Boys who nibble on goats—what to do when kids bite

January 1, 2010

Happy New Year.  Now that it’s 2010 I thought I would get right into a nuts and bolts parenting question.  While not every post can possibly apply to every reader, my hope is that general principles, combined with the ethic of caring about each others’ children as well as each other, may at least be a small part of the sort of decade we would hope to co-create moving forward, in contrast with the 9/11-themed decade of fear-mongering, materialism and general collapse out of which we stagger.  While the Chinese say that you should be blessed not to live in interesting times, we’ll have to make the best of the interesting times in which we dwell.

A reader inquires:

“Our son, who is now 2 years and 4 months old, is a fun, happy kid full of curiosity and energy. He has been attending nursery school in the mornings since September. His speech is somewhat behind the median, maybe because his nanny speaks to him in Spanish, or because we just took the pacifier away, or it’s genetic, as his half-siblings did not speak until late. He has many words (hundreds), but forms very few sentences (open door, have this, papa move…).

Two Fridays ago we took the pacifier away during the daytime, and the following Monday he started biting other children at school. The school has been very good about it. They advise us that this is not unusual, and that it’s just a phase, but that for the sake of other parents it has to be resolved quickly. We are to keep talking to him about it, and teach him that there are consequences if he misbehaves, like not being allowed to play with a favorite toy. We were warned that there are no instant results. Unfortunately, the incidences are increasing at an alarming rate. We just cut a trip to Palm Springs short, as he just bit our host’s daughter one too many times, even though we were watching constantly. The biting does not seem to be aggressive behavior, but happens in mid-play, and he bites everyone indiscriminately, my partner, me, his beloved nanny, other kids, our and other dogs, even a goat at the petting zoo. It is not completely spontaneous, as we can sometimes see him being about to bite, and interfere in time.

Our concern is that he does understand at this point that this upsets us. He is getting time-outs, and he cries when he sees a stern talk coming. Even more importantly, he will say things like “never bite”, seemingly out of context. This morning, he said “sorry bite dog” to me, not referring to an incident at that time, but to the day before when he bit our friends’ dog in Palm Springs.

The school director believes this is related to his delayed speech. He is the second youngest child in his class, and some of the other children speak very well. We are worried that he will get kicked out of school as this problem seems to get worse rather than better. We also don’t quite understand why he seems to know he is doing something bad, but does not seem to be able to stop himself.”

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Firstly, you just have to love a kid who would bite a goat.  As far as things to consider in approaching this situation:

1)    Boys vs. girls: Boys mature more slowly than girls, and thus a boy who is second youngest in his pre-school class is at a distinct disadvantage in terms of being seen by mostly female teachers as a pain in the rear end.  Parents must form a good alliance with teachers, but also need to keep in mind that teachers too run out of energy and love kids who want to sit quietly in circle time for a story when many a boy just wants to run around the yard and play with trucks.  This is a general issue about early education where boys are frequently asked to be more contained than they are developmentally ready to do—and then made to feel wrong and bad about themselves for simply being naturally physical and energetic.

2)    Comfort objects:  There appears to be a clear link in this case between taking the pacifier and the biting emerging.  A pacifier is a comfort object, like a teddy bear; if you take it away it can spike anxiety.  It makes sense that with nothing to bite to self-soothe, the child is looking for things he can sink his teeth into.  If the adage holds, “If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail,” perhaps if all a toddler has is an unmet need for a pacifier, then everything looks like something to chomp on.  

3)    Make Directives Followable:  It is very hard for a young impulsive child to do nothing.  Therefore “don’t bite” is much harder to follow than is, “chew on this.”  Providing a bullet or a bit of leather to chomp on (or a pillow, or maybe an apple) might help an outlaw two-year-old redirect his need for rawhide in a pro-social direction.  In general we want to redirect and channel impulses rather than surpress them.

