That hitting thing…

Kids Wall 2

Toddlers hit. Not all toddlers. But a lot of toddlers. Like, almost all toddlers, at least some of the time. And some of them—not a few, either, a lot—go through phases when they hit all the time. Attachment parented toddlers hit. Breastfed toddlers hit. Bottle-fed toddlers hit. Babyworn toddlers hit. Toddlers of parents who never raise their voices hit. Really. It’s not just your little guy.

When my first little guy when through this hitting phase, I felt incredibly isolated. Alone. And judged up the wazoo. Here’s our story.

From Life’s Archives. “That Hitting Thing,” March 8, 2006. Cinder’s not quite four; Flora’s one and change.

2006. It happened today, in the playroom, and my head is still whirring. “Flora!” Cinder yells. “You wrecked my tower. That bothers me! Bothers me! I am so angry I want to hit you! But I don’t want to hit you! Grrr!” I poke my head in from the hallway. Cinder is standing closing and opening his fists and breathing. He sees me looking, looks at me. “I didn’t hit Flora,” he announces. “But I’m not proud of you!” he yells at her. She gurgles and hands him a Lego block. They start building the tower together.

I’ve been waiting for this day for… what, two years? Two years to the day, I think. And I know today isn’t the cure. It’s not the turn around, the end. He will hit his little sister again, probably later today. He will push her, pinch her. But he’s working through it—we’re muddling through it, he’s “getting” it. And the fact that this huge emotional break through—this discovery by himself that just because he wants to hit he doesn’t have to hit—has come on the heels of eight nights of peeing the bed puts all sorts of things into perspective for me. Makes me feel not quite so resentful as I wash the sheets and covers for the ninth day in a row…

I’ve been delaying posting this “hitting thing” exposition until I felt I could clearly articulate where we were, why, and how we got there. I don’t think that’s going to happen in the next few weeks or even months. But based on some conversations I’ve had with other mothers of closely spaced siblings—particularly when the older is a boy!—I think this is a story that must be told, in all of its messiness.

The back-story: We sleep-shared, baby-wore, breastfed, bonded, loved him unconditionally 24/7 and then some. He lived in an environment where no one was hit, where no one was yelled at—not even the dog. He was our perfect attachment parenting little baby… and then, at about 19/20 months of age, it started. The hitting.

I still remember the first time it happened, because the irony of it is so huge: I was doing volunteer work as a mothering mentor of sorts for at-risk families, talking about her baby with a new mom, when my calm, affectionate, loving little boy toddled over to the corner of her living room, picked up a hair brush, toddled over to the baby’s older sister, and whacked her with the hair brush. I freaked, the mom freaked… bad scene does not begin to describe.

The six most stressful weeks of my life followed. I hovered. I redirected. I said, “We do not hit.” I said, “Hitting hurts.” I said, “Nobody ever hits Cinder, so Cinder doesn’t hit anybody.” I said, “You are so strong, you have to take extra care with other people.” And I did versions of “time-outs,” too, I suppose, at least as far as removing him from the room/space in which the hitting occurred. After a family yoga class at which he methodically went around the room hitting each child in turn, I just about stopped socializing with other people. And just as I was about to throw myself off the Prince’s Island overpass bridge because obviously I was the worst mother in the world and did not deserve to live… the hitting stopped. A huge vocabulary explosion followed.

Fast-forward to age 26 months—just as I’m congratulating myself of having entered the “terrific twos” with a terrifically well-adjusted, affectionate, non-tantrumy little boy—all because I attachment parent of course. Because the universe loves irony, I’m once again in a volunteer mothering mentor kind of situation, offering myself as a fount of parenting wisdom as my 26-month-old picks up a toy plane and throws it, as hard as he can, at her 26-month-old’s head…

Just under four weeks of “oh, my God, why this again?” follow. I start reading discipline books, try a little bit of this, a little bit of that, some of which sometimes appears to work and sometimes not. Pregnant with child number two, I envision her meeting an early death as a result of being clubbed on the head with a dinosaur. I focus on the mantra, “Big people take care of little people”—unfound in any discipline book, article or resource—because at the very least I don’t want Cinder to hit babies. That seems to work… at the zoo, Cinder carefully sizes up potential targets and starts belting eight-year-olds in the stomach. He also starts hitting Daddy and Mommy. And just as I think, “Oh god, how did I create this monster,” it’s gone… and my 27 month old can count to four and compose pretty elaborate sentences.

