I have often pointed out that boredom is good for your child; a great learning tool. It forces the child (and adult) to be in the now and generate presence which is always exciting and expanding. It is what propels true learning, self-awareness and inner connection.
What I have not focussed on is the reason a child would even see herself or himself as “bored.” What does this concept mean? Without being taught other concepts, it would not occur to a human mind to be “bored.”
“Bored” implies something missing. What is that something? What is missing? Only a mind that assumes that something outside of the experience of “being” has to happen, will conceive of anything ever missing in the moment.
A mind can only learn from human made experience that one must be constantly busy and stimulated or entertained. Only a mind addicted to such over stimulation would see itself as “missing” something when being with no external engagement. In other words, we are teaching children today to be addicted to distraction from the here and now. We teach the child to “need” the next “dose” of “something” to stimulate her/him.
To undo some of this trend, find times for yourself and your child to enjoy being in the moment with nothing to distract the nature of being.When your child says “I am bored,” respond with, “Good. Enjoy.” Depending on the child’s age you can add things like, “Enjoy being quiet with yourself.” Or, “Yes, that is a wonderful chance to just notice things… feel your breath, marvel nature…” etc.
My children and I used to (and still do) stand without uttering a sound in the dark of the night in the forest and “listen” to the silence… feeling presence… hearing the heart beat, breath, wind, oneness.
Be a model of not rushing to fill your time with activities, computer, even reading and talking. Demonstrate the value of stillness, being present, and of not seeking distraction from who we are. Include family meditation, or a silent walk in nature, in your daily living. Model valuing presence, stillness and a space of nothingness which allows our true being to shine in the moment.
Answer: I am deeply moved by your question. It used to be that mothers were told to let their baby cry. Today, more and more parents understand the need to respond to the baby and take his crying seriously. Like you, many feel heartbroken when their baby cries in-spite of constant holding and care. Yet babies often cry even when held and responded to promptly.
The infant who is constantly held will not cry when hungry, tired or wet. He will communicate these basic needs quietly because he is right there on your body and the littlest cue can be responded to. He learns that he can ask for what he wants without raising his voice (the first communication lesson.)
By being close and responding to gentle cues you also spare the baby the stress of having to cry just to get her needs met. At the same time you know that if she does cry, the reason is not a basic need.
When away from human care, a baby is likely to feel terror and cry in despair. This is because he is completely helpless and has no way of knowing that you will ever return. By holding your baby, you know that this is not the case. Still, your baby may cry even in your loving arms.
Always insure first that the baby is fed, healthy, dry and that there is no reason for concern. Then kindly guess and try to respond to possible needs:
- Always hold your crying baby in your arms. often all he needs is closeness.
- The baby may be too hot, too cold, wet, feeling restricted in her clothes, or having something rub her skin in his clothes or diaper.
- Many parents over dress their babies; take a layer off and see how your baby responds.
- Your baby may need motion. Carry him in a snugly and go for a walk, dance, or sit with him in a rocker or a hammock.
- If your baby is arching back while crying, he may have gas pain or be constipated. If you are breastfeeding, avoid eating gas forming foods such as cabbage, broccoli, onion, beans, sugar and pasteurized dairy. Give the baby a few drops of chamomile tea, and gently massage his belly and back while bending his legs to help with digestion.
- Many babies calm down in a warm bath. It is worth trying.
- Music can totally capture a crying baby, but nothing is as wonderful as mom’s singing voice.
- The sound of running water have been known to calm a baby.
- If your baby is over stimulated from going out, traveling in the car or seeing lots of people, he may need quiet time. Take him to a quiet room to rest with you.
- Some babies want to breastfeed in solitude. They will cry and refuse to nurse until you take them to a calm private place.
- Your baby may need to cry. Like you and I, a baby may feel overwhelmed and in need to let it all out in your loving arms. He may feel helpless, scared, uncomfortable, over stimulated or confused.
Your goal is to meet the baby’s need. If nothing seems to satisfy him, you can assume that your baby needs to cry. Hold him and be a peaceful and loving listener. Teach your baby to be comfortable with his own emotions by validating his feelings. You can connect with him when he takes those famous short breaks from crying. Hold him and say something like, “I know you need to cry now and I am here to listen to you.” Or, “I love you laughing and I love you crying. I love you no matter how you feel.”
Being the loving listener when your baby needs to cry may be the hardest of all. It is yourself that you must calm down so you can provide your baby with a peaceful and supportive parent. If you seem lost or you panic, the baby may feel more scared. Always keep a crying baby in your arms. He will be done crying when his “therapy” session is over.
At the piano, 3-year-old Lennon plays random sounds. “Why don’t you teach him to play?” asks my visitor from the East Coast, who knows that I am a pianist. “He is learning,” I say. “I can never match the effectiveness of this natural way of mastering a skill.” My friend looks at me doubtfully. “When you come again for a visit next year you’ll see,” I say. Even though I have no idea where Lennon’s playing is going, I figure she’ll see growth in whatever he will do as long as he is free to play.
