My 2-year-old bites and hits. But that doesn’t make him a bully.


Kids ran in and out the front door of a neigh­bor’s house, scrab­bling with bas­ket­balls, paus­ing to check in with their par­ents, mov­ing on.

My al­most-2-year-old, Sam, was shar­ing a truck with an­other child on a sunny patch of grass. I laughed ner­vously to my friend, a mother of some of the older boys: “I hope this goes well.”

“You mean be­cause Sammy’s a bully?” she asked. She said it so ca­su­ally.

“He’s not a bully,” I stam­mered. “He just has trou­ble ex­press­ing him­self some­times, and – “She rolled her eyes, and I felt in­fu­ri­ated and ashamed. What was I sup­posed to say? Didn’t she know it wasn’t “bul­ly­ing” when Sam some­times used his teeth, or his hands, in­stead of his words?

Sam’s my sec­ond child, and he’s a tor­nado. He walked at 10 months and climbed the bunk-bed lad­der a few weeks later. He’s phys­i­cal and strong-willed – much more so than our older son, Leo, who’s 9. Leo never hit any­one ex­cept some­times me. By the time he was 3, his ver­bal skills were sharp, and if Leo got whacked by his friends, of­ten he had pro­voked it by need­ing to have the last word. But dis­tracted par­ents on the play­ground don’t al­ways see the lead-up. They raise their heads when a blow is landed, and the hit­ter is in­stantly la­beled: That’s the bad kid, we all think. Or, per­haps: That’s the bad par­ent.

I might have thought that once or twice my­self. I don’t re­call ever calling Leo’s friend Jas a bully, but I might have won­dered whether there was some­thing wrong with him or whether his par­ents should have come down harder. Be­cause, be­tween the peals of laugh­ter and the nor­mal back-and-forth, Jas and Leo would in­evitably be­gin to ar­gue. Frus­trated, Jas would hit. And Leo, who never ex­per­i­mented with hit­ting back, or putting up his arms, or shout­ing at him to stop, would cry. None of us could fig­ure out how to break the pat­tern.

For adults, wit­ness­ing vi­o­lence be­tween chil­dren can be alarm­ing. Most of us wouldn’t dream of hit­ting a friend. So when we see a kid hit, it’s dif­fi­cult not to view the be­hav­ior through an adult lens. We as­cribe to chil­dren an un­re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tion, an un­re­al­is­tic faith in their pre­frontal-cor­tex de­vel­op­ment. We know, ra­tio­nally, that kids that young can’t pause and think, “I’m so fu­ri­ous, but in­stead of whack­ing this per­son in the face, I’ll walk away.” But when we see it hap­pen, ra­tio­nal thought of­ten goes out the win­dow.

Do I sound like I’m ra­tio­nal­iz­ing, here? If I do, it’s be­cause I find my­self in a po­si­tion I never thought I’d be in: I have a tod­dler who hits other kids, who’s been bit­ing at day care, who pinches us and, when we get mad, looks us right in the eye and does it again. In these mo­ments I find my­self flooded with anx­ious ques­tions about my sweet sec­ond child, with his blond halo of curls and his dumpling cheeks. How can he be so breath­tak­ingly lovely one minute and a ter­ror the next? Is he a bad kid? Am I a bad par­ent? Does his pen­chant for ag­gres­sion mean he’ll grow up to be an ag­gres­sive man? In these times, that last worry feels par­tic­u­larly poignant.

But the an­swer, of course, is not nec­es­sar­ily. When I play Jane Goodall, I ob­serve that my son acts out when he’s hun­gry, tired or frus­trated; be­cause he’s cu­ri­ous or ex­cited; to say hello; and to ex­press the in­ex­press­ible, some­thing like, “Mom just showed up to day care, and now I’m con­fused about who’s in charge, and I re­ally don’t want this lit­tle girl to stand so close to me.” What I’ve learned from scour­ing the In­ter­net, talk­ing with par­ent­ing spe­cial­ists and do­ing daily check-ins with Sammy’s day-care provider should be com­fort­ing: Tod­dler bit­ing and hit­ting are nor­mal. Kids bite and hit when they can’t yet ex­press their needs safely.

But it isn’t that com­fort­ing when the other mom on the play­ground tells her kid to be care­ful around mine, and when the pre­vail­ing be­lief is that highly phys­i­cal chil­dren are un­usual or dan­ger­ous. That they should be pun­ished. And, most dam­ag­ing, that they’re bul­lies. Bul­ly­ing is tar­geted, sys­tem­atic be­hav­ior. Bul­ly­ing is when a fel­low sixth-grader writes “fat slob” on the back of your sweater in chalk af­ter weeks of tor­ment. (True story, mine.) Sammy bit­ing to find out what will hap­pen? Not bul­ly­ing. Sammy pinch­ing when he’s frus­trated? Not bul­ly­ing. Not fun, not okay, but also not bul­ly­ing.

I’m glad I never stopped Leo from play­ing with Jas. I’m glad that when an­other par­ent asked why I would let Leo hang out with some­one who hit him, I stood up for Jas’s mom. “She’s do­ing the best she can to help him stop,” I told that per­son. Jas is still Leo’s best friend. They fight like an old mar­ried cou­ple. They make up games that no one be­sides the two of them could pos­si­bly un­der­stand. Their friend­ship taught Leo – and our en­tire fam­ily – about com­pas­sion, and that kids are wired dif­fer­ently. That sen­si­tiv­ity man­i­fests it­self in many ways. And that there are no bad kids, just be­hav­iors that need to change. This un­der­stand­ing is dear to my heart now that I know what it’s like to be judged by strangers (and friends) for my child’s be­hav­ior.

I know Sammy’s go­ing to turn out fine. I hope that if we keep at our gen­tle, firm ap­proach of “No bit­ing. Bit­ing hurts” and show him al­ter­na­tives, he’ll start high-fiv­ing in­stead. But in the mean­time, I’m strug­gling. That’s when I turn to Jas’s mom, who weath­ered years of judg­ment be­cause of her kid’s be­hav­ior and who re­sponds with grace when I text to say: “I’m so mad at him. Why won’t he just stop??”

“I see you,” she tells me. “I’ve been there. I know you’re do­ing your best.”

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