Amateur Parenting

I think my parents misrepresented adulthood. I grew up with the sense that adults knew things. Adults had answers. They not only understood the way the world worked, but they also possessed some level of power over the workings of that world. But as an adult myself, I find this not to be the case. With few exceptions, I see adults (including myself) just kind of flailing about, trying to make things work either by copying the ways we’ve seen it done before or by actively rejecting those lessons, not taking a conscious role in designing the world.

We adults are a bunch of amateurs, and that’s disappointing to me, especially when it comes to trying to figure out how to raise my kids and especially when there’s a particular childrearing issue that needs tackling. Like now.

My son’s three, and he’s begun hitting, punching, kicking, pushing, and head-butting. His sister is his primary target. When his sister was three, she went through the same stage, only she had no siblings so she had to beat up on the cats (our poor, patient cats). We tried many, many solutions (including ones that were not in line with our parenting philosophy) but never figured out an effective way to deal with her cat-injuring behaviors. Eventually I gave birth to her brother and she started beating up on him and we ended up seeing a child psychologist and her behavior improved and we had a blissful two years until her brother entered the same darned stage and we’re left scratching our heads about how to manage this yet again.

My spouse and I reject corporal punishment in raising our children, but spanking and yelling were both parts of our own childhoods, and I still have those scripts running through my head. When my son hits his sister, the first thing that comes to mind (after the panic that my toddler is hurting my daughter) frequently involves corporal punishment. I don’t want to spank so I yell (because I have some (admittedly illogical) sense that shock effect is important). And by the afternoon when he’s just injured his sister for the seventeenth time that day, I’ve worked myself into the thought that yelling isn’t enough so I need to YELL LOUDER because what else am I supposed to do?

And no, I don’t think that screaming at my three-year-old is a reasonable way to handle the situation. Not only does it leave me feeling like a big, awful bully, screaming at him doesn’t stop the behavior. It’s just what I come to when I feel utterly out of options.

So, I decided to try and give myself more options.

I re-skimmed several parenting books (Positive Discipline for Preschoolers by Jane Nelsen, Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, and Respectful Parents, Respectful Kids by Sura Hart and Victoria Kindle Hodson) and figured out a new plan to try. It feels a little touchy-feely to me, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, so I’m giving it a go.

When my son hurts his sister (or is about to, if I can catch him beforehand), we do four things:

1) Hit pause. I stop whatever I’m doing and hold him in my lap to gently restrain him to stop the behavior in the moment.

2) Talk about his feelings and needs. What was he feeling when he hit/punched/slapped/scratched? What need was he trying to meet?

3) Talk to my daughter about her feelings and needs. What did she feel when her brother hit/punched/slapped/scratched?

4) Discuss alternatives. How can my son meet his needs in a way that doesn’t hurt his sister?

My goals with this intervention:

1) Connect with my son. I don’t want him to feel alone with his Really Big Feelings.

2) Develop awareness and compassion. In all three of us, I hope.

3) Teach that there are alternatives to hurtful behavior. A lesson I’d like to internalize more thoroughly myself.

By focussing on feelings and needs—both his own and his sister’s—I hope my son will get into the habit of self-compassion and empathy. I’m convinced that people only hurt others if they themselves are suffering. By helping my children learn to identify their feelings and needs, I hope they will gradually learn to do so without my help and that they will be less likely to hurt others (and themselves).

I’ve been doing this for one full day. Already my children have changed how they speak to each other about my son’s hurtful behavior. The hitting hasn’t stopped, but I try to remind myself to be patient. It’s only been one full day and this is a major shift in how I’ve been handling this particular issue.

Why am I blogging about it? I know there must be other parents out there who are flying by the seat of their pants with a parenting style that’s not the one they inherited from their parents, and I guess I thought reading about someone else’s fumbling attempts to raise compassionate children might resonate with somebody. And heck…maybe I can get some ideas.

Do you have/did you have a hitting kid? How did you deal with the hitting, and did it work?

10 Replies to “Amateur Parenting”

  1. I’m not a parent, but as someone who’s gone through a few psychology courses and books, your options are what I would go for, too. Besides that, I’ve always believed in the power of reasoning. All the best!


