Monday, February 4, 2008

All Apologies

Oh, what a weekend. I am in need of some minor first aid after two days with a two-and-a-half-year-old, one who seems bent on doing me bodily harm.

This adorable boy, this blond, curly-haired little peep of a guy, is having a major meltdown when it comes to his behavior. After over a year of not biting at all, he's suddenly taken it up again with great gusto. Even worse, the head-butting: he pretends he's coming in for a hug, and then he rams his head into your face, splitting lips, bloodying noses. I have a bruise--an actual bruise--on my right cheekbone. I managed to almost successfully dodge him that time.

He is punished every time it happens, and every time we punish him, he seems to express what appears to be real remorse, as if he's forgotten that he's not supposed to do that. These are not my finest moments as a parent--yelling, time-outs, slamming doors. I've got a little of that Irish temper from my paternal grandfather; this behavior is absolutely infuriating to me and it sounds terrible, but I just can't stop myself. Even worse, yesterday he jumped up on my lap to give me a hug and immediately bit me so hard on the shoulder that it made me scream from pain and surprise. This morning, I still have a round bruise there with a few spots of broken skin. And he bit me through a t-shirt.

I bit him back, in the same spot.

I didn't bite him nearly as hard as he bit me--come on, I'm not, like, Britney Spears or something. There's no need to send Child Protective Services to my house. Still, I felt awful immediately. As soon as he realized that he had bit me hard enough to hurt me, he started to cry. He started saying, "Sorry, Mama. I sorry I hurt you." He even got his Curious George and gave him to me as a peace offering. Both of us cried. We hugged and talked it out--it's wrong to hurt people on purpose, and when you bite someone you will always hurt them. Biting is not okay.

Still, all weekend, it was one thing after another. He threw the television remote at Dan and bounced it right off his ribs. Sorry, Daddy. He hit him so hard in the grocery store that he almost dropped him when he was trying to put him into the seat in the cart. Sorry, Daddy. He asked to hold my hand in the car on the way back from Virginia, and pinched me on the arm hard enough to leave a red mark. Sorry, Mama.

Every time, we got an immediate and sincere apology from him, and every time, we punished him nevertheless. Mean, horrible parents! Bad people! Terrible! Right? Okay, well, here's the thing: I think that Max thinks that it's okay to do whatever he wants to someone as long as he apologizes afterwards. By making him say that he's sorry--and we don't make him say it, per se, but we did teach him that when he hurts someone, the kind thing to do is to apologize--I am worried that we're validating this awful behavior.

I really don't think he's too young to understand that actions have consequences, and I know that he's trying to get a reaction out of us. I don't think he's getting the reaction he wants, and his frustration is building, and that's the reason for the escalating violence. I'm just not sure of how to get the message through to him. For a kid who picks things up so quickly, he is just not getting this. Either that, or he's getting it, but he's getting it all wrong, and man, am I taking it on the chin for that. Literally.

I never spank Max, and until this weekend, I have never hurt him intentionally--not even a little. I am more of a time-out, loss-of-priveleges, stern-talking-to kind of parent, known to raise my voice from time to time, even known to slam a door or something when really angered. Dan, on the other hand, is a little more prone to spank, but it's usually in reaction to Max's doing something dangerous or destructive. He got spanked by Dan for jumping on the couch this weekend--sorry, Daddy. And then right back to the jumping. Aaarghh! And if he gets hurt doing something that he has been explicitly forbidden to do, we never punish him further. It just seems cruel to me.

I just am at a loss as to what we should do. Wait it out? It seems clear that this is a phase, but at one point does it go from a phase to a habit to a real problem? Try to figure out what's causing this sudden streak of violence? Well, he's two and a half: that seems to be a key element, from what I understand. Giving him increased attention and affection when he offends seem to be exacerbating the situation, if anything, and I think it may be leading to this attitude of "anything goes as long as I regret it afterward."