Two months later (29 months) there is another flare-up—a mercifully shorter 10 days—accompanied by Cinder’s first throw-on-the-floor scream and kick temper tantrum. But I’m a little more aware this time, and relate the behaviour to some scheduling changes going on in our home, Daddy working longer hours, and me feeling wretched and stressed as a result of some pregnancy-related test. When I realize the hitting seems to have subsided, I also notice Cinder has started identifying a bunch of letters—and tells me that a Q looks like an O with a tail.

Flora is born when Cinder is 2 years and seven months old (the “problem” behaviour that emerges here is whining—but other mothers don’t hate you because your child whines, so we’re flying). He spontaneously toilet-trains at 2 years and nine months. At two years and 10 months (34 months), he erupts again. Two really bad weeks; primary target, our dog. (“We do not hit Anya! We love Anya!” “But I love to hit Anya!”).

At this point, I’m groking onto the fact that this hitting thing, it’s not about hitting at all. It’s a symptom of something big happening inside. But I still don’t know how to deal with the immediate behaviour. “We do not hit!” in a stern voice as I carry him to a different place is probably what I do most often, and I say this not as a strategy I recommend, but simply to share with you what I’m doing to “feel” I’m doing something. Two more weeks of less frequent Anya attacks follow, then almost three months of peace.

And then Flora turns six months, start sitting, crawling, playing with Cinder’s toys… Cinder goes from having had virtually no accidents to wetting his pants two, three, four, six times a day. And pummeling his little sister. The silver lining here, if you’ll forgive me for calling it such, is that now that he has Flora to push, pinch and hit… he hardly ever hits anyone else’s children. Except when we go to Mom and Tots yoga (I stop going to yoga). Or the Market Mall playground (ditto).

The crappy rain cloud: the pummel Flora phase lasts for months. What am I saying, it’s really not over yet. Although it did peak when she’s about nine months, and then sharply declined… unless he really has to pee. Or she wrecks his Lego tower.

Just as I start to rejoice that we have seen the last of what I by now call “caveman inside,” phases, at 3.5 Cinder starts… growling and pushing. But only at other boys, only of almost precisely his age. He is the embodiment of love, affection and good manners with girls of all ages. Smaller boys may elicit a growl or a shoulder check, but a quick “Big people take care of little people” from me is sufficiently enough to have him say, “Huh!” and storm off. Put him in the company of another three or four-year-old boy… there will be, at the very least, one hearty shove. There have been punches.

And that is where we are at right now. These days, when that happens, all I’ll say is, “We don’t play like that,” and, if it’s a stranger, give the child a quick apology and take Cinder away, if it’s a friend, redirect the boys together back to their play. I’m happy to say that I can’t think of the last time Cinder *hit* a child (other than his sister), but the growling and pushing… well, I pretty much just have to look back at the last time he encountered a boy of similar age.

If it’s Flora, I’ll scoop her, redirect her first, then bring Cinder back to us, do something so that he touches her or she him in a good way… and then take him to the toilet. 🙂 Unless I’m operating on 45 minutes of sleep, of course, in which case, something like “Why oh why do you hit your sister? Are you trying to drive me crazy?” will come out of my mouth… ah, those stellar parenting moments.

Do I think I have an aggressive son? A “bad” boy? No, absolutely not. But I do have an extremely physical little boy who under certain conditions hits other children.