How many parents and teachers are concerned when a day goes by with play and play and more play? “When will she learn if she plays all day?”
Is play really a waste of time? Did nature goof when all cubs, including humans, are born with a drive and an ability to play?
For me, child rearing has been a continual test to my ability to trust. Should I physically make sure that my child learns to crawl? Walk? Talk? How about “Talk and Walk Class for Toddlers 101”? Interestingly, language is the hardest thing to learn, and children do it all on their own. In fact, the speediest learning in humans occurs in the youngest years, when children generally play all day. Maybe nature didn’t goof – maybe I can trust.
So I trusted in nature from day one and noticed an interesting thing: children play, and their best learning happens through play. Children are designed to be curious. From birth on, they want to know and figure out everything. Children are driven to succeed. They are constantly challenging themselves and can actually accomplish it all through a biologically implanted process that we call play.
If children played all their childhood (I mean it), they would be ready for life. They would be emotionally strong (providing no other damage has been done), and would have all the basic skills to handle life. Our anxiety for children to know certain things at specific ages is an enormous obstacle to trusting and allowing their natural development. When children play, they are the only qualified authors of this magical process. It is rarely too late to acquire knowledge, but often it is dangerously too early and out of harmony with the internal journey of the child.
Trusting children to direct their own play has immediate advantages: 1) The child is likely to do exactly what is best for her emotionally, intellectually and socially. 2) There is no worry about age appropriateness, and no guesswork about what or how to play or learn. The child is his own best expert on timing as well. 3) Even adequate exposure to needed information is mostly taken care of. Life, as it is, can provide too much exposure in our times. Children will select that which applies to their personal needs. We can share our life with them, our interests, friends, loves, frustrations, activities… and they will observe, learn, and let us know of their needs in their own playful ways. Children who are allowed to play and direct heir own path, will study anything to get them where they want to go.
What kind of play is so effective in growth and learning? The answer is simple: self-initiated, self-directed play. To foster such play, we need to get out of the way and get manipulative toys out of the way as well. Our intervention and input actually gets in the way. It is obvious why negative input is destructive, but not so obvious that positive input is just as destructive: When Nina, age two, builds a tower of blocks, she is driven by a pure interest and joy of creation and learning. When Dad looks at her creation and exclaims enthusiasm, Nina shifts her interest from her blocks to the purpose of inducing an enthusiastic reaction out of Dad. This can build up over the years to a dependency upon adult evaluation and result in a lack of self-trust and a loss of interest in doing for its own sake. The pleasing child is constantly dependent upon her success to live up to parental expectations and can lose touch with who she really is, and what she is interested in.1
One day, Yonatan and Lennon took covers of pots from the kitchen, and twirled them in such a way that they spun like tops on the floor. Then they filled the covers with colorful items, and witnessed a variety of shape and color changes as the covers spun. In the twirling play, they created combinations by changing shapes and colors, observed results, and then changed the items in the pot covers accordingly to create different results. The two young scientists were initiating, communicating, acting and observing the laws of the universe.
I call these types of activities scientific play, or learning the nature of a phenomenon. Children with access to nature (a yard, trees, sand, stones, sticks…), as well as the kitchen and all other safe items and furniture inside the home, will make a lab of reality out of every space. When visitors come to my home and it isn’t tidy, I say as a matter of fact, “Oh, excuse the mess, there are three young scientists studying reality.” The methods of children are identical to those of scientists. Manipulate and observe, listen or sense the results, and so on.
For children, life is play and play is learning. Tofu may be food for us, but for our son last night it was a topographic map of our island. Headbands become arrows to shoot at a target with amazing skill. The swing can twirl by twisting it, and then it goes back the other way. The possibilities are endless. Even though they don’t always put what they have learned into words or equations, they do learn. Naming things isn’t the discovery – it’s grasping the phenomenon itself that matters. In science play, children experience reality as well as learn about their own power to create and influence scientific phenomena.
Social and Emotional Play
All play that includes more than one person is social. When a child plays with another (of any age, including adults), social skills are being learned as the playmate’s feelings and needs have to be taken into account.
Specific social training occurs when children “rehearse” life. Playing pretend games in which children play roles of parents, animals, plants, etc., is a way to assimilate reality, alleviate fears and try it all out.
Pretend play is also a great therapy. The young therapists discharge their emotions in play. A parent complained to me once that her children kept pretending that their house was on fire. They were running through the house with scarves as flames, alerting everyone to the danger and then quenching it with great noise and satisfaction. Living in the country, this family uses wood for heat and they teach their children to stay away from the fire. The children are rehearsing, drilling themselves in the worst case scenario, and alleviating their fear by gaining experience.
Limits and Discipline
One of the most striking qualities of children’s play is the many rules they form and how strict they are about them.
