Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Two-Year-Old Bully?

The Question:

Hi Jane,

I have a friend, Sue, who has a 2 year old that is rather spoiled. Sue is a very sweet and soft spoken person. She sometimes lets people walk all over her because of how non-confrontational she is. This is the case with her daughter, Kate. Sue gives Kate WAY too many warnings- I am of the Super Nanny school of thought, where you give one warning, and then an immediate consequence. (I.E. "If you do that again, I'm going to put you in a time out" and then follow through!) I've seen Sue tell Kate to do something, and warn that if she doesn't listen, then she'll have to go straight down for her nap... Kate doesn't listen, Sue gives MORE chances, and then when Sue picks up Kate to put her in bed, Kate immediately says, "I'm sorry" and Sue gives her that extra chance. So Kate has learned that she doesn't have to listen to her mom until she starts to take action. This has taught Kate that she can get away with a lot, because most of the time, her mom has zero follow through.

Here's how it affects us. Kate pinched my baby repeatedly when we were in the car together a few months ago. My son was crying really hard, but I was driving and thought he just didn't want to be in his car seat. As we were getting Kate out of the car, she admitted that she pinched him, but I didn't realize how bad it was. When I saw my son's arm in the dim light of the car, I told Sue he really had red marks, and Sue didn't really say much to Kate. (It really bugged me that that was all that happened, but I am not Kate's mom, and I can't tell Sue how to parent.) Then I got home into the light, and I burst into tears. My baby's arm had many red welts that later bruised. It looked awful. I myself am rather non-confrontational, and I didn't know how to approach the situation with Sue, because the time to punish Kate had already come and gone. Looking back, I should have asked Sue to see what was wrong while we were driving, but I just had no idea at the time, and months later, I still feel awful for it.

So I said nothing more, and my husband and I vowed to just always keep an eye out for our baby when we are around Sue and her family. Which we do, but now the problem is, I am terrified of Kate, and don't really want to spend ANY time with Sue, who I was really close with before this happened. What Kate did to my baby really creeps me out, because she had no problem repeatedly hurting my crying baby for 30 minutes. I understand that 2 year olds sometimes will hit, scratch, bite, pinch, etc... if they are provoked (if a toy is taken, if they are upset and don't get their way...) but I have NEVER met a kid who is content to hurt a baby who is clearly crying out in pain for 30 minutes. I know that Kate has also really hurt another baby in the past as well. It scares me that Kate has such aggression toward babies, and since my baby now crawls, it is harder for me to protect him from Kate as easily.

What can we do?? We love our friends, but I fear that we might lose the friendship, because I really want nothing to do with Kate. I'm sure at some point she will grow out of this, but for now it terrifies me to be around her, because I almost think there is something wrong with her. My mom thinks Kate should be evaluated. I know this seems like an exaggeration, but her behavior reminds me a lot of Maculay Culkin's character in the movie The Good Son. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Good_Son_(film) (There's the link if you're not familiar with it.) But basically, he is a twisted kid, who feels no remorse for his actions. (I.e. When Kate announced that she pinched my baby it was said very matter of factly. Like saying the sky is blue.)

Thanks so much for taking the time to read this, I really appreciate it. This incident happened months ago, and I have tried to just get over it, but I am having a really hard time doing it. Any suggestions would be wonderful.


The Answer:

Dear Anonymous,

Your letter captures so well the protective feelings of a mother. I think we've all been there! I've always thought I'd rather be injured, ridiculed, offended or snubbed a hundred times over than to endure the misery of watching my children go through those things. It's our commission, after all, to keep each of them safe from harm.I have evolved as a mother in many ways--but on this very issue, I may have experienced the greatest evolution. Before I preach a sermon, I will say that I think your first instinct--to keep the friendship intact and be vigilant about your son--is right on the money.

I'm sad to report that the experience you described is going to repeat itself a hundred times and in a hundred different ways over the course of your life as a mother. You'll watch your children suffer injustices large and small. Someone will bite them in the nursery. There will be bullies. Your child will be the only one not invited. Friends will turn on them and break their hearts. The hard part is knowing when to step in and how. I will tell you something that comes from the benefit of years and years of experience. Looking back, you will always be glad when you did the generous, unselfish, forgiving thing--when you took the high road, when you were able to consider not just your child, but the injuring party as well. There are several reasons for this.

