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Biting Wit

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What should a mother do when her child bites a teacher? Gay Uncle Brett Berk weighs in.

Angry young gril

Gay Uncle Brett Berk: A reader recently wrote in for some advice. Apparently, her five-year-old daughter, Ariel, has been having a tough time at school, acting out in class with stubbornness, tantrums, and disregard. The (skin) breaking point was reached when the girl bit her teacher's wrist. Searching for a way to communicate her displeasure, the mom sat her child down and told her, "Miss Robin loves you, but if you keep being mean to her, she might stop liking you." That night, Mommy felt guilty that she'd destroyed her daughter's self-esteem, chugged three glasses of wine, and drunk e-mailed me.

My general take on talking to kids is this: be positive, set up realistic expectations and repercussions in advance, and by all means, tell the truth. Sadly, this reader's statement fails on all counts. It offers criticism but no constructive pathways for resolving the problem, it's reactive and overblown instead of proscriptive and specific, and most importantly, it's just not true.

As a former preschool teacher, I can tell you, the job isn't about liking (or especially loving) any of the kids you teach, it's about treating them fairly and helping them through things, which means providing the illusion that you care and want to help, regardless of their behavior. It was rarely the kids who acted out against me that I disliked -- the kids who freaked, lunged, or had to be restrained. These were the kids who clearly needed my help most. (It was the kids who were indulged, whiny, or manipulative that pushed my hate buttons.) Moreover, statements like this -- what I like to pitch into the bin of "Not Nice" -- are weak and ill-defined, both of which are meaningless to young kids, who need things to be concrete and connected to the situation at hand.

So what to do instead? Well, since the girl is 5, it seems she should be capable of having a discussion about what happened, going through the responses and labeling them appropriate or inappropriate, and coming up with some solutions that don't involve attempting to remove the meat from Miss Robin's arm. Since a tantrum -- and biting -- are usually atypical responses to emotional overload and thus require room for the child to freak out without further input, some part of the solution might involve expressing an understanding of this tumult, and allowing parents and teachers to give her room to erupt without trying to solve for it, lest they end up exacerbating the situation. (See Chapter 8 of The Gay Uncle's Guide to Parenting -- "Pouring Water on a Grease Fire" -- for expert advice on how and why this works.)

Finally, given the fact that making mistakes and testing boundaries is how young children learn how the world functions, kids need to be imbued with an understanding that -- short of shanking their brother or pulling the legs off the family pet -- if they mess up, the people around them will continue to be there for them. This is particularly true of their primary caregivers -- parents, teachers, babysitters -- for whom the job is not about liking or loving. It's about doing the job of helping kids develop. (Also, this mom should make sure Miss Robin is up to date on her shots.)

next: Tragedy and the Power of Social Media
3 comments so far | Post a comment now
kris June 11, 2009, 12:06 PM

I don’t codone or tolerate hitting, or biting. When my child resorts to violence or tanturms that require a note being sent home from school. I strip his room bare of his plush cartoon character bedding, stuffed toys, and posters for 3 days. I replace them with plain white or blue sheet set. Along with a plain blanket for warmth. I talk with him about what happened and I address what he did & what he could have done instead of the misbehavior that resulted in a note being sent home. I restrict his television time and I take away toys, but I also let him know that it’s his actions that disappoint me not him. He sulks but, he knows that there are consequences for acting out and violence of any kind. I don’t know this situation but, I will say that if a child is throwing tantrums this late where were the consequences earlier on that may have curbed this sort of behavior. Children should express their feelings don’t get me wrong but, tantrums are for kids that can’t form the correct words a 5/6 year should they not be able to put in some form of words how they are feeling without resorting to screaming and kicking that most 1-3 yr old use to get their emotional point across, because words fail. My son who is 6 will not fail to let me know when he’s angry, upset, or sad with a decision I make or any situation. I respect his feelings and the fact that he told how he felt so I try to take that into consideration.

Tobin June 13, 2009, 9:35 AM

Brazelton suggests grouping biters.

I say tell the kid we all get really mad but violence is what people do when they can’t figure out wjhat is best to do. If they can’t express it in words, perhaps drawings (my daughter gave me one with a skull and crossbones and boy did she feel better.)
I would never restrict TV because it makes it seem speacial. Also, 15 minutes of being a zombie gives the emtions a rest.
All kids need to be taken out to run and climb and play outside to the point of exhaustion sometimes.

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