“Disciplining” that is very very hard. This is what I think: I think I exacerbated Cinder’s hitting stages by focusing on them too much. This is all guess work, of course, because I can’t go back and do it another way. I don’t think there’s anything I could have done to eliminate these hitting flare-ups—the hitting has always been an expression of frustration, working something out, and the episodes of whacking everyone in sight were followed by major developmental breakthroughts—and ended just on their own. But I do believe each flare-up would have been way shorter and less intense if I hadn’t freaked, if I hadn’t made a big deal out of it, if I hadn’t hovered, stressed, talked myself blue in the face about how we don’t hit, how hitting is bad, if I had just, at that 20 month mark, calmly said, “Ouch, that hurts,” or “We don’t do that” instead of acting and projecting like the world had just ended and my son had just done the worst thing ever—and then continuing to act more or less like that every time he hit.

In retrospect, what made even thinking rationally about this whole topic, let alone searching for an effective solution, so difficult is, well, good old peer pressure: the perception—one rightly held, too—that other parents expected me to react to this situation in a very strong way and that if I didn’t I would be a bad—or at least ineffective—mother.

When your child hits another child—well, that’s pretty much the worst thing that can happen, right? Is there anything else your child can do that can reduce you so immediately to feeling like an utter failure as a parent? If your child is the victim, and is hit, what do you want the other mother to do? You want her to say, “No! We don’t hit!” You want her to acknowledge that a bad, unacceptable thing happened, and you want her to do something about it. If all she does is removes her child and doesn’t make a big fuss about yours or the terrible thing her child did to yours, you feel she is not parenting effectively. You feel angry. Heck, I feel like that—when my (still perfect, not-hitting) 15-month-old was pushed by an older boy at playgroup, absolutely, I was angry at the boy, at his mother… probably at the absent father too.


[a few days later] I had written the above about a week ago. I was in the bathroom with Flora, brushing our teeth, and “reading it” over in my head, wondering if it was accurate, if “this is where we’re at” was really were we are at, and whether the way I had presented the situation would be helpful to anyone. In comes my Cinder. I smile down at him, full of love and reflection… and he kicks Flora’s legs from under her. In the second during which I bent to scoop her, he winds up and kicks me in the shin. And, not mindful of any of the above, I holler, “Jesus Christ Cinder, why did you do that?” He bursts into tears. I take a deep breath, go down on the floor. “Why did you kick Flora? Why did you kick me?” I say as I think that it useless, useless to ask that question. “Well,” he sobs, “I just wanted to kick something. And there you were.”

I offer a list of things that it’s okay to kick—balls, rocks, snow… “Walls?” he asks. I don’t know. Do I want him kicking walls? “Balls are best,” I say. “Air, you can just make kicks in the air…”

About three days of periodically kicking Flora, the dog… and when available, balls (I try to have a few in every room) follow.

Based on recent events I suspect the next thing is going to be spitting…


To be continued as he grows and as I learn, I suppose. I often think of this aspect of parenting Cinder as the universe’s way of teaching me humility. And perseverance. And patience. And all those other virtues with which nature has not endowed me…

2012. What you want to know: “Cinder’s almost 10. He doesn’t hit anymore, does he?” Well. Yes and no. This essential hasn’t changed: Cinder is physicality incarnate. The toddler who needed four hours of exercise a day became a six-year-old who needed as much, and a 10-year-old who probably needs even more. When Cinder gets angry—with you, with himself, with the world—his body feels it and expresses it. Most of the time, he will take himself away and run, run, run—or wallop the punching bag. Or the couch, or the tree, or the rock. That is his release. Occasionally, he will lash out at his siblings—the elder, more verbally provocative Flora much more so than little, but going through his own “hitting thing” phase Ender. But any time that happens, it’s an aberration—it’s not the way things are. It’s emphatically not the norm.

Strangers? He punched a boy last summer. I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to say that. And you gasp. But see: one incident. One “he punched a boy last summer” I point to. Another “he pushed a girl the summer before last.” Isolated incidents. Accompanied by provocation—which doesn’t make the hitting/shoving okay, but for the mother of the toddler who just hit “because I want to hit something!” an important distinction. Isolated incidents. Not a pattern.