4)    Be mindful of what we reinforce:  When trying to adjust behavior, we have to pay particular attention to where we lavish our attention.  Most kids have a very high responsivity to attention, and they will prefer negative attention (i.e. a “stern talk”) to no attention.  Thus when we call out in anger, stop the presses and ring the alarms every time a child does something “wrong” (from wet the bed, to bite, hit or break things) we inadvertently reinforce the very behavior we wish to diminish.  Imagine if your child’s only metric was how often you directly look at them, stoop down to their level and the number of words you spoke to them (regardless of whether they were praise or reprimand)—this might help you realize that you may be unwittingly encouraging problem behaviors with all your attempts to shock, awe and explain why it’s so bad to bite others.  Consider lavishing praise and attention when a child is drawing, playing or virtually doing anything that is not a problem, while blandly looking at the ceiling when the child acts out.

5)    Pay attention to antecedents:  Look for the patterns of when the boy bites.  Typically it will be at transitions (i.e. from free play to circle time), or when feeling threatened or frustrated.  If we can anticipate when it is about to happen we can intervene and help them find a pro-social way to express feelings and get needs met, which in turn we can reinforce with lots of attention.  Antecedents relate also to consequences that we parents provide in response to behaviors—consequences which are best served up in a neutral manner, and bearing some logical, or “real-life” relationship to the offense in question.  In life, for example, if we bite people they will shun us, so a cool down away from others is a logical consequence, particularly if there is little sturm, drang and drama around it.

6)    Empathy:  Kids younger than five or six are largely pre-empathy (meaning they really don’t fully grasp that biting someone else hurts them just as it would hurt if they were bitten).  There are ways to facilitate empathy (for some thoughts on dealing with six-year-old acting out see:  “When hands get aggressive”: http://tiny.cc/ktUxI), and this is something worth taking up in a future post, but the point here is to keep in mind that a two-year-old who bites is not a “biter.”  The root of shame is when we come to think that our bad behaviors are a reflection of our core character; kids need to be told that they are great kids, and their behaviors, for better or for worse, do nothing to negate the deeper truth that they are wonderful and lovable.  The surest way to turn kids “bad,” is to tell them that they are bad kids.  Too many times I’ve met group home kids who have been in trouble and in the system who were frequently told that they were just like their fathers… who were in jail for doing bad things.  If we want to teach empathy, we need to have empathy for the way our kids experience the world.  Harvey Karp suggests getting down to the toddler level and aping their “me want cookie” level of language; we don’t have to give kids all they ask for, but it helps to mirror back to them that we do understand their wants and feelings.

7)    Story Time: Finally, a great way to facilitate empathy and teach positive behavior might be to make up a story tailored to our objectives.  In this case it might be about a beaver who bites his friends, a rabbit and a squirrel, and is then all alone and sad until a wise old owl explains how biting hurts, but also how biting can be useful.  The beaver then uses biting to build a dam and save the community, after which he has good friends and ice cream.  Not necessarily a Caldecott winner, but you’d be surprised how much better this works for transmitting info than a “stern talk.”  If you’re not feeling creative, just read Where the Wild Things Are which is the consummate story about oral aggression and its transformation (“I’ll eat you up I love you so” is another way of saying “I bite because I want to connect.”  Max learns to say, “No” and thus models setting socially appropriate limits and self-regulation for kids prone to chasing dogs, or goats, with forks.  And after all who doesn’t, from time to time, put on the “wolf suit?”).

As for the language development question, at two and change, I think the complete sentences are still likely to fall well into place in good time (and a consult with a speech therapist might be a touch premature at this juncture); besides, kids get kicked out of preschool for biting, not for not talking so let’s tackle the toothy issue first.  As it turns out, I heard from this reader a follow-up bit of information from the very next day: the child reached across the check-out counter at the market, took the cashier’s hand and said, “Pleased to meet you.”  This sounds like a very smart kid who is transitioning from his pacifier, but who may also need a greater level of stimulation, challenge and engagement to keep him on track.  Idle teeth are the devil’s playground… and thus the goat.

So, let’s dedicate today to helping kids who bite find a loving limit that they can sink their teeth into, striving for empathy, understanding and respect for where kids are at—whatever age and issues they may currently face—rooting for this kid, and for all our collective children to know how wonderful they are.

Namaste, Bruce