I recall a group of about a dozen children, of mixed ages 4 – 10, jumping on one big trampoline. Within minutes, it was obvious to the children that it was too crowded to be fun. Very quickly, they came up with the rule: “three at a time”. A couple of them started chanting “three at a time”, others joined the chant and then sat down on one end, letting three children at a time enjoy the jump. Rules pass from generation to generation or are created as needed and children keep the rules and learn social grace, discipline and limits.
We are children, too. We love to have an important role in the magical unfolding of humans. However, there are no grand roles for us grown-ups: true creative play needs no active encouragement or support. And no, we don’t need to be the source of the fun or do much entertaining.
We are the invisible net of support and safety. We get to encourage play by deduction – by not intervening or interrupting, and by not showing preference to classroom type activity. Instead, we can give the child a sense of total approval of her choices and actions. Respecting the scientist’s “work” (his play), we are responsible for exposing but not imposing.
When children want our participation, we need to play authentically. We need to be interested – not interesting; let the child lead the game, and we join like a true partner. No evaluations, praise, or leadership, and no exaggerated enthusiasm either – just being an authentic and equal partner.
Children are great playmates to children precisely because they are authentic. Children don’t need to be of the same or even similar ages to play together, and they do best when they choose their own playmates.
Life is a game. Perhaps adults have matured and forgotten this essential element of life called play. We have become serious and have made an artificial distinction between play and work and between play and study. Our children are here to teach us to lighten up, to put a spark in our eyes and Play Life.
Finding Creative Toys
Toys that encourage creativity are materials that do not dictate any specific game or results. Some examples include: blank paper and paints; plain blocks; sand; pots and pans; boxes of clothes for dress-up; clay; plainly made dolls; gardening tools; outdoor riding and climbing toys such as a wagon, a ladder, or hanging bars; and common household items the children may have access to when they want to imitate household activity, such as cooking, cleaning, nurturing, fixing, and building tools.
Stay away from designs that dictate specific results or that direct the outcome of a child’s play, and that discourage the input of a child’s thought process. These might include: coloring books; toys with press buttons that produce set results; dolls that produce specific emotional responses or actions; and toys that imitate television or movie characters.
When our neighboring Mount St. Helen’s started to rumble, one of my children asked, “Do people who live close by get mad when the volcano erupts?” “Do you get mad at the rain?” I asked. While he was pondering my question, his brother said, “Being mad at the rain or a mountain erupting is as insane as being mad at another person.” Indeed, we live at peace with nature because we have realized that it doesn’t change to fit our ideas. Yet, too often we expect humans to change according to our thoughts and children to develop according to our plan. Such expectations leave us frustrated and powerless.
How do I know it’s raining? I observe. I don’t try to change the rain; I respond by taking an umbrella. Likewise, how do I know what my child should be? I observe and respond without trying to manipulate.
“But,” protests a caring father, “How do we respond kindly when a child is hitting, grabbing, or making a mess?”
In the normal course of events, most of us are looking for a way to manipulate and “stop” what we define as “wrong.” Yet, if we stop to question our own assumptions, we discover that the child has a very valid reason for her actions or words, or that nothing is really wrong. Once we realize that our perception is not truth, we can notice the child’s intention and offer help (if needed) rather than judgment.
The reason for a child’s behavior is often emotional and not always obviously related to what she does or says. Stopping her expression does not stop the cause. I can stop her screaming or hitting, but the reason for her anguish is still there and will erupt again. In fact, my stopping her will induce a sense of separation and fear compounding her anxiety and driving her into more aggression. In contrast, once I understand the child, I can respond kindly, regardless of whether she can have what she wants at the moment.
In my book, Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves I offer a communication formula, SALVE, to help you find the way back to your wisdom and love:
S – Self inquiry; Gaining freedom from the tyranny of unexamined thoughts.
A – Attention on child
L – Listen
V – Validate
E – Empower
The following is an example from the book. It shows a father who was able to avoid his initial upset. His response would have normally been anger. But he used the SALVE formula to stay connected and kind.
“While Adi worked in the yard, his four-year-old daughter, Ruthi, went inside and poured herself a glass of milk. Some of the milk spilled on the table and the kitchen floor. When Adi came into the house and saw the spilled milk, he was ready to burst out with, “Why didn’t you ask me to help you? You know you can’t do this by yourself.” Instead he took a deep breath; he noticed these words pass by silently in his head (S of S.A.L.V.E.) and took time to notice that they were not true or useful to him. He then turned his attention (A) to Ruthi. He noticed that she had been trying not to disrupt his work and was pouring herself a glass of milk without his help. He came closer and said cheerfully, “I see you had some milk all by yourself.”
Ruthi responded, “Yes, and some of it spilled.” She looked up at her father with a questioning heart while he (L) listened with a kind and open heart.