July 16, 2013. And at 11, how is Cinder? Pretty darn amazing. And Ender? Ah. Ender is 3.5. Fortunately, he has an older brother who sets limits and consequences on that hitting thing much better than an AP mother would ever dare… but that’s another story…

16 thoughts on “That hitting thing…

  1. Emma is just about 4 years old now and I have seen her grow up so much in the last year alone and you are right it is like a switch for so much at this age, even the hitting, which lately seems to be under control here, too. But then you have Lily who still not even 3 years old yet and the fun times with hitting and so much more just keep on coming. Thankfully like you I am aware it is a phase, but yes I still try to teach right from wrong as much as I can.

    • Four is such a massive switch isn’t it? And it’s hard with the younger one — you’ve got this dual mind set of “yes, I know it’s normal and it will pass” but also a “But your older sibling understands!” reaction. Persevere. xoxo

  2. I love this post! I have 3 kids who never really hit. But my 4th is giving me a run for my money. It has taught me a lot about not judging parents. I used to think kids who hit had bad parents – I now realize I was SO wrong!! We are a total love filled home like you sound.

  3. Bless you for this. It’s so refreshing to hear another mother say that things aren’t always roses and sunshine. My struggle is with biting. My daughter refuses to let me put a toothbrush in her mouth, so I have to use a cloth over my finger. And she likes to bite me when I do it. It frustrates me to no end, but those teeth need to be brushed, and she’s not old enough to really understand what “no” means. To her, it’s just a reaction. And she likes reactions. But I know it’s just a phase. And I know I need to stop getting myself into a tizzy over it. Because the more I react, the more she does it. But bloody hell, it hurts!!!

    • I think the biting thing is even harder than the hitting thing, because eventually you learn to duck that toddler wallop, but biting happens much more quickly and at the most unexpected of moments! Persevere. xoxo

  4. I can’t believe how difficult it is to deal with hitting. My son is two, and he’s had a few phases so far — I’m sure there will be more! — when he hit. When you think about the toddler brain, how fast it’s developing and how frustrated they get that their verbal abilities don’t match everything that they’re thinking about, it makes perfect sense that they would become physical. But even if you know that it’s often developmentally “normal” — whatever that means — you know it’s something you don’t want to encourage and something that can be downright embarrassing and upsetting. Thank you so much for this!

  5. My older two never hit, and I think in some part of my mind I thought it was something I had done right. Then my third child came along (8 years later) and pretty much knocked me off my parenting pedestal. It wasn’t even hitting so much (if I remember correctly) it was just his whole being. A classic “spirited child”, not calm or quiet or well-behaved. At playgrounds and homeschooling get-togethers I had to chase him constantly, stay right on top of him. What an eye-opener. And yes, we had done everything “right”- a peaceful water birth, nursing on demand and co-sleeping from birth, gentle parenting. None of that changed his personality. He’s also my only kid with food sensitivities and a true allergy (tree nuts) and I think there is often a connection between allergic kids and behavior.
    Now, 11 years later, he’s a calm, quiet kid most of the time. In group settings he’s actually far on the peaceful, gentle end of the spectrum. But he’s still spirited with his family, and I have come to understand that children each have their own unique personality and people need to be very careful before making blanket assumptions about behavior in kids. It drives me crazy now, when I hear moms of easygoing kids act like they get the credit for it, that’s it’s all about good parenting. It’s so much more complicated than that. I still think mindful parenting matters, a lot, but it is much harder to be a mindful parent to some children.

