Sunday, July 10, 2011

He Grew Out of It

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.


  1. I LOVE this post! Love love love it. Obviously I have three kids myself. Obviously I've had experiences that nearly mirror this. But really, you've illuminated it here in this post. I'm glad your son has moved on. As my two daughters have. And now for the youngest. Yes, my youngest (first son) is now 16 months, and he's just starting to show me his persistence in a toddler-way now. Yikes. Patience, please guard me through another one of these beautiful babes growing into children. And thank you for the reminder.

  2. First of all, THANK YOU. Just last night I was saying to my husband, do you think Joe will ever learn to hold hands when we get to the parking lot? Because every time is a full on meltdown, and NOTHING SEEMS TO CHANGE. And of course, he was like, "Relax. Dur. Kinda doubt he'll be running into traffic when he's 18. At least, well, maybe in his hot rod, but whatever."

    I fall into this too: It's my JOB to teach this child safety and manners. And if he doesn't learn right away, I've failed sometimes. I forget that actually, safety and manners are being enforced by the whole human world around me (if you don't learn them, bad things happen to you), and chances are he'll pick it up somewhere on the way. Probably not when he's 2.

    Great post, thanks. I'm already thinking of all the people I need to send this too.

  3. I love it when you post! The best part about this one is that it has a whole bunch of gentle discipline philosophy in it, but it's totally accessible. Right on, sister!

  4. Yup, they grow out of it. And then they move on to other things that we can agonize about.

  5. Awesome post! This is so true. Sometimes when I think about I remember that my son used to push and shove...I can barely remember it now when I look at my 7 year old. <3

    Celebrating Family

  6. while i agree that they do 'grow out' of it. i also find it important to not give them a "pass" because they are little. you know? it's finding the balance and making sure they know the behavior is incorrect. i loved this post!!

  7. Its so much easier the second time around. When you realize there ae stages they all go through, that they are not "defective" or that your parenting is not "defective"

  8. The worst part is when your kid does this sort of thing to someone else's slightly younger baby, a baby who is not yet at the hitting, biting, scratching and kicking stage. And the parents decide to hate on you because, they know when their precious child grows up he/she will never do such a thing, because- clearly unlike you- they are raising him/her right. Of course, you aren't usually around when they are eating humble mudpie.

  9. We had an issue with biting about a year ago, and I felt the same way. I was horrified, convinced it was my fault. But like you, I came to the realization that yes, he will grow out of it, and no, it's not a big deal. Its a really hard realization to come to though thats for sure!

  10. I have a 22-month old daughter who has been hitting, biting, and scratching other children, myself, and herself for almost a year. I pray for the day she grows out of it. But I am still not convinced her behavior falls within the range of "normal" toddler antics. And as to it being different with a girl, I think people are all the more shocked when it comes from a girl. For a boy, aggression seems more "natural." Girls, though, are supposed to be sweet. Mine isn't sweet at all. I've tried time-outs, I've tried ignoring it, I've tried getting her to apologize (she can sign "sorry"), and I've tried redirection. I get scratched and hit multiple times every day and she attacks other children at every playgroup we attend. I can't just ignore this behavior when it happens at a playgroup, despite what the books recommend. Other moms expect me to step in and DO SOMETHING. And I can't sit back and wait and hope for this to go away. I thank you for your post, but I still can't see the light at the end of the tunnel.

  11. My daughter was the one that got hit and pushed, but I knew that it was just toddlers that don't understand (because they haven't got the wiring yet) that other people suffer the consequences of their actions. I used to get quite upset that people would get angry and even punish their children. All that's required is that the parent steps in as quickly as they are able and stops it happening, with an apology. Nothing parents do at this age will make a difference to what happens in an hour or a week or a year, except modelling good behaviour by how they (usually) behave towards the toddler (with sympathy, calmness, and tolerance or angry, agitated intolerance).

    Shelley, my son is a hitter. Sometimes it's all he is capable of to express his feelings. For example, if I shout at his sister and she starts crying he finds this unbearable, and if he is close to his sister he'll hit her! Makes no sense from an adult point of view, but it's the best he's capable of for communicating his feelings. It does drive me nuts sometimes, but I know he will grow out of it when he has developed other methods of expressing how he feels, and this will come from how WE behave when we are angry or frustrated or disappointed or anxious. Toddlers are certainly NOT meant to socialise with other toddlers, they are meant to socialise with older children, this is how they learn social skills, but learning means getting things wrong a lot first.

    Can I also recommend 'Punished by Rewards' by Alfie Kohn to explain why praising playing nicely is to be avoided at all costs? If they're playing nicely just leave them to it, they don't need adults giving them feed back on how well they're doing it

  12. Just to add. This nice piece is also an indication of how mothers can support mothers. Just a gentle word when someone else is getting overwhelmed makes such a huge difference.

  13. They do grow out of things but it's hard to know what to do in the mean time when you hear from some parenting experts "Don't praise good behavior" and from others "Don't punish bad behavior." Should we just leave them to their own devices and hope they don't turn out bratty? I realized I was being way too lax with our 3 year old and he was really hard to be around for other people. His wild behavior and yelling became white noise to me. We're working on being more consistent with addressing his behavior. 3 year olds can be quite obstinate:)

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  15. Thank you for posting this! My son has a rare form of Down Syndrome, Mosaic Down Syndrome. Only 10% of his cells are DS. We're very blessed. He is a very normal 3 1/2 year old boy AND has issues with pushing, grabbing, throwing dirt on other kids' heads, etc. His "behvioral issues" often get blamed on the DS. We even have a behavioral therapist working with him at day care. It's so refreshing when I hear form other parents and posts like this that IT'S NORMAL. We definitely focus on the positive behavior and never say things like "no pushing" or "no grabbing". All they hear is the word they want to hear "pushing", "grabbing", etc. It's been really helpful to focus on the behavior he should be using in a situation not what he shouldn't be doing.

  16. Dr. Mama, I think this is such a good point. When I say "Joe, don't do X!" he immediately does X. He doesn't really hear the "don't" part, and it seems to plant really bad ideas in his head! Every time.

    If I instead focus on what I would like him to do instead ("touch gently!"), I get better results. I'm not a die-hard no-praise-ever mom, but I think there is a subtle distinction between offering rewards/bribes for good behavior and a form of positive discipline that sets the child up to succeed by asking for what you want, rather than fail, by asking a child to "not" do such-and-such incredible APPEALING thing!

    Not that I always manage this! I certainly say "DON'T DO THAT!!!" a lot!

    Good points all around. I'm enjoying this thread of comments so much because this is my life right now! I woke up to being smacked (hard!) on the head with a plastic tiger this morning, always a troubling omen for the coming day. :-)

  17. Shelley - my first girl was like that, totally. She's 7 now and so sweet and compassionate. I never ever would have thought when she was 22 months old that we were headed anywhere good with her! It was a lot of hard work but you love your kids so you can't help but do it. Now her little sister is going through a serious case of the Terrible 3's and hitting, scratching, pulling hair and I'm a lot less worried about it this time around. Still putting in the work, but not nearly as much angst on my part. :)

  18. This was a great Post just found it today when someone linked to it form a comment on facebook.
    I'm gonna repost to my wall thank you!!
    katie z The Sparkle Mama

  19. Definitely some advice I need right now! I watch a 9 month old during the day and have a 2 year old. BOY is it hard/frustrating/aggravating to watch her play rough with the baby. She actually doesn't hit out of anger, but she thinks it is SO fun to put things on the baby's face or throw things at her. The baby does not appreciate it and it is a constant struggle. But maybe I don't need to make it a struggle. Maybe I should follow your advice. :)


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