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Growing Concerns (07/25/2004)
By Dr. Martha Erickson

A question-and-answer column with Dr. Martha Erickson of the University of Minnesota

Question: I'm trying to raise my 2-and-a-half-year-old son to be nonviolent, but three times in the past month he's been bitten by another boy at daycare, and I'm so angry I'm tempted to tell him to punch the other kid in the nose. The daycare provider said my son's typical response is to look at the other boy sternly and say, "Biting is NOT OK!" That sounds cute, but if this keeps up I'm afraid my boy is going to become an easy target for bullies. Do you think I should toughen him up a little?

Answer: Judging from your son's response to the biting toddler, I would say you've taught him very well. But, I can imagine how eager you are to put an end to the boy's biting. As much as you are tempted to have your son retaliate, I believe your first instincts are definitely right--to teach your son clear, firm, nonviolent ways to protect himself. Biting back or punching would only escalate the problem, and it would confuse your child about the kind of behavior you expect from him.

You already have taught your son to tell the other child that biting is "not OK." He also should be coached to move away and tell an adult right away whenever someone tries to hurt him. (Kids sometimes are taught not to be "tattle-tales," but from a very early age they need to hear a clear message that whenever someone tries to hurt them, they must tell a trusted adult.)

Since the biting has happened multiple times, you also should talk to the teachers at the childcare center to ensure that they do not allow this to happen again. This will mean, at a minimum, that the teachers monitor the child much more closely so he doesn't have an opportunity to hurt someone again. The teachers also should talk with the child's parents to make sure the boy gets a consistent message at home and at school--biting is never OK and there will be clear, swift consequences (a "time out," for example) if he starts to bite again.

It is important that teachers and parents understand that biting is a primitive but common way for a very young child to act out his or her anger or frustration. Sometimes, an ongoing pattern of biting suggests that a child is experiencing unusual stress or has gone through a change (a new baby in the family, for example). At 2-and-a-half, children often have only begun to learn what is acceptable and what is not. And because they lack words to convey their feelings, their emotions are expressed through actions--sometimes with hurtful consequences, unfortunately.

Children learn to control their aggressive behavior when adults set clear, consistent limits, offer an alternative behavior ("use words to tell him you're angry") and recognize positive behavior ("I like the way you're playing so nicely with her"). And, of course, they learn from the examples they see. With careful guidance from parents and teachers, your son's classmate should develop more appropriate social behavior. Your son can then get on with enjoying his friends and building on the careful things you already have taught him about how to get along with others. 


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