“That happened to me the other day at Grandpa’s,” he said (V for Validating). “I spilled juice. I felt clumsy but Grandpa smiled and gave me a towel. It’s easy to clean up.”
Ruthi ran from the kitchen and brought a towel (E, she feels Empowered), which she handed to her father. It was not the kind of towel Adi would have used to clean up the floor, yet he accepted the towel with gratitude.
The S of SALVE is the most powerful and sometimes challenging part because it asks you to deviate from a lifelong habit of obeying your thoughts. In this article I will only focus on the S — Self-inquiry. The rest of it becomes crystal clear once you inquire into your own thoughts, and, you can read about the entire process in the book.
We fool ourselves to believe that our upset is caused by the child. But is it? Notice how you feel when you believe your own thoughts; angry, upset, wanting to scold, threaten, punish or withdraw. Would you be upset if you didn’t have the thought that goes against the child? Without the thought the upset is replaced with peace.
“She should listen to me.” Really? Why? Who dictates so? How can you know that? Observe: Is she listening? If she isn’t, wouldn’t it be more useful to find out why, so you can understand her and stay connected? Notice her as you notice the rain; she is not listening. There must be a good reason why she is not able to listen. If, instead, you listen to her (understand her behavior), you will discover why she cannot hear you. (Some possibilities are: She is too young, she needs physical communication, she is scared, confused, insecure, disconnected, she is needing something that you don’t see etc.)
Our purpose is not to stop the child’s expression (unless unsafe), but to understand why he must be doing what he is doing, so we can care for him. Often we discover that where we see a problem where there is none. Even if the action has to be stopped, once we understand the need or cause, we can feel calmer and respond kidnly. I invite you to assume that everything the child is doing is perfectly right. Such realization will wake you up from your confusing thoughts so you can respond rather than manipulate.
The Power of “Yes”
One way to quickly bring clarity to yourself is by saying “yes” when you want to say “no” (when safe.) Once you are “boxed” in your positive response, look for a way to fit with the “yes.” Your child is painting on the wall. “Yes, I can see how you would love to cover the wall with colors,” and you cover the wall with paper or offer an easel. Or, “Yes, I see that you love to make your sister scream,” and if little sister is not enjoying herself (she might), you can offer some other game that gives the child a sense of power. (See more on Power Games, in the book Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves.) “Yes, I see that you like to tear books,” as you offer old magazines for her to shred.
The “yes” is a way to turn around your opposing reaction into cooperation with your child. “I see what she needs. How can I assist her?” This will open your mind to peaceful solutions. If my child needs to bug her sister, I look for the reason and offer validation, listening and caring solutions.
One mother told me how she used this approach when her four-year-old was sitting on the window sill of their fourth floor apartment. She was ready to scream “no” and scold “how many times did I tell you…” Instead she said, “Yes” and promptly knew how to go on validating his intent; “I see how much you love to look down from the window. Here is a stool you can use safely.” She brought it to the window and moved the child over. The boy said, “But mom, I was safe on the window too.” “I know,” mom responded, “but I was scared.” She spoke honestly about her needs and the boy was therefore happy to use the stool. She told me he has kept using it ever since.
No Need to Fix the Child
Can we respond to the child, rather than try to change her? The other day I gave one of my children a milkshake and he swung his arm when I handed it to him. The thick drink splattered on the floor, the counter, and our clothes. “Wow, this is funny,” said his brother and we burst out laughing. The thought, “It shouldn’t have spilled” would have been a painful thought. It didn’t cross any of our minds so we stayed joyful and connected. Next thing to do was to clean the floor and clothes. I like knowing what to do next. It makes my life simple. We can clean the floor in anger or in happiness; same floor. Will he or I be less careful next time because I wasn’t angry? Do you believe this thought? Did humans stop spilling things yet? Does being upset ever make us more capable?
The good news is: You don’t have to obey your painful thoughts. When thoughts bring you joy and loving connection — go with them. If you notice stress and disconnection — check the validity of your thoughts. Don’t believe everything your mind says. If it hurts, it isn’t true.
Parents often ask “What if my child is truly misbehaving?” I don’t know what “misbehaving” means because to me a child is always doing the best she can to meet her own need. When you explore your thought about what you call “misbehaving” you may be surprised to find that it has nothing to do with your child; she has a valid and good reason to act or speak the way she does. Once you understand the reason, your confusion will be over and you will be able to either eliminate the cause of the difficulty or respond respectfully and peacefully.
A few years ago, I was teaching the SALVE formula and the “yes” approach in one of my workshops and a couple of days later I received an email from a participant who found my guidance very similar to The Work of Byron Katie and to ideas from Vedanta, Taoism, Zen, and other ancient teachings. I then ordered the book Loving What Is and found that the Self-inquiry and the “Yes” are similar to the four questions and the turnaround in Loving What Is.
The Work crystalized and deepened the self-inquiry I offered and so I started incorporating it into my work with parents.
