The other night I was lying with my head in my son’s Ikea circus tent, (he used to invite me in to read to him, but only the part of me that makes sounds and words is allowed in now) reciting the names of trucks in his favorite truck book, when he suddenly cocked his hand back and open-palm slapped my left eye.
My husband (also not invited in the tent) jumped up from the rocking chair and picked Lou up, admonishing his behavior while our once-sweet baby stared down at me. He humored Rob’s stern talk about being kind and never hitting anyone especially not mommy, and then crawled back in the tent to resume his mechanical studies.
It shocked me how long it took to not be mad at him. I understood, rationally, that my 16-month-old is inherently irrational and that his outburst had nothing to do with me and everything to do with the fact that toddlers are little raw nerves running around on chubby legs. We responded the way we’re supposed to—by explaining his bad behavior and removing him from the situation.
But what I actually wanted to do was create him a PowerPoint outlining the two years it took to conceive him and the second trimester insomnia and migraines I dealt with and the 31-hour labor followed by C-section followed by the recovery and sleepless nights of reverse cycling and cluster feeding and the low grade anxiety about something terrible happening to him that I will carry in my heart for the rest of my life. A proportional response, no?
What I did instead was get over it. Because he hit me again a few days later when we were snuggled together watching Sesame Street, and again when we were standing in the window pointing out all the cars driving by (a new favorite pastime). And, before you pass judgement and think my son is some kind of woman-hater, I know for a fact he isn’t because he’s hit my husband, too.
I’ve looked into this extensively and basically what I’ve learned is that toddlers belong in prison. They hit and yell and are sometimes belligerent—or even poop—in public. They show little remorse for their transgressions, and exhibit almost no signs that they are willing to conform to societal norms. It’s no wonder that nature made sure humans are at their cutest and funniest from the ages of one to four.
I should take the time to point out, lest Lou come across this article 20 years from now, that he is a dream 93 percent of the time. He’s curious and hilarious and loving and he deeply dislikes being upset. His tantrums usually last under a minute because he’s already a more realized person than either of his parents and actually works to breathe through his anger. He amazes me every single day, and fills our lives with joy.
But the hitting has got to stop.
The research I’ve done leads me to believe that Lou’s occasional outbursts have to do with one of three things: curiosity, communication, or crankiness. Toddlers do things repeatedly to see what kind of reaction they’ll get. When they drop food on the floor it’s not to give you a prematurely bad back from cleaning, it’s to, simply put, learn what happens when they drop food on the floor. Will it always fall? Will dad always pick it up? Will any more food replace that food? It’s the same principle with hitting. Lou will watch us carefully to see how we respond, and then he moves on to the next activity. By that logic, if we consistently tell him to stop, we can expect a hit-free home some time by the end of 2018.
Communication—or lack of the ability to verbally communicate yet—could also be the culprit. Lou’s got a few signs down, which really helps us figure out what he wants. But while we wait for his verbal skills to fully catch on, it’s got to be pretty frustrating. Kids his age will often communicate the only way they know how at that point, which is physically. And lastly, he could just be tired or cranky and not want to deal with his annoying parents.
The lesson we’re all learning here is patience. Because we were inexplicably blessed with an easy baby, we’re used to being a little gang who gets along most of the time. But now that Lou is working on becoming a person and we’re working on being the best parents we can, things are shifting into a higher gear. Our relationship will continue to evolve for the rest of our lives, and it’s been humbling to realize that during his first big developmental shift.
The real work of helping turn him into a productive, kind, curious person has begun, and I can only hope that my creativity in aiding this process develops beyond guilt-ridden PowerPoint presentations.