1. It's Christ-like. If there was one thing the Savior set an example of, it was forgiveness. And he expects that of us as well--70 times 7. If we can be patient and forgiving with people even in spite of that "mother tiger" instinct we have to protect our children, then we experience true growth as a person. Outrage is replaced with peace and confidence as we formulate a plan that emulates the Savior.

2. We teach our children the greatest lessons of their lives. Now I know that your little baby isn't watching your example. But very soon, he will be. He will learn in church and at your knee about patience and forgiveness, but nothing will compare to the lessons you will teach him when he comes to you with a real hurt. We have a funny family story. My brother, Scott, when he was young, came in and told my mother that some older boys had taken his toy guns. My mother was mad at those bullies and said, angrily, "You go out there and you tell them that if they don't give you your guns right now, your mother is going to come out there and... (you get the idea) So Scott started out the door, but returned after only a few moments. "How about if I say "Could I please have my guns back?" He soon returned with the guns. It isn't always that simple. But aren't we here on earth to learn to "bless them that curse you" "do good to them that despitefully use you"? Our children won't be any better at that than we are. Now is the time to develop patterns of kindness.

3. I love a quote by Emma McKay, "A true mother is a mother to all children everywhere." I admit honestly that I have failed to be motherly to all children everywhere, but that quote reminds me to try. You might be able to play a positive role in Kate's life by working with her patiently and trying to connect with her. She's really just an irrational 2-year-old who may not be as malicious as you think. Your friend is probably frustrated and would appreciate your help and support. Try not to judge her. Just be a good friend.

I realize this answer is much more long-range than you bargained for. And it certainly flies in the face of our present "look out for number one" culture. You may fear raising a family of "door-mats" if you take my advice. But you won't. Your children will be more tender and outwardly focused. They will learn to resolve differences more intelligently. And this stance is consistent with the loving approach that you are using to teach them everything else in life.

Of course, being forgiving does not necessitate fostering toxic, damaging relationships. As our children grow older, we can help them to surround themselves with good, uplifting people as their closest friends while treating others with kindness and respect.

With love,


  1. When my son was 1-2 he was very rough. He was hurting his brothers fairly often (both on purpose and on accident) and I really worried about it. I'd explain that his actions were hurting others, they would be crying, and he'd just look at me blankly or smile. There were times when I thought this disconnect was a troubling problem that indicated a lack of conscience or worse. BUT, at three, he gets it. He is softer, he knows how to control his actions, he rarely intentionally hurts others anymore and he shows concern when others are hurt. It wasn't something I said, or action that I took that changed him, he just grew up a little bit. I think Kate will probably be the same way.

    I loved the third point in Jane's answer, and it seems to really apply to your situation. If I were you, and while I was watching out for my baby I saw Kate start acting aggressively, I'd just immediately go over and gently show her how to be soft. Praise her when she is soft. Softly talk about how babies are just little and we want to make them smile. Show her things that make your baby smile and talk about things that make him sad. Maybe she'll be receptive to that, especially if she sees love in your eyes. Don't be afraid to lovingly teach her, even if your friend is there. Maybe this will help your friend see the problem and give her ideas about how to change it. Hopefully this helps a little. Good luck!

  2. We have 2 kids in my daughter's nursery that are ridiculously mean and rough. It is frustrating and nerve-racking, and I really have to trust the nursery leaders to protect Leah. Luckily, nursery is the only time we have to deal with it right now.

    My 2 year old is occasionally rough, and we are really working on helping her "feel" the consequences of her actions. Jane is right, kids are irrational, and 2 years old might be at the peak of that! I really have to help her FEEL in her little conscience that hurt that she is causing. We talk a lot about how when we're not soft, it makes others feel sad. That we don't throw things because it could hurt somebody. This weekend, she threw a matchbox car (not out of anger, she was just getting rowdy), and it hit my sister in the eyebrow. My sister was a good sport, but she did tear up a little. I immediately stopped what I was doing, and turned the situation into a teaching moment. I calmly told her over and over, in different words each time, "We can't throw because we can hurt somebody. Look, you threw your car, and it hurt Ashley. She's so sad, she's crying." She is starting to develop that sympathy and the connection between her actions and other's reactions. She has caught herself in the last few days, and says to herself, "Don't throw, we could hurt somebody." Victory for me! If Sue isn't teaching Kate those things, than it is going to take Kate longer to learn them on her own.