The four questions and turnaround as offered in the book Loving What Is are:
1. Is it true?
2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
3. How do you react when you think/believe that thought?
4. Who would you be without the thought?
After answering these simple questions, turn the sentence around:
To the opposite (“he shouldn’t listen,” and find out why).
To yourself (“I should listen to me” and notice how that would clarify things.)
To the other (“I should listen to him” and discover how it could that benefit you).
The following is an example of a mother’s investigating her own thoughts about her child’s behavior, with the four questions and turnaround: Yael: “We came home after a wonderful day in the park and Toby was swinging a plastic rod while running through the house. I was afraid for the toddler. I told him to stop. He didn’t. I told him if he doesn’t stop I will take the rod away. He didn’t stop. I took it away. He kicked me. I told him if he kicks, no bedtime story. He kicked more.”
Naomi: Toby shouldn’t have kicked, is that true?
Y : Yes.
N: Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
Y: No. He was frustrated. I did respond kindly first and said, “I know you had a lovely day and now I need time to myself…” But nothing helped.
N: Well, I understand, and the “nice day” story was not his experience at that moment.
Y: Oh, I see. His day, at that moment wasn’t so nice. He wanted a story, and to swing the rod around, and I took both away from him.
N: Yes. So now you understand your child. If we don’t judge and decide how the child should be, we can understand how he is. How do you react when you believe that he shouldn’t kick and he does?
Y: I get angry, impatient… and I yell and threaten.
N: Who would you be without this thought that Toby shouldn’t kick, when he does?
Y: Calmer. I would help him.
N: Yes. So turn it around.
Y: Toby should have kicked. (Thinking). You know, he wanted to go outside where it would have been safe but I didn’t let him. He didn’t have much choice.
N: So you understand him.
N: Turn it to yourself.
Y: I shouldn’t have kicked me.
N: Tell me about it.
Y: I was kicking myself with anger inside my head, thinking I am a bad mother.
N: All the while doing the best you can with what you knew in the moment.
N: Can you see another turnaround?
Y: I shouldn’t have kicked Toby.
N: Is it as true or truer?
Y: Yes. I was angry with him and insulting, and I took away his story time.
N: If things don’t go our way, we kick in an “adult” way and the children mirror us. I call it the parent’s tantrum.
Y: OK, I see now. So without my story, neither one of us would need to kick.
N: You can only know about you. I hear from you that you will not “kick” without believing your thought. Instead, without the thought, you see your child’s need and find a kind solution.
Y: But, Naomi, isn’t it a natural consequence for his kicking to not read the story?
N: Notice how the mind wants to defend its position and question that. If it was natural, it would happen on its own. I notice that nature does not need my management. His kicking was over and nothing happened.
Y: Oh, I see, I see. Not reading to him is not really related to kicking.
N: Not reading the book is you kicking him.
Y: You are right. When I listen to him and help, he doesn’t kick. He is learning from me to punish because that is what I was doing. So if respond to his need, he won’t kick.
N: Likely. And, I cannot know that. Let me know how it works. Expecting a specific result is yet another story that gets in the way of clarity and unconditional love. It is being in his business. Work on you so you can love him unconditionally.
Y: In times that I respond to him with kindness and understanding he doesn’t kick.
N: So he is your mirror.
Y: This is so freeing. Thank you.
This story leads most parents to the the common worry; “How will he ever learn?” “Shouldn’t he learn not to kick, whether or not mom is doing the kind thing?” But observation tells me that he hasn’t so far, and mom is working on her own learning not to kick.
The idea that learning has to be forced in advance has not been questioned. Yet, in reality, everything flows in perfect time. Without advanced breathing lessons, the baby is born and breathes. Without walking manuals, she walks, and without talking classes, she talks. These miracles are the lessons of life and of the way children grow all the way through. We only need to water the flower, not force its petals open. Each child grows in her unique way. How do I know how that is? I observe. I respond rather than trying to shape. Notice how your respond to the rain and learn from peaceful you. Marvel at the miracle your child is and respond as you would to the rain. Passively? No. With clarity and love? Yes.
©Copyright Naomi Aldort
Biting in the early years is not different from other aggression. Some biting can be benign and transient. A frustrated toddler does not have a rich language and is likely to use her body to express herself. If you respond quickly to the first try quickly, clearly and kindly, there won’t be a second time. If your daughter is repeating the biting, two things are happening: Your responses are not clear TO HER. And, the reason for her drive to bite has not been addressed.
There is much more biting in daycares and group settings than there is in children who spend their days with their parents. However, biting does occur, to a lesser degree, in youngesters at home.
A child is always innocently pursuing her needs. Whatever she does is rooted in a valid reason or has a specific and worthy purpose. She could be hungry, learning cause and effect, teething, imitating another child, frustrated. She could also be reacting to wheat, dairy, soy, sugar, food additives or other allergens. If your child is biting excessively or otherwise aggressive, check her for allergies through hair analysis or muscle testing, study the Feingold diet, and check to see if her life is too frustrating for her.