    1. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Manisha! I suppose we’ll see in 15 years or so whether I chose “right.”


  2. There’s a series of pick-the-ending children’s books dealing with proper expression of emotion, by Elizabeth Crary. I just bought them for a friend, and they seem useful b/c they’re interactive and meant to be read with a parent. Maybe both kids would sit with you to read them.


  3. Agh! Please please get rid of the little white “snowflakes” falling across the words on your blog. It is really distracting and makes it maddening to try to read. Thank you!


    1. While I generally prefer feedback about the content of my posts, I appreciate the note about the snowflakes, too. I noticed them on someone else’s blog a few days ago and wondered if others found them as distracting on my blog as I found them on that blog.


  4. Some books I found helpful in dealing with Owen’s unpleasant behavior (which can include but is not limited to hitting) were Raising Your Spirited Child and Parents, Please Don’t Sit on Your Children. Both give examples of traditional responses and how you can change your response to meet your kids’ needs, but also to meet your needs — by stopping the unwanted behavior.

    They are not touchy-feely, but rather no-nonsense in a way that is completely non-punitive and does address underlying cause (which yes, is usually feelings, but it isn’t over the top). Thing like choices, alternatives, logical consequences all come into play. Good luck!


    1. Thanks for the suggestions, Debbie. If I feel ready to add another voice to the mix of parenting experts clamoring for attention in my brain, I’ll know where to turn. (I actually read a bit of Raising Your Spirited Child when my daughter was a toddler. I’d forgotten about that one. Might be worth another look.)


  5. It sounds like you are doing absolutely the right thing. The hardest thing about parenting is the patience part. It won’t be fixed overnight, but the reason kids hit at that age is that they don’t believe their feelings are being listened to. They don’t believe they have the right words to talk about what they are feeling, and the feelings are too big for them.. They hit, and it’s a release. They just don’t know what else to do. I mean, sure, sometimes kids hit because they are just being nasty, but at 3, it’s just an impulse thing. If you show them (again, and again, and again….and AGAIN) HOW to talk about feelings, and communicate, they will learn. And it is very difficult. Because my son’s “3” last for about 4 years (and was on and off for a couple more), there were times when I had heart palpitations and actual health issues from trying to deal with all the crap without exploding. Those were the hardest years of my entire life (you got to see the end of them…). I didn’t handle it well ALL the time, and I do really regret those times because it didn’t make things any better. All yelling accomplished in my household was to increase the anxiety level. Which E has issues with anyway–it’s a really bad cycle.

    There’s no one right answer, but you are right–the right way doesn’t involve hitting from either party (how can you teach a kid not to hit when you do it?). Screaming is like verbal hitting, but it is SO HARD not to. A couple years ago, I yelled at my son, and my husband reminded me that it was not constructive. My response at that time, in my anger and complete frustration, was “Well, I’m a human being! How can I be expected to always say the right thing and do the right thing without any emotions at all?! How can I be expected to be calm and collected all the time?”

    We ARE human, and our responses to our children will never be perfect all the time. We’ll feel frustrated and overwhelmed and downright angry with our kids sometimes. We’ll yell, and sometimes we’ll even spank. When these things happen, I think it is appropriate to do what we expect our kids to do. Take a time out. Come back, and apologize. Don’t take all the blame and trivialize what they did to begin with, but use that opportunity to say, “See, Mom feels this way sometimes too. We all screw up. I’m sorry for reacting in that way. Can we both try to work a little harder next time to use our words and stay calm? Because if we can talk about things, we’re more likely to find a way that we both can be happy.”

    It sounds cheesy to some people. I know my grandparents would just say, “Beat ’em.” But the world’s a different place form when our grandparents were raising kids…


    1. I’ve definitely got the “I’m sorry” thing down. My kids are actually very good about saying sorry, too. I’ve never required that of them, so I must be modeling it well. I have plenty of opportunity. Another book, Parenting from the Inside Out by Dan Siegel and Mary Hartzell, actually says it’s more important to show our kids our failings and how we’re works-in-progress, too, than it is to show them we’re perfect. Which is a good thing because I’m far from perfect. (But I’ve got heart!)

      I suppose this is the “fallible parent” model of parenting, as opposed to that employed by previous generations.


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