I can’t remember the first time my child hit someone. He began acting out shortly after his brother was born, and who could blame him? He was not quite two, still breastfeeding and used to having all of my attention. Practically overnight, there was someone else attached to my breast, and in my bed, and my attention span was shot. I was so overwhelmed I barely remember my second-born’s babyhood, or my oldest son’s second year of life.
The hitting occurred with Green Eggs and Ham precision, executed by a short ninja lurking in the folds of my skirt. It happened in a car, on a plane, in a driveway, in the rain. It happened at the toy store, when he socked somebody who got in the way of the Thomas Train set. It happened at his birthday party when he pushed his buddy into an open toy chest, and at a Mommy and Me class, where he raked his nails down another boy’s cheek for reasons unknown. After apologizing, I fled the class in shame, never to return. I tried time-outs and other consequence-based punishments that did no good. I yelled often. I grabbed his arm much harder than necessary and put him in his room, to sit it out in solitary confinement. I bought him toys to distract him. Having been myself a mellow, sleepy girl child, I had absolutely no clue what to make of his behavior. The TV was a primary ally. It kept him out of my hair and out of trouble. I wasn’t too concerned about what he watched as long as it was a children’s show.
When he started preschool, I was treated to daily reports of which child my boy had hit or kicked or, occasionally, bitten. One assistant said his behavior seemed “violent.” The bully word was thrown around. No one offered me any advice or asked any questions. I would go in with my head down, listen, apologize, grab my son and go. The preschool was staffed primarily by aides who began the children’s day with a big cinnamon roll or some other sugary snack. That probably did not help my child’s behavior! If it rained, or when fires ravaged our coast and rendered the air unsafe, they wheeled out a TV set and put in a movie. They dealt with negative behavior through admonishments and time outs, but they seemed overwhelmed with the class as a whole and I didn’t get a sense of how I could improve my son’s behavior when I wasn’t physically present.
We moved on to a Montessori school nearby. I continued to receive similar reports, but the treatment was much different. “We explained to your son that his hands got him in trouble today,” the gentle Sri Lankan teacher would tell me. “I’m certain it won’t happen again.” Once more, he had scratched someone’s face, hard. I had forgotten to trim his nails. I felt like the world’s worst parent. I lived in terror of some mom or dad tracking me down and screaming at me for my child’s behavior. The teachers were wonderful. They saw the good in him, the kindess and athleticism and enthusiasm. Never was my child called a bully at Montessori. I’m grateful for that. He didn’t seem to target anyone specifically; his behavior appeared based on rash impulses that even he didn’t understand. If someone did something he didn’t like, hitting was his go-to response. I was still at a loss- what do I do as a parent when I’m not there to stop the behavior? I continued on with time-outs and punishments at home and they were all ineffective. The TV was my co-parent during the day. I knew I had to limit how much he could watch, but I found ways to make it okay, as long as it was PBS, or a nature program, or something that seemed benign. We had a stack of Baby Einsteins in constant rotation.
Then I found the Waldorf school. I had known about Waldorf for years, but had not realized they had an early childhood program that included moms. That was the beginning of the journey home for us. Within the first week, my son had taken one of the beautiful hand-carved wooden blocks and slammed it into another boy’s shoulder. My heart sank. I apologized profusely to him and his mother. I spoke sharply to my son. The other mother put her hand on my arm, looked kindly into my eyes and shook her head. “You never have to apologize to me,” she said. “These things happen.” She had an active boy too. I felt myself exhale. I wanted to cry with relief. From then on I shadowed him in the class. The calmness and orderliness of the environment seemed to soothe him. I watched as his teacher gently took the hands he was about to use to throw a block at someone and placed them firmly on the structure he was creating. He forgot about the throwing and began to build.