Why Toddlers Sometimes Bite
Instead of focusing on the biting, focus on finding the underlying reasons your toddler needs to bite. I don’t mean what she wants at the moment (candy, toy) but the reason she resorts to expressing herself by biting. Look for frustration, loneliness, jealousy, helplessness or a need for affection and autonomy. Take care of the underlying causes and the symptom will vanish. Yelling, punishing or threatening doesn’t help because the cause is not addressed and the child feels worse and will therefore bite more.
Sometimes a toddler escalates to biting after she sees that we tolerate violations of the body and the environment. She is simply participating in what she is observing. Notice how you treat yourself and model total respect of your own and your child’s bodies.
The need to bite is often the result of feeling too restricted. Expecting a child to restrain herself (be quiet, abide by our needs or be polite) can lead to rage and a sense of helplessness. Even with the most responsive of parents, a toddler often feels powerless and frustrated. A loud reaction to her bite can satisfy her need to feel powerful, “wow I caused a scream.” In my book, Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves, you can read a whole chapter about children’s need for autonomy and power and how to meet that need through play so the child won’t need to bite or hit.
A toddler who feels connected, loved, autonomous and at peace is not likely to bite. She has no need for it. Therefore the first path of prevention is respecting your toddler’s autonomous inner guidance, avoiding undue expectations and restrictions and staying close and connected. This may include avoiding peer play, which is often much too difficult for young children. Notice how much happier your baby is with an older child or with you.
Take your daughter’s cues seriously; she relies on your care. If she bites to get attention, she may need more attention; it is a real and valid need. If she is frustrated, consider reducing the amount of stimulation and provide toys and interactions that are fit for her ability.
Another way to prevent biting is to reduce stress and slow down. Stay at home more, and spend time with your toddler.
Reacting to the First Bite
When a toddler tries to bite for the first time, your swift, clear, physical and caring response can prevent a repeat performance. Many parents hesitate and react too slowly. Trying to be nice, they forget to lead the way. A mother said to me, “I tell him nicely not to bite and that it hurts, but he still bites.”
Toddlers learn best with their bodies. Be respectful and kind but also physical, swift and clear. If she bites a child, rush and scoop her (like you would had she run toward the street) while saying something like, “Whoops, oh no!” in a clear but kind tone. The first time can easily be the last if your response is clear. If you try words first and then, when the child is deeper into her action you intervene, she will do it again. She does not take it seriously if you don’t. Be kind, loving and connected when you stop her. Do not judge or preach. Instead, make eye contact, smile, hug, and validate, “Did you have enough of playing with Lili?” She may be hungry, or she may need to cry or just stay close to you. You can also offer her something to bite in a form of a food or an item.
Biting the child to “teach” her what it feels like confuses and hurts her. Your action tells her that this is something to do. You are doing it. Her reaction is going to be pain, dismay and fear, since you are the one she relies on for unconditional love and safety. Giving a mini lecture to a toddler is not beneficial either. All the child can hear is, “Dad is not pleased with me. I am bad.” The result is self-doubt and therefore often more biting.
Meeting the Needs
To prevent the causes of biting meet the basic needs for love, attention, connection and nurturance. This is not equal to always getting whatever she wants. An emotionally content child does not develop so many wants. The wants are substitute for these primal needs. Being physically close and protecting the toddler’s autonomy prevents most difficulties with young children.
Much of biting is just playful. Whatever the toddler does tells us how to be helpful. If she bites because she likes the effect, we can offer other activities that satisfy that need. Let her turn the light on and off or the volume of the stereo high and low; let her push a wagon, spray the yard with the hose, or produce other dramatic effects.
There is never a need to scold or be upset with the child. She has no bad intention at all. She is doing the best she can to take care of herself. She does need guidance, a meeting of her needs, a safe outlet for her frustration or playfulness, love and affection. Be your child’s ally. Toddlers don’t bite, hit, break things etc., when they are content, and when we respond to their initiatives promptly, in a physical, clear and peaceful ways. If a toddler tears books, respond quickly by replacing the books with a pile of old magazines. If she smears food in her hair, bring the camera and enjoy the fun; there will be plenty of time to clean up and not much time to enjoy the baby and toddler years.
Stopping the Already Biting Toddler
If your child is already a biter, not only can you provide for the underlying needs, but also be alert to prevent the biting. You know what sets her off or what circumstances are more likely to bring up her biting. Catch it before it happens and prevent the set ups that bring biting on. After a period of time without biting, if she also has her deeper needs met, the child will forget about it.
Meeting the child’s needs for closeness, affection and human connection are at the heart of preventing all types of aggression and emotional difficulties. Stay close, responsive and delighted by your toddler, and her happiness will keep her at peace with herself and with others.
