This time last year my almost two-year old boy picked up a handful of sand at a playground and threw it at another boy's face.
I remember it clearly. I was nearly in tears apologizing to his mommy about it. I just felt so intensely bad. I'd thought my methods to tame his aggressive behaviors were working -- clearly not. I was certain the boy's mother would be irate with me for being, you know, a bad mother, the kind whose toddler throws sand at playgrounds while she's busy nursing her 6-month old. I felt awfully guilty for having two young children under the age of two because it absolutely rendered me unable to do the type of micro-parenting that would make sure I could prevent my toddler from ever throwing sand. I was heart-brokenly agonizingly frustrated at my inability to change or control his behaviour and my eyes were welling up with tears.
"Good Gawd," the boy's mother said turning to me with a concerned frown after comforting her young son. "Why are you apologizing to me? You didn't throw the sand. And what on Earth are you so upset about? He's a little boy. Of course he throws sand. That's what little boys do. Trust me. I've had four of them."
And then she said, "He'll grow out of it, you know."
It was a revelation. It was an oasis. It was a lifeline. It was an unexpected inheritance. It was a month of sleeping in on weekends and a bottle of merlot with a friend. It was a rescue ship.
See, I saw his occasional hitting and shoving and biting as a problem that I needed to solve. I saw it as a personal challenge and a personal failure. And it wasn't just me -- a lot of people offered their p.o.v. on the situation and I got everything from "He must be modelling violence he sees in your home." To "It's because you're too soft. You don't come down hard enough on him. If you don't make him pay he'll just get more and more out of control."
I got a lot of, "Well he's obviously just jealous because you are spending all your time with the new baby."
The common thread was that it was something I had caused and that I had to fix.
It's almost laughable to think back on all the bad advice I got around such a common thing -- an eighteen month old behaving like a big, pre-verbal, immature human -- hitting and shoving and biting to get attention, to lash out when he was feeling bad or overwhelmed, or just to see what would happen.
Why it took so long for some rare gem of a person to tell me it's a normal thing that he'd grow out of it, I don't know. But if you've arrived at this blog post because you are agonizing about toddler aggression and you are trolling the internets to find out what you should do about it and where you have gone so wrong, I have this to say to you: Relax. Dur. He'll grow out of it. It isn't your fault. It's not like you are shoving kids at the playground. It's not like you are the one grabbing toys from babies. He's not a bad kid. He's just a kid. You aren't a bad mom. You're just a mom. Don't make too big a deal out of it -- you don't want it to stick. When he plays nice, make a big deal of it. When he initiates social interaction playfully or gently, make a big deal out of it.
If he (or she) is about to whack another kid -- stop him! If he (or she) does whack another kid, try not to make it the most interesting thing that has ever happened. Make it an unrewarding activity by paying attention to the victim. Teach empathy -- make him look at the sad face of a child he's hurt and make him know it makes you sad too.
I would like to happily report that he's grown out of it.
In retrospect I'm really glad I chose a gentle parenting tack -- I didn't try to teach him that hitting babies was wrong by hitting him.
It was important to me that he internalized the reasons not to hit, not that he didn't do it because he was afraid of what I'd do -- if I was looking.
I should mention that I was not that consistent about this -- I sometimes blew my lid and I tried a few different things that really didn't work.
He grew out of it anyway.
But that six-month old baby I had then is now an 18-month old toddler. And, oh boy! she's a toughy. And sometimes she hits. And sometimes she shoves. The other day she walked up to a boy, grabbed him by the tee-shirt, pulled his face close to hers, then pushed him to the ground before toddling away to look at something more interesting, her ruffle-bum tutu-pants flouncing behind her.
But everything is different this time around.
There are two reasons why:
1) I know better than to get really upset about this stage and to try to either over-parent my way out of it or take it as a sign of personal failure -- OMG. THEY GROW OUT OF IT!
2) She's a girl. And people react really, really differently.