Wednesday, January 26, 2011

"But When You Hit Him, It Hurts Him."

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)

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Floor Pie said...
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Floor Pie said...

So true. When Little Girl was two, she pushed a toddler at the Sea-Tac airport. The toddler went down on her bottom, confused but basically okay. Toddler's mom just *bellowed* at Little Girl, called her "bad," made her cry. (My husband was standing right there, dumbfounded. When she saw there was a mother present, too, she backed off...which is strange in itself.) All Little Girl learned from that is that some adults are scary.

Compare that to a playdate at a co-op friend's house. She and her friend were bossing the friend's baby sister around, shouting "Honk honk!" for baby to get out of their way. The friend's mom explained in a kind but firm voice "The baby doesn't know what 'honk honk' means, and it probably hurts her feelings."

The look on Little Girl's face was pure surprise, followed by a close, curious examination of the baby's face. Her expression seemed to say "Babies have FEELINGS?" It was news to her. No question which parent actually helped her learn something about empathy.

Steph at said...

Just found your blog and I think it is wonderful. Thanks for the reminder that there's more than one way to approach a problem.

Deborah said...

Bless here little heart! What wisdom to look for the cause of a behavior rather than just reacting!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the reminder! Sometimes those techniques (that I know to be worth while and true) seemed to be easier to implement when I was the teacher and not the mother. I try to use conflict resolution when ever possible because we adults never really know what the beginning was and it is very unfair to think we know how to end it=) I'm really enjoying your blog and missing teaching very much.

Unknown said...

I've experienced this with several of my 3's. Now, when a child hurts another child, whether on accident or on purpose, I have them help the other child feel better. Often I see a look of confusion, and then the face soften to concern, as they reach out to care for the other child. It turns into a very tender moment for all involved.

BSK said...


That is the routine for conflict resolution in my class (4s and 5s). Children must stop and see what remedies the victim needs. This helps them understand the needs of others, which will vary at times, and also gets them to move beyond an empty, "I'm sorry." They have to stop and ask, "What can I do to help you feel better?" and then follow through. This also requires work on kids making reasonable requests, but it is amazing to see them put it into action independently, even when they were not involved in the "hurting" (such as someone falling down).

TT- New to the blog and loving it. Ended up on the post about bandaids and babies and just did that with my kids this week. Amazing. It's great to find another guy in early childhood. We are few and far between.

Anonymous said...

Outstanding charming compassionate thoughtful blog [generally, not specific to this post].

One question, why the dorky superhero costume?

If I had a wacky costume I would only wear it behind closed doors, at home or in a place with consenting adults, such as comicbook nerds. Disclosure, I like some comic books, but I do not have a superhero costume, only a management consultant suit.

Yours tonguely cheekily