Alice at Finslippy talked a few weeks ago about "making" kids apologize, and took a lot of heat because her kindergartener Henry pushed a kid who wasn't following the rules, and then wouldn't apologize to him afterwards. His reasoning: he was going to get blamed for not following the rules, not this kid, and you're really supposed to follow the rules, so why should he say he was sorry. I kind of get it: what's the point in a forced, insincere apology anyway? It reminds me of when I was in fourth grade and made a girl in my class cry by making fun of her weight. The teacher insisted I stand up in front of the class and apologize; I got up, went up to the front of the room, and hissed at her, "Alissa, I'm sorry you're so fat!" I was wrong, I get that. The point, I understand, was to make me empathetic; the result, as it turned out, was to make into a person who'd rather be hilarious just to myself than nice to other people far too much of the time. Also, karma's a real bitch sometimes. Lesson learned.

How do I make Max nice? How do I make him empathetic? How do I make him stop trying to maim me? I know the internet loves to give parenting advice, and in this case, I'm happy to hear almost any of it that you have, as long as it's, you know, constructive. And not about the fact that I bit my kid yesterday morning. Man, I feel awful about that, I don't really need anybody to tell me, "Yeah, don't do that again." But short of those two things, it would be great to get some input. Obviously, kids don't come with instruction manuals, but I'm starting to feel like they maybe should.


merseydotes said...

Oh, sister, I have been there. Well, mostly. Petunia never bit us, but she did go through a biting phase at school last year (at just over three) and then was fine. Then last week, she bit a kid at school, though apparently it wasn't hard and the teachers didn't make too much of a thing of it.

We, too, went through the phase of "well, if I apologize afterward, then it's okay" which is so frustrating. We just kept emphasizing what NOT to do at school and giving punishments (no TV, no playtime that night, whatever) on days when Petunia acted out. Eventually it died down.

Last week, I felt that we could handle the situation differently because Petunia was older, more logical and more communicative. She was telling me the story, "...and Sarah had the pillow and I wanted the pillow and so I bited her." And I said, "Then did you get the pillow? No? Huh. That didn't work? What did you get? Oh, you got in trouble and had time out in the director's office? I guess biting doesn't work very well. You don't get what you want when you bite." And then all night when she wanted dessert or wanted TV or something else that was being withheld as punishment, we would say, "You don't get the things that you want when you bite." It's only been a week but that message seems to have sunk in. It's not especially altruistic but if it gets the job done, I'll take it.

Since Max is so much littler, I would think logic wouldn't work. If I were you, I'd try a 180. Everytime he bites, hits, whatever, you and Dan just get up - without talking - and leave the room where Max is. If Max follows you, leave again and shut the door behind you. After a few instances, I would think even a toddler (they're so good at cause and effect by 2 1/2) would get the idea that "I bite/hit/whatever = I don't get to play with anyone or get anyone's attention; I bite/hit/whatever = I have to be by myself." For a kid who wants to be with his parents or have someone play with him, I'd think that would be a motivating factor. And, hey, you'd get some alone time to cool off!

Assvice concluded.

G said...

New to your blog so not sure of Max's age. I have a 20 month old biter (er, little boy). I have found that he is seriously triggered by teething. He is getting his 2 year molars now so as you can guess we are thick in the middle of a biting phase ... it sucks!

Trust me when I say I have tried everything to get through to him that biting is not okay ... time-outs (didn't work), talking to him about being frustrated (bwahahaha), saying NO BITE! very sternly (he thought this was freaking hilarious and came at me while grinding his little chompers) ... none of it worked.

I finally realized that any response from us ... either good or bad seemed to fuel him to bite more. Now he bites and we get up and walk away. We totally ignore him for about 10 minutes or so. Works wonders.

Good luck

Treen said...

Not that I have kids or any experience in raising them, but I do have experience as a spoiled rotten brat growing up.

I really think that apologies are a moot concept until they are older sometimes. When I was little, my mom sent me to my room for doing something bad. The next day I was in the living room coloring all over the walls and whens he caught me I just informed her that it was ok since I was going to my room RIGHT NOW to think about it.

I'm more of a "I'll bite you back" person too, so I can only imagine what sort of parent I'd be. I remember that the most effective thing for me was a kid was feeling like I had genuinely hurt or upset somebody. Maybe if you act really hurt or sad and then don't do any of the yelling Max might feel bad. He may not fully understand apologies, but he can understand the remorse. Sometimes I think the stern talking to only sort of encourages them to do it again...because to them it just seems a very easy and light punishment. Show him where your marks are from him hurting you.