November 17, 2008
I had coffee with two girlfriends the other day. One of them has a son 2 months older than Marie, and it seems he has discovered the wonderful world of biting. Someone takes away his toy? He bites. Someone has something he wants? He bites. Biting is his knee-jerk reaction to any situation that upsets him. As troubling as this is, it’s pretty normal behavior for toddlers; they have strong emotions but lack the language skills and self-control to express them appropriately, so they quickly resort to biting, hitting, scratching and plain ol’ tantrum-throwing as a way of releasing their frustration. This doesn’t make the behavior acceptable, but it helps to know that a biting one-and-a-half-year-old isn’t a “bad” kid – he’s just not mature enough to handle upsetting situations in an appropriate way.
So my friend’s son bit Marie a number of times. Enough, in fact, that she started avoiding him completely and rushing to me any time he came too close for comfort. He bit some other kids at the mommy café, too. My friend responded appropriately, I felt. She stepped in, told him, “no biting!” had him give his “victims” a hug, and tried to distract him any time she felt a conflict coming on. The only thing I might have done differently is to have reassured him that I understood his frustration. Something like, “I know you’re upset that Marie has a cookie, but it’s not OK to bite. If you ask for one, you can have a cookie, too.”
A middle-aged woman walked by with her baby grandson. My friend was hovering because she was afraid her son would bite the baby. This led to a brief conversation with the grandma about biting behavior. She had this bit of “wisdom” to share:
“I had three kids, and all of them went through that phase. Don’t worry, it’s normal. I found that the only way to stop it was to bite them so they would learn how much it hurts. I know it sounds bad, but it worked immediately! My oldest took over the job with his two younger siblings so that I wouldn’t have to bite my own child. Obviously, they were hurt and shocked, but they never bit again!”
It was one of those just-smile-and-nod moments for me, but on the inside, I was telling this woman, “oh sure, I’ll bite my own child to teach her a lesson … WHEN HELL FREEZES OVER!”As shocked as I was, this advice is more common than I would have imagined. Apart from the fact that I would like to avoid being the reason for any child of mine feeling “shocked and hurt,” I also wouldn’t want my child to get the idea that since mommy bites, it’s OK to bite. Elizabeth Pantley explains why this is such a bad idea:
I don’t adhere to any one parenting philosophy thought up and written down by some pediatrician or guru. I prefer to follow my own instincts, refering to parenting guides when I need help or suggestions for concrete steps I can take to act on those instincts. But I would also say that most of the time, what I believe pretty much matches the princples of attachment parenting, a philosophy that shies away from forcing independence on small children, which encourages parents to respect children as individual human beings (thus, acknowledging the legitimate feelings that caused the inappropriate biting behavior), and reminds us that so many “undesireable” behaviors in children are really just normal behaviors that adults view as being annoying and inconvenient.
Don’t bite your child back to “show him how it feels.” He isn’t purposefully hurting his playmate. He doesn’t understand that what he did is wrong, so by responding with the same action you may actually be reinforcing that this is an acceptable behavior, or confusing him entirely.
As far as I know, Marie has not begun biting other children, but I realize she may pick it up at some point. If and when she does, I know it won’t be easy for me to respond without losing my cool. I know it will probably take a lot of patience and many interventions before she learns to express her frustration without trying to take a chunk out of another child’s skin. I’m not 100% sure what my strategy will be, but thanks to the woman in the café, I know exactly what I won’t do!
For Elizabeth Pantley’s full response on what to do and what not to do about a biting toddler, see this Q & A.