    • The universe abhors a self-righteous mother. Sooner or later, she will have to parent a Cinder… or see her easy-going sweetheart enter a challenging phase she’s unprepared for. And you know–the longer I’ve been on this path, the more I believe: mindful/attachment/respectful/whatever-you-want-to-call-it parenting matters–for YOU, the mother, the father, to be the person you want to be. Its impact on our kids? Around the edges, in broad outlines. We nurture habits, routines, rhythms… the essentials, the core–they are what the cosmic dust made them…

      As I write the above, I realize I’m really writing a lie. We are not quite that irrelevant. A child brought up in a respectful, loving household will not have the same experience, will not have the same… habits, whatever as a child raised in an abusive household. But… I do think we put too much emphasis on what the “right” parenting (whatever that is) will accomplish. Except in how it affects and shapes us the parents as people… Does that make sense?

      • Yes, and I’ve thought so much about this since having a more “challenging” child. If anything, he was my one child to be born when I was fully ready, when my ideas about parenting were more fully formed, when our family was stable, etc. I had the most to give, I figured raising this child would be a breeze; and instead it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.
        So yes, I think we do the right thing, as parents, because it’s the right thing to do. Not because we expect a certain result. I can also share the flip side- having kids who behave awesomely when they’re young doesn’t necessarily translate into smooth sailing later on. My oldest has been on his own path now since he was about 14, and while I’m enormously proud of him and miss him terribly (he lives far away from us); he is not the person I envisioned when he was little. He’s himself. Our kids are themselves, they’re not our creations. I work hard to be a good mom because I love my kids, and at this point that’s the only reason- I no longer see my kids as a reflection of myself, if that makes sense 😉

  6. I can’t begin to tell you how much comfort I find in these stories. My 3 yo son reminds me a lot of your Cinder stories. He pinned a 6yo at a play place this month and I nearly died on the spot. Reading this make me feel more optimistic. Thank you Jane.

    • 3.5 is hell for those types of boys. Just warning you. Be prepared. And then, 4, 4.5–the impulse control starts to kick in… and it’s beautiful to see. And you know what? When they master calmness, coping–when they learn to walk away or climb a tree or whatever instead of walloping someone–the joy, the joy… 🙂

  7. So much good stuff here. First, it’s always comforting to hear that “you’re not the only one.” Second, we seem to go through cycles, depending on our son’s interests at the time, who he has been playing with lately, etc. He’s a very physical kid too (I think you used that phrase above) so we try to direct his abundance of energy into bike riding, climbing, running. (He’s currently jumping off the coffee table into a cardboard box because, well, it’s fun. I figure it’s getting the hitting bug out of him. We’ll see around bed time…)

  8. Five of us, and at some point, we all hit each other all the time, with various degrees of intensity and then eventually it just stopped. But: when my #3 sister was born, my #2 sister (then four, previously even-tempered and usually quite jolly) randomly started biting people. Me (two years older), the girls next door we played with, the toughest/bully 8 year-old boy down the street, my mother, the teen baby-sitter, and, twice, the dog (tail once, foot once. Ew). Dad was for some reason exempt; fortunately, so was the newborn. My mother was frantic (especially about the dog and the bully, either one of which could’ve bitten back). The pediatrician said, “Bite her back. Not in the heat of an incident, but calmly, in the context of This is Not OK.” Gasps. Horrors. Can’t do it. Days go by, more chomping, and fears that indeed, the baby might be next, since obviously the baby was the catalyst. Finally, my mom sat down on the floor with #2, used her tenderest voice and said, “This is what it feels like when you bite people” and very carefully sunk her teeth into #2’s fat little forearm. Tears running down Mom’s cheeks all the while. #2 blinks, howls, makes every form of “You have betrayed me, Devil Mother!” shriek, kicks and hollers, gets very quiet, and never bites anybody again. Many years later, Bully Boy went to jail for systematically robbing houses in the neighborhood when people were away. *Insert “It’s totally your fault, #2, you traumatized him!” jokes here.* When my son spent an entire afternoon time-out in his room drawing a mural on his bedroom wall with every crayon in the box, all I could think of was, “Well, at least he isn’t out there chomping people.” Kids are just a little wacky sometimes.

  9. Pingback: “The child weaned from mother’s milk…” | Nothing By The Book

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