    Natalie's advice is great. Sue might really appreciate your example and see how she could handle situations like that in the future.

    I would also suggest opening up a parenting dialogue with Sue. Ask her for advice or help concerning a separate issue. Maybe she will feel comfortable enough to ask you for help with her issues with Kate. And then you can lay it all on the table! Its worth a try!

    Good luck!

  3. Thanks for the thoughts, as usual, Jane. I love point number 3 and that Emma McKay quote - and your thoughts, too, Natalie!

  4. Hi, I hope this helps reiterate that it's ok to teach Kate.

    If your son hurt someone, especially on purpose, and you didn't say anything, wouldn't you hope the mom of the other child would step in? Most of my experience with my daughter playing with other kids is when she's playing with her cousins, so maybe it's different if it's a friend's kid. I don't know. But if my daughter hurt my niece, I would 100% expect my sister to say something. And I do the same thing. If my niece hurts my daughter, I hold her little shoulders and look her in the eye and explain that she hurt Sarah and it's not ok and I need her to tell Sarah sorry.

    I also show them how to be soft. We have a little refresher course sometimes, where we repeat "soft" and softly rub each others' cheeks. I can't imagine Sue would be hurt or offended if you kindly told Kate why you're not ok with her treating your son that way. The only time problems would arise (I think) is if you lost your temper and yelled or punished her. It's not your place to punish, but it's fine to teach.

    Good luck!

  5. I agree with a lot that has been said, especially the teaching Kate part. I think it also shows your child that you care enough to step in and help them and to show them how to handle contentious situations.

    We were at the mall play ground once and there was a very wild boy of about 3 or 4 who was being (unsuccessfully) watched by his granddad. The little boy ran right up to my then 2 year old ultra shy little girl and slapped her full force across the face. I just about bawled my eyes out right then and there. It was all I could do to walk over to the granddad and in a slightly strained voice explain what happened and ask for an apology from the boy.

    I feel like this teaching is so important because if kids don't learn how to handle situations as youngsters, they won't know how to as adults. Case in point - we got a huge snow storm a month ago. My tenants parked in front of our neighbor’s house where the road had been plowed to await the rest of the street to be plowed. As I was going out shopping with my children, neighbor lady came out and REAMED me out about my tenants parking in front of her house (umm, it is the ROAD not their property but whatever). I was shocked. All she had to say was, "could you please ask the girls to move their cars from in front of my house? We need the parking for our children's cars." But instead I had my afternoon spoiled as I fought not be angry about how rude (and vulgar) she was - and her beef wasn't even with me!

    What a happier world we could live in if all children were taught to think about how their actions and words affect others.

  6. I agree with this. I also want to point out that a 2 year old is still really little. I remember when my oldest was a baby, I thought 2 year olds seemed so big, and so I expected them to be more grown up than they were. A baby is so innocent, it's hard to imagine them being mean ever. I thought my son would never be mean. Then at 18 months old he went through this awful biting stage. He would bite me probably 15 times a day - hard. We'd even just be playing and he'd bite me. And he'd bite other kids for no reason at all. It really stressed me out, and everything I tried didn't work. But then he stopped a few months later. Just grew out of it. He's 3, occasionally "experiments" with the baby, but I can see he's already growing out of that, too. And he really is a better mannered kid than most boys his age, I think. Anyway, I don't want to point fingers by saying this, but there's a good chance when your baby is 2 you will have a little more compassion for your friend. It really is stressful to realize your child really has a mind of their own, and why are they acting like this! :) They came out of you, but they are them, and they need to grow up just like everyone else that's ever lived on the earth.

  7. I have similar experiences with my Sister-in-Law and nephew. He is very arrgesive and not only does my sis-in-law not do anything about it, she grabs him and hugs him and tells him how wonderful and sweet he is. This is the only time she does this, positively reinforcing everytime he hurts another kids. I get so angry, but I've struggled with how to deal with it because I have no right to tell her how to raise her children. But when I am there and have the option, I put him in time out and talk to him about how he should treat people. He stares at me blankly ...

  8. Honestly, it sounds like first child syndrome to me. You know, when you're still figuring out how to be a good parent and you do a lot of judging other people and their kids as a defense mechanism? I've learned that you better be careful in this regard because the Lord has a sense of humor.........
    Love, love, love the Emma McKay quote and love you, Jane! You are a wonderful example.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.