My toddler Max will be turning two in January but he’s been an early developer and is talking and reading at a 3-year-old level. I’m not trying to say he’s smarter or better than other kids, I don’t like comparing kids to each other because they develop at such different rates and in different ways. I just know, individually, my son is very capable of having mature interactions with my wife and I when it comes to reasoning. I also know he is only 22 months old. The juxtaposition makes parenting hard at times because he shows such brilliance at reading, talking, and learning skills…and then he will throw a temper tantrum like a baby…because he is a baby. So how do my wife Kate and I parent him through a hitting phase?
As Max began acting out his emotions (as every toddler does) we instituted “time out” which has worked very well for all of us. Max does something bad and we stop and discuss what he is doing to point out that it is bad. We make sure to include the word of the action and “no, no, no” in the conversation about what he has done wrong. Now (hypothetically) he is educated on what is bad. Next time he does it, it is either because he forgot it is bad (he’s only one and a half) or he is testing to see our reaction. We follow-up with another conversation about “no, no, no” and explain that if he does it again he will have a “time out.” The third time…its “time out.” Max has to go sit in the corner or on a chair with no toys, Kate or I stay in the room with him but don’t pay attention to his crying, and after about 30 seconds to a minute he starts to calm down and whine. We then go over and ask him “what did you do to go in time out?” Max then has to tell us the action such as “throwing the toy” or “tackling the cat.” Next we ask him, “What do you want to say?” He gives us a sad little “Sorry.” We then say, “Okay, time out is over.” He then climbs out of the chair and gets a hug and is asked to give us a kiss which instantly puts a smile on his face. At this moment we calmly reiterate the “lesson” supposedly learned in “time out” while he is happy and has a better attention span. Then he is off to play with his toys.
That process has worked like a charm…till hitting started. The hits always come when he is over excited (excusable) or when he has to transition to something new such as leaving the house or sitting at the table for dinner. He gets frustrated that we won’t let him play with the toilet water or that he has to sit down for dinner so he lashes out at us…usually Kate. He slaps her angrily in the face. Sometimes he’ll run to her and slap her in the leg to show his defiance. So far…that all sounds pretty normal, a toddler acting out because he was told “no” and he doesn’t understand “no” yet. So Max would go to “time out,” we’d discuss, and like all other things it seemed to be getting through to him. Then it changed. It became a game to him.
Max has reached a point where hitting is his funny to him. He will hit Kate just to see what our reaction will be. He’ll hit Kate and then ask, “Max go to time out?” Clearly “time out” was not working for hitting. Some parent friends of ours suggested positive methods like a sticker chart while others said, “He’s a toddler and this is what toddlers do.” Whatever the right method for our Max is, I know “time out” has lost its gusto. So last night I introduced “grounded.”
Max hit Kate. Immediately Kate broke contact with him and explained that hitting hurt her. I took Max and asked Kate to leave the room, which she did. I told Max he was “grounded” and asked him to sit in his chair facing the wall which he did while fake crying. When the fake crying stopped I asked all the same questions I would in “time out” but used the word “grounded” instead. When “time out” would normally end “grounded” continued and Max stayed in his chair, inciting real tears. Next Max and I had dinner without toys or crayons. Then Max got to say goodnight to Mommy without physical contact…no hugs. This was harder on Kate than Max I think. Max and I went upstairs, changed his diaper, got into pajamas, and instead of reading books we discussed why hitting was “no, no, no.” We also discussed how “hitting hurts” and “Max hurt Mommy.” Then Max went to bed without books or any tuck-in routine. He said, “Sorry.” Which was his first unprompted “sorry” of the night which I rewarded him with kisses and hugs. Then I turned off the light and without tears he passed out in less than five minutes.
This morning Max and Mommy were playing nice. I’m sure he will hit again and that we have a long road ahead of us as he is a toddler. However, I also feel that the threat of being “grounded” again may give us a tool to make “time out” effective when he treats it like a game. When he does something bad a quick “time out” is great for stopping the action and giving him a chance to calm down a bit. Adding “grounded” was a response to his real question; “What happens if I keep hitting?” Toddlers explore their worlds and test their surroundings. Max is testing us to see how we will react. Every parent I know says the same thing and I 100% agree, consistency is the key. However, when consistency becomes the thing the toddler knows he can exploit you have to play another card. Hitting is not going to stop overnight…its a phase we are going to have to survive, but how we react to it and deal with it will dictate the intensity and longevity of the phase. My deep desire (which I don’t act on) when Max hits just to get a reaction is to put that kid on my lap and paint his ass red! But how can you teach a toddler not to hit by hitting them? Also, spanking (if you choose this technique) must be reserved for a child that can reason…which a toddler cannot. I was spanked as a child and I turned out fine, but I also remember the very few times I was spanked and how much my behavior was deserving of it. I know in this new world of anti-circumcision vigilantes, vaccination debates, and new-age techniques I am opening myself up to comments about spanking as it is (pun intended) a touchy subject. So to clarify: I am not advocating beating children. I’m not advocating hitting children. My friend David summarized spanking very well by saying, “…the fear or respect of the consequence has to outweigh the desire to act on the action itself. Timeout has become a joke to him… so hitting is funny because he gets time to think about how funny it was. It’s like putting a hand on a hot iron… it usually only takes once to realize you don’t want to do that again. So, an unpleasant feeling associated with the action will reduce or eliminate the action itself.” As Max develops better reasoning skills he needs to either understand that hitting is “no, no, no,” that “hitting hurts,” and Mommy and Daddy won’t stand for it…because if he doesn’t, a tiny spanking may be coming his way. Till that reasoning develops…”time out,” sticker charts, and “grounding” ahoy!