They trusted my guidance because I was always on their side. For example, instead of saying, “Don’t do this,” I would move quickly and gently stop the action and offer a solution, “I see that you want to bang the floor with the broom; here, you can bang on the porch.” If I could not offer a solution, I would still be there to stop the action physically and then validate feelings if needed. For example, if my toddler wants to take a toy I don’t intend to buy from the store, I would say, “I see that you love this doll-house and wish to take it home. I understand how you feel. Would you like to watch it a bit longer? I can wait.”
This approach allows the child to see Mom and Dad as her allies. “She saw what I needed and provided it for me.” Or, “When I pulled books out of the cabinet and tore them, she brought me a huge pile of bigger books (magazines) so I can tear them. Mom understands my needs.” If there was no solution, she still experiences, “mom understands my feelings.” The child does not interpret what she wants as bad, just not doable.
All these needs are variations on feeling helpless. To give the child an outlet to express her need for power, play “Power Games.”1 Power games are initiated by your children and are often stopped by you. If your child is running away from the diaper or pajamas, instead of stopping her intent, play with it. You can say, “Oh no, she ran away again,” run after her, barely catch her, then let her slip again and repeat the show. Children start many such games. Be attentive and open-minded. Or, you can play variations on Simon Says, and follow your child’s lead. Getting satisfaction playfully, he will have no need to bite or to gain power in other ways.
Let your child feel satisfied and bring the game to an end when she is satiated.If you initiate the end of the game, the child will perceive you as having the power all along and the healing and joy will be lost.
Biting Other Children
If your child bites in a play group, she is too frustrated and would be better off without the group. There is no rush to get children into peer experience, which is unnatural and creates unnatural social difficulties. Letting her play with adults or with one older and caring child often dissolves the biting.
Siblings biting is similar to the play group challenge, only the setting cannot be changed. The child who bites a sibling is obviously frustrated and needs more connection with adults. Knowing that this is the cause can help you to be compassionate, validating and maybe more creative in finding ways to spend one-on-one time with each child. Meeting the Needs
To prevent the causes of biting; meet the basic needs for love, attention, connection and nurturance. Yet, if you have more than one child such closeness is not always possible. Do your best to make room for all children to be close to you. Sit to breastfeed on a large couch, hold a hand of a child who cannot sit on you, and connect with touch and with words like, “As soon as the baby falls asleep, we will read together. I am looking forward to being with you.”
Whatever the toddler does tells us what she needs. If she bites because she likes the effect, we can offer other activities that satisfy that need. Let her turn the light on and off or the volume of the stereo high and low; give her a toy that squeaks when squeezed; let her push a wagon, spray the yard with the hose, or produce other dramatic effects.
There is never a need to scold or be upset with the child. She has no bad intention at all. She is doing the best she can to take care of herself. She does need guidance, a meeting of her needs, a safe outlet for her frustration, love and affection.
Be your child’s ally. Toddlers don’t bite, hit, break things etc., when they were content, and when we respond to their initiatives promptly, in a physical, clear and peaceful ways. If a toddler tears books, respond quickly by bringing a pile of old magazines. If she smears food in her hair, bring the camera and enjoy the fun; there will be plenty of time to clean up and not much time to enjoy the baby and toddler years.
©Copyright Naomi Aldort
1 Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves, by Naomi Aldort, P: 200-207
My husband and I are often complimented on our children’s behavior and demeanor. People think that we discipline them. We don’t. It is ourselves we discipline.
We meet our children’s needs, provide for their protection, and expose them to life’s possibilities. We do not, however, meddle in their play, their learning, their creativity, or any other form of growth. We love, hug, feed, share, listen, respond, and participate when asked. Yet, we keep our children free of insult and manipulation resulting from “helpful” comments and ideas – influences to which children are so sensitive in their state of dependency.
This type of discipline is not easy. Not only does our society not support it, but the temptation to break the “rules” lives within us. The drive to intervene in children’s activities is rooted in our upbringing and reinforced in our culture.
For me, the most difficult challenge to overcome has been a narcissistic impulse to show off my children. One day, when our oldest child was two years old, he played a smooth scale on the piano. I was amazed, yet held fast to my rule and stayed out of his way. Free to play out of his own love and interest, and not to gratify me, he went on improving his scale with tremendous joy and concentration for quite some time. Not until my husband came home did I fall into the trap. Unable to wait for a repeat performance in its own time, I covertly tried to direct our son to the piano to do his “trick.”
Untrained in doing for the sake of pleasing, he was not fooled. He sensed the hoax and refused to play. Several weeks passed before he again immersed himself in the scale. This child loves to do things for others, enjoys helping and serving; yet, when he does something out of self-interest, that is how it must remain.
