I think this story beautifully illustrates why we should make no assumptions when a 2-year-old hits another child. I hope it also shows how taking a lazy short cut, like spanking or scolding, would have only served to further bewilder a child who was already confused about hitting.
My first day teaching the Pre-3 class was an eye-opener. A boy was crying, probably because someone was playing with a toy he wanted. Ellie rushed over and started pummeling the poor kid. She rained blows down upon his head and shoulders like no body’s business. There was absolutely no malice in Ellie’s face as she did this. In fact, she looked almost like she was just taking care of a necessary piece of business.
Over the next few weeks, I found Ellie to be a happy, loving, very verbal little girl, but whenever a classmate cried her response was to start beating on him. I tried repeatedly to get her to tell me something that would give me insight into what she was thinking before she finally said, “I want him to stop crying.”
I answered, “But when you hit him, it hurts him.”
The blank stare followed by a quick change of subjects was enough to tell me that as delightful and articulate as she was, Ellie was not ready to comprehend the concept. Clearly, she knew there was a connection between hitting, hurting and crying, but the wires in that connection were crossed.
After that, when a child cried I let another adult tend to him, while my first order of business was to find Ellie, shadow her, and grab her wrists just before the fisticuffs. I would then help her to gently pat her crying friend by guiding her hands with my own, kind of like she was my own personal soothing puppet. She soon got the hang of it, eventually turning those gentle strokes into hugs. Of course, at first, the hugs were overly enthusiastic and tended to wind up with both kids falling to the floor, but once again, employing the time-tested scientific method of trial and error she figured that one out too.
This is real work, even if it sometimes just looks like mayhem. We expect every child to learn these basic lessons. Thankfully they don’t all have to learn it the hard way.
But some do.
(Reprinted, with revisions, from 8/12/09)