quite as humbling as being ripped from your sweet slumber by a three-year-old bellowing “MAMA. I POOOOOOOOOOPED.” 
  4. Anyone who’d like to use that as a band name has my permission. 
  5. Jk, I was totes bragging. 
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Valerie Catrow

Valerie Catrow is managing editor of RVAFamily. When she’s not oversharing her parenting struggles and successes, you can find her raising a preschool-aged boy and watching 90s television shows.

12 comments on Raising Richmond: Torture by grooming (apparently)

  1. Aubree on said:

    nursing-induced stupor might also be a good band name…

  2. Caroline on said:

    Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. (or other stupor induced show) It’s the ONLY way I’ve ever been able to cut either of my kids’ nails without a fight.

  3. Kelly on said:

    We have that same issue but in our scenario nail clippers=putting on sandals. Our baby HATES sandals/open-toed shoes and reacts the same way as JR when I attempt to make her wear them. I can only assume this is because as an infant I constantly threw sandals at her.

  4. Kristi on said:

    I’m with Caroline — Mickey Mouse Clubhouse or any other show that keeps them distracted. We clip nails at night, after bath time, when they’re somewhat calm. Just the other night, I told my 2.5-year-old that we couldn’t play This Little Piggy until I clipped her toenails. She immediately placed all 10 adorable little piggies in my lap for clipping.

  5. Gianna on said:

    You have a lot of friends with young kids..maybe get him to watch another mom cut their kid’s nails to see that it doesn’t hurt and that everything will be ok. I had to facetime a friend’s kid who hated brushing teeth. Keaton and the child brushed their teeth and bragged about their brushes. It was that simple for that circumstance. Maybe it will work, maybe not. If he sees that a friend is fine, maybe he will associate it as a positive instead of a fearful routine. I make Keaton look at books while I cut his toes. He is an unfortunate nail biter (any suggestions on stopping that are welcome) so I don’t have to worry about his fingers anymore.

  6. Julie on said:

    I have two gross little boy creatures of ages 10 and 13 who gnaw their nails to the point where I don’t have to worry about clipping much anymore…it appalls me, but I can’t seem to convince them that it’s not acceptable. Yick. But yeah, we went through the hysterics and screeching stage with the clippers too. And I honestly remember doing that as a kid myself, and my poor Mother pleading with me that it wasn’t going to hurt and everything would be fine. I did not get over it until the clippers were in MY hands. Once I had control of the situation, if I had cut myself I would have been OK with it, it was just the notion of someone ELSE holding those devious looking things near my sensitive finger and toe tips…nuh uh…bad.

    I’d definitely try the TV for distraction, and then grip the appendage under an armpit out of his sight, tell him not to pay attention, just relax and if he is quiet and still it won’t hurt at all and….good luck.

  7. Katherine on said:

    We always do nail trimming after bath during story time. One parent reads/holds the book so she can’t really see what’s happening and the other clips. She knows she’s getting a trim but usually gets wrapped up in the story and doesn’t protest much. Also try looking for some more harmless looking clippers. Do they come with characters on them? If not, we should totally invent them. Good luck!

  8. Melissa on said:

    Since you mentioned puppies and toenails…I pay our dogs one piece of cheese per toenail and they excitedly put their feet into my hand when the nail clippers and cheese bowl are out.

    A puppy per toenail seems extreme…is there some small treat he can have 20 of? You might need to start with desensitization and counter-conditioning, by backing the stimulus off to a lower level (e.g. holding the clippers near his finger without clipping anything) and paying him for that. Do that every night for a week then up the stimulus (e.g. clipping just a tiny smidge of one nail every night while still touching the clippers to the rest). The rule of desensitization is, if you think you’re advancing slowly enough, slow down. :-)

    Any chance of reasoning with him that you’ve cut your own nails over 1000 times and never hurt yourself?

  9. Jeb on said:

    I wish I had advice. My oldest child still needs a towel over his head (his choice, not mine) when I do his toenails.

  10. Jessica on said:

    My son is 9 months old and screams bloody murder every time we lay him down on the changing table and when we have to apply sunblock to his face -I know, we are terrible parents ;-) In those instances I sing, smile, clap and hand him toys all while moving as fast as possible; as soon as I sit him up it’s ALL BETTER! As for nail clipping – we just can’t get him to keep his hands still. My solution, I bought a headlamp – think smaller version of cave spelunking – and sneak into his room after he’s asleep and clip them during the night. Yes, it’s as funny as sight as it sounds like it is!!!

    Good luck to you – I laughed out loud at the commenter whose child puts a towel on his head!!!!

  11. Keli on said:

    I’ve always clipped my son’s nail (fingers AND toes) in the car. I leave a pair of clippers in the door handle. When he was a baby, he would fall asleep in the car and I could do it quickly. (I could never clip them when he was in the crib since I can’t reach that far down easily!) As he got older, it was easier to let the car seat do the restraining and I could focus on the clipping. Now that he’s almost 4, I remind him that he needs to sit still so that the clippers won’t cut his skin and I just clip quickly before he changes his mind! That seems to work most of the time!

  12. Hi. I have a daughter age 6. When it. comes. time. to cut her toe nails , she. has a meltdown. How do I convince her it. is ok?

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