Young children have so many new and important skills to observe, practice and make sense of. Perhaps their most complicated lessons are the social rules for acceptable behavior. Social rules are often unclear and may vary widely depending upon the situation. For instance, learning the rules about something simple like "pushing" means understanding that, although pushing someone gently while playing is often acceptable, pushing or shoving to get someone out your way is not.

It might seem to you as a grown-up that rules against biting, fighting, scratching and hitting are clear, but that is not necessarily true for very young children, whose first experiences are likely to be purely experimental.

Experimental Behavior

Henry, 2-and-a-half, is excited to be playing his favorite "Lions and Dinosaurs" game with his wonderfully fun big brother, Tom. Tumbling about, they wrestle and try to outdo each other with the loudest and scariest roars. When Henry wetly mouths his brother's arm the first time, Tom giggles. "Look Daddy! Henry thinks he's going to eat me!" Spurred on by his brother's delight, Henry does it again, harder. "Owww! Henry, bit me!" Tom screams in real pain.

Henry is genuinely surprised by Tom's reaction and wonders why Daddy looks so sad and concerned. Henry needs help to learn from this experience.

"Tommy is hurt, Henry. Do you see this red mark on his arm?" Tom helpfully holds out his arm for Henry to see. "Your teeth are sharp and can hurt when you bite someone. I think some ice would make Tommy's arm feel better. Would you like to help me put ice cubes in a plastic bag for him?" Henry is glad to learn how to help Tom feel better and relieved to see his beloved brother look less angry. "Here, Tommy," he says, returning with the ice bag. "You OK now?"

Learning and Practicing

As children learn more words, their "feeling vocabulary" grows and with it, their ability to channel disappointment, frustration and anger into words. Yet, while they are learning, there is often a lag between acquiring the skill and becoming adept at using it. When children slip up and make mistakes, parents must do the best they can to stop their child from hurting and, at the same time, not to react by hurting the child. What is most helpful at this stage is to give children the encouragement and support they need to do what's right.

Three-year-old Molly drags her feet as her mother tugs her across the parking lot. "I know you were having fun, but it's time to go home now." "I don't wanna go home, I wanna keep playing!" Molly wails. "Oh, c'mon, it's not the end of the world. Just get in your car seat." Boosting her daughter into the car, the mother gasps when Molly forcefully kicks her. Before she knows it, her hand flies out to give Molly a smack. Catching herself just in time, she pushes the child into the seat and buckles it. The tears stinging her eyes mirror her daughter's noisier tears. "I can't believe I almost slugged her! What should I do differently if this happens again?"

In the busy lives of parents and children today, they are often together during times of great pressure, such as getting from one place to another on time. Children's coping skills are less developed and reliable than those of adults, which is why they still resort to "blowing up" physically while they are learning how to express their feelings in other ways. Molly needs encouragement and support to express her frustration without hurting others and before her feelings build to a blow-up.

Leaving the day care building, Molly drags her feet to slow her mother down. "I can see you don't want to go home. Were you having fun?" her mother asks. "I finally got my turn to wear the princess dress. I had to wait till Maya went home," Molly replies heatedly. "You just got to wear the princess dress?" her mother echoes, then adds, "Is that your favorite dress-up dress?" "Yeah, it's never my turn to wear the princess dress. It's not fair! And you're not fair, too!" "Sounds like you are really angry with me," her mother says, staying focused on her daughter's feelings and careful not to take offense. "Yeah, you're mean," Molly replies, but with less anger. "Right now, you're thinking I'm a really mean mommy and you are feeling mad and sad about not getting to wear the princess dress. Is that right?" "Yeah, that's right," Molly sighs. She is still sad, but she also feels calmed and comforted by her mother's understanding. The rest of their trip home passes uneventfully.

Power and Revenge

By the time children begin preschool, most have learned there is a no-hurting-other-people rule. Yet they might still resort to hurting when they see the need to exert either power or revenge. Such situations call for upholding firm limits along with new lessons in problem solving.

Four-year-old Soraya is very angry. Her new nursery school teacher has repeatedly said "No" without further explanation to her demands for more glitter, then for the clay and finally for glue. "This isn't right!" she thinks. "My last teacher let us have that stuff whenever we wanted it." Stung into action, she tries a new tack. With fingers bent like claws, she rakes her nails down the teacher's arm. After her teacher grabs her firmly by the wrists and says, "NO scratching!" Soraya spits at her.

Soraya tried scratching and spitting to get her way and get even. She knows that hurting is wrong, but she needs to learn better ways to solve her problems.

While the classroom aide takes Soraya for a brief cooling-off walk, the teacher takes several minutes to calm down. Then she approaches the defiant little girl. "I wonder what you wanted to say to me-is there something you are angry about?" "Not talking to you," Soraya hisses. "Okay, but I want to hear what you have to say because I'm guessing you have a problem and I'd like to work together with you to solve this problem." Soraya shrugs, but looks curiously at her teacher.

Biting, kicking and scratching are difficult issues for parents and teachers because they can be so personally hurtful and upsetting. Yet even these situations can be valuable learning opportunities for children, especially when the adults remain calm and compassionate.


Emory Luce Baldwin is a family therapist and certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program. PEPparent.org.