Although the self-discipline required of a parent is often challenging, it becomes second nature with time and experience. For me, this type of discipline developed gradually, beginning with “descriptive acknowledgment”1 and culminating in unadulterated staying-out-of-the-way a few years later. My best allies have been my realizations as a mother and educator, Daniel Greenberg’s book Free at Last, and discussions with Jean Liedloff, author of The Continuum Concept, about letting children be themselves.
At first, I thought that commenting, acknowledging, and praising children for their achievements express love and build self-esteem. In time, I realized that these well-intended interventions do just the opposite: they foster dependency on external validation and undermine the children’s trust in themselves. Children who are subjected to endless commentary, acknowledgment, and praise eventually learn to do things not for their own sake, but to please others. Gratifying others soon becomes their primary motivation, replacing impulses stemming from the authentic self and leading to its loss.
Contrary to common belief, children feel more loved and self-assured when we do not intervene in their activities. Not only do they remain secure in our love and support when we refrain from intervening, but they need us to protect them from these intrusions, which can interfere with their progress, self-reliance, and emotional well-being.
When we intervene with praise, wants, advice, and rewards, doubts sneak in and shake loose our children’s trust in themselves and in us. Sensitive and smart, they perceive that we have an agenda – that we are manipulating them toward some preferred or “improved” end result. This awareness gets them thinking: “Perhaps what I am trying to achieve is wrong – I can’t trust myself to know or choose,” or “Mom and Dad have an agenda that I must fulfill if I am to have their approval and their love.”
Gradually, a shift occurs. Children who were once doing for the sake of personal pleasure or understanding begin doing for the sake of pleasing. No longer do they trust in their actions, and no longer do they trust us, for we are not really on their side. Along with the shift to pleasing us comes the fear of not pleasing us. Emotional and intellectual dependency, low self-esteem, and lack of self-confidence invariably follow.
Even when we intervene with casual commentary on our children’s imaginative play, doubts sneak in. What children are experiencing inwardly at these times is so often remote from our “educated” guesses that bewilderment soon turns to self-denial and self-doubt. Moreover, children perceive the phony and patronizing remarks for what they are, and may conclude that it is OK to be insincere and pretentious.
From Praising to Observing
It is difficult to stop dishing out praise. For one thing, we are hooked on our conditioning as well as on the “hard sell” of the holy cow called Praise. For another, we are easily misled: the praised-for-every-achievement child seems like a happy, successful, highly self-esteemed child. In reality, such a child has shifted to the pleasing mode, driven to success not by personal curiosity or delight, but by the desire to oblige us and live up to our expectations. As educator John Holt has said of children, “They are afraid, above all else, of failing, of disappointing or displeasing the many anxious adults around them, whose limitless hopes and expectations for them hang over their heads like a cloud.”2 In short, the esteem we notice is not self-esteem, for the self has been lost in the early years of this type of conditioning. The happiness we see is not pleasure, but rather relief that another pleasing act has been accomplished, securing parental approval (emotional survival) and concealing a feeling of deep loss.
Children, too, can be fooled into believing that these pleasing behaviors originate within and have everything to do with who they are. The ultimate deception comes when children grow up to become seemingly accomplished and happy adults. Psychoanalyst Alice Miller, in her book The Drama of the Gifted Child, gives voice to the lamentable conviction that arises: “Without these achievements, these gifts, I could never be loved…. Without these qualities, which I have, a person is completely worthless.” Miller goes on to explain why achievement based on pleasing denies self-understanding and, in so doing, leads to depression, feelings of ‘never enough’, and other emotional disturbances in often the most successful people.3
To “follow one’s own drummer”, a person needs to exercise the muscles of free choice and self-learning from the start. The difficulty we have in trusting our children’s ability to flex these muscles stems from our own experience of not having been trusted. Trusting is, simply, not natural to us. Only as we make a concerted effort to get out – and stay out – of our children’s way do we discover the wonderful truth: the magic is already in our children, ready to unfold in its own way and in its own time.
Nearly every child comes to life equipped with a self that is capable of blooming to capacity. Unhindered in its growth, this self will lead the child to skills and knowledge and, in the process, self-actualization. We have no right to attempt to control the direction of this growth. Instead of training our children through various forms of intervention to fit our vision for them, we need to train ourselves to respect nature’s creation and to safeguard its full, authentic bloom.
Indeed, the end result we are looking for – an able, highly self-esteemed, creative, curious, and responsible human being – is already observable in a two-year-old child.4 Allowed to put these gifts to use in a self-directed, self-trusting way, the youngster will develop capabilities while enhancing these desirable qualities. Maturation will then come as an authentic expression of the self, rather than as an appeasement to parental authority and other forms of domination.
Getting out of the way gives us an opportunity to become curious observers. At the same time, it frees us of power struggles and initiates an approach to parenthood that is infinitely more enjoyable and fulfilling. I know of no more interesting, engaging, fascinating, and glorious “entertainment” in life than watching children unfold freely.
©Copyright Naomi Aldort