The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Health & Family

April 18, 2013

Sarah Coyne: Toddlers' aggression based on exploration

JOPLIN, Mo. — He was running back and forth from his daddy to me, throwing himself into our laps. He plowed ahead and fell face first, landing in bellies and ricocheting off arms. His little legs picked up speed until he was more jumping than racing.

Finally, he flew into my embrace and wrapped his arms around my neck, laughing. The laughter turned to snorts before I felt it: He was biting my shoulder.

Tiny teeth dug into my skin around his giggles, and I yelped, pulling him away. This, of course, amused him greatly, and he dove forward again, teeth first.

His sisters were squealing in the background, having caught sight of a baby/mama wrestling match. It was all I could do not to burst into laughter myself, but the bite mark held me back.

In my first incarnation as a parent, many sleepless years ago, this would have been my cue to discipline the toddler. After all, I would want him to learn his lesson early on. Nip it in the bud. Teach him that his actions have consequences and that physical aggression isn't allowed.

I would have begun worrying that I have a biter on my hands. I might have started parenting him out of fear of what he would become if I didn't punish him for locking his jaws around my shoulder.

But in my third incarnation, I didn't worry. This is what toddlers do. They bite, hit and scream, but it doesn't usually begin out of aggression.

It's more about exploring their world. They throw a cup of water over the edge of the table both to see what happens when it splashes down as well as how people will react. Reactions are like puppies, rainbows and bounce houses all rolled into one.

It doesn't make sense to try punishing an 18-month-old for gleeful exploration. Even if he's tried to hit in frustration or thrown a toy in anger, there's a limit to what a toddler can process.

In these situations, we can't try to explain or punish simply because there's no chance the little one will understand the problem. They have neither a grasp on their feelings, nor an appreciation for consequences.

Instead, the best reaction we can have to toddler transgressions is distraction. Remove the wild thing from the situation, but don't try to enforce a timeout. Can you imagine a less-than-2-year-old sitting still and considering his actions? It would be like herding weasels: pointless and exhausting.

To get a toddler to stop throwing things, head to another room or go outside. To discourage the dumping of cups of water, put the cups away and get out some matchbox cars that can roll off the edge of the table. To blockade a flurry of flying fists, get out of their reach and say, "Hitting hurts, we don't hit" before finding a snack.

The wildness of toddlers isn't about hurtfulness, but about exploration, and when they discover less-than-thrilling reactions, the exploration becomes forgettable.

So, when my little boy kept coming at me, teeth bared in a joyful grin, I grabbed a wooden spoon that was lying near us on the floor. I put it gently between his teeth and growled along with him as he bit down on it over and over.

Then he squealed and flapped his arms, jumping up and down with excitement before solidly whacking me on top of the head with the spoon.

The trick is to find enough distractions to fill up an entire day's worth of toddler-wrangling.

Sarah Coyne lives in Joplin. She writes about life and motherhood at her personal blog,

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