Redirecting behavior is a big thing at Waldorf. Keeping one’s hands busy. If the busy hands find themselves smacking one’s classmate, those hands will gently be placed in warm water to wash dishes, or wrapped around a broom to sweep outside. There are no time-outs, and no shaming. Negative behavior is not tolerated, but rather transformed into a more acceptable activity. “We do not hit. You may join me in sweeping the walkway,” the teacher would say. I was amazed that this actually worked. Of course, there were times when a child was too tired, or not feeling well, and could not cope. Then they would be asked to go home and rest and get a fresh start the following day. Most importantly, they were never blamed for their behavior. Blaming implies the person has made a conscious choice, and small children are not yet in that sort of linear mind zone. I had been treating my child as if he had a thirty-something brain, and he was only five!
My son was happy at Waldorf, but I had yet to change anything at home. Our trials continued. Finally my son was sent home for throwing another child from the playground equipment. He was playing pirates and, I guess, wanted her off the ship. She had landed on her back and was okay, but scared. Her mother had picked her up earlier. The teacher and I discussed the incident and she asked my about his TV habits. She said behavior at this age was imitative and it seemed he had been acting out something he had seen.
I thought back guiltily to a movie the night before. It had not even been a G movie and there were some scenes I could imagine he’d copied. For the first time I understood the fact that I had to support the teachers by making changes at home. Clearly, my son was sensitive to his environment and I needed to remove what was overstimulating him, as well as avoid things that might set him up for failure, like putting him to bed at 10 p.m. (which I had done the previous evening). I had much to work on and I was not sure I was up to the task.
I called my mom, who had been a preschool teacher in the 70s, in tears and told her what had happened.
"People overreact these days!" she exclaimed. "That stuff has been happening since the beginning of time!"
I felt much better. I still knew I had some major changes to make, but it was not the end of the world. We restricted TV to a movie once a week (rented, to avoid commercials). I focused more on my son’s diet and removed most of the gluten (common allergen, can contribute to behavioral issues) and sugar. I read Kim John Payne’s incredible book Simplicity Parenting, recommended by our class teacher. It illustrates four basic tenets of simplifying: environment (remove clutter and excess toys), rhythm, scheduling (simplifying daily routines- minimize errands, don’t put them in too many activities), and unplugging (minimize/eliminate media). Kids in our current environment are so overstimulated that their behavior can be adversely affected; their sleep can suffer and other problems also may result. I realized he had way too much stuff and that was another button of hyperstimulation. The toy room was so full the kids couldn’t even play in it. It was gross. We gave away a lot and could actually see the carpet. Things that made electronic noises or talked on their own were chucked. He could only play with a few things at a time. We’d rotate things in and out once a week or so. He didn’t even seem to notice a majority of his stuff was missing. He played more calmly and for longer periods. That told me a lot.
Waldorf also stresses the importance of a daily rhythm. That, I struggled with until recently, and my older son is in second grade. Routine, to me as an adult, has always equaled boredom. But kids thrive on it. Dinner and bed at the same time every night. Every Tuesday we go to the park after school. That kind of thing. I did it reluctantly, but it’s taken me years to enjoy it. Now I actually find our routine helpful and it’s made me more productive.
His teachers commented on how his behavior had improved. They said that whatever I was doing, to keep it up. I was elated. My son remained a “rascal” of sorts until he reached first grade, but his daily behavior was vastly better in school and out of it. He’s an active, athletic, dynamic child who took awhile to fit his vast stores of energy into his small, developing body. To see him that way, instead of an albatross of humiliation and failed parenting around my neck, was very freeing for me and very beneficial for him. He must have felt my frustration and I don’t doubt it contributed to his behavior. It gave me a sense of power to know that I could make changes that stuck. His evolution (and mine as a parent) has been beautiful.
I shudder to think of how many kids like my son have been medicated to make them more docile.
It tears my heart out to think of how many children are labeled “bullies” and then go on to live up to their reputations.
I am eternally grateful to my community of parents and teachers who were encouraging and nonjudgemental and kind. I had a support network and it gave me the strength to parent the way my child deserved to be parented, to bring out the best in him. It’s never okay for your child to hurt another. It’s up to you as a parent to help guide them out of that behavior. But it’s also not okay to make judgements about another family, or assume a child is just “bad.” Or to call someone a bully. Identifying behavior is one thing, but never, ever label a child.
Unless you want to create the very thing you fear.