The memory is still fresh: I take my daughter to her pediatrician for her 18-month-old checkup, and he asks me, “Any hitting, kicking or biting?” Just like that! I thought, “This man is a genius! A mind reader! How did he know I was about to bring that up?”
What followed was a discussion about how toddlers her age, up through preschoolers, frequently talk not through words, but through physicality. If another child grabs your child’s toy, he or she is just as likely to reach out and hit, slap, bite, kick or scratch as to say, “Excuse me? I was using that. May I please have it back?”
But in this world of aggressors and victims, there are some children who cross over between groups, and others who steadfastly remain in one group or the other. All are developmentally “normal,” even though the behaviors of one group lack the social acceptability of the behaviors of the other. It is equally difficult for the parents of the biters as it is for the parents of the bitten. They feel mortified, while the parents of the victims feel outraged. No fun for anyone!
When you put young children together to socialize, they will do what comes naturally at their age and stage of development, and for the child who resorts to physical expressions of frustration over verbal ones, it is our job as teachers and parents to shape and redirect those behaviors while also not stigmatizing the child who bites because he or she has fewer language skills, a quicker temper or the typical low impulse control that characterizes this age group.
No parent enjoys seeing his or her child come home with a bruise or scratch or tooth marks. If this were happening between second-graders, my reaction would be much different than when it happens between 3-year-olds. It would be a completely different behavior if perpetrated by a 7-year-old, and I’d recommend that all adults involved be quite concerned and tenacious in following up on how best to handle the situation.
When 2-year-olds scuffle, it is not because the school is an unsafe place or a teacher is negligent, since these physical interactions happen in every single preschool and day care environment in the world. It is because, no matter how well and closely young children are supervised, a bite happens in a nanosecond.
If a teacher knows to expect it, she can shadow a serial biter (assuming robust staffing). But when a bite happens randomly like a flash of lightning, there is simply nothing teachers can do but treat the injury, soothe the aggrieved child, and explain calmly and repetitively to the aggressive child why it is not OK to bite. At age 2 or 3, there is nothing more a biting child can absorb, and punishment — often delivered minutes or hours later — is useless because by then, the cause of the punishment has been forgotten, if ever properly understood in the first place.
The best remedies are disapproval delivered with a calm but mildly reproachful tone, immediate redirection and time ... time for all involved to settle down, and time for the child who bites to outgrow what may be a distasteful but developmentally “normal” behavior for at least 10 percent of young children.
So, there is no guarantee that your toddler or preschooler will never come home with marks on his or her body, inflicted by a classmate. And if you are the parent of a young child who bites or is in other ways physically aggressive toward peers, can I tell you there is a silver bullet for that, or for your parental embarrassment? Nope. But parents and teachers can work together to teach children more socially acceptable ways of interacting and, at the same time, can wait patiently for them to grow up.
The good news is, they always do.
Lori Day is an educational psychologist, consultant and parenting coach with Lori Day Consulting in Newburyport. Her first book, titled “Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip, and So Much More,” will be published in May.