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Ask Mother Wit

A place to get advice

Dear Mother Wit: My 3-Year-Old Is Hitting Me!

Dear Mother Wit, I have a 3-year-old son who hits me, scratches me, pulls my hair, throws things at me, punches and spits at me. Before my son was born I didn’t believe in spanking. I was never spanked. However, I was also a well-mannered child, the complete opposite of my son. I have tried every tactic to tame my son’s behavior such as reasoning with him and explaining why his behavior is unacceptable and the consequences for them, I’ve restrained him when necessary and I also use the time out method, I have been consistent with discipline, but nothing seems to work. Most times, my son tends to really hurt me. He has pulled hair out of my scalp, he has scratched the cornea of my eye and has caused me to lose most vision in that eye for a week. I just don’t know what else to do. Spanking seems to be the only option. What do you suggest?

Bruised & Confused

Dear Bruised & Confused:

Pinching, biting, scratching, and pulling hair is all normal behavior for toddlers because they haven’t learned how to control their emotions yet, they act out of a natural instinct, and children LOVE attention whether they get a positive or negative reaction.

You have a complicated situation. And you didn’t say, but I have to wonder: is your son witnessing or experiencing any kind of violence in your home or anyplace else? What I mean by that is, children who are around physical violence—especially those who see their parents or other adults fighting—grow up learning that this is normal and acceptable. I hope you’re not in any kind of abusive situation and that if you are, you get help right away.

Now let’s focus on your son. Your son is still a toddler at three years old. So when he feels angry or frustrated or even scared, he might hit, pull hair, and all that. And the worst thing you can do is spank or hit him (or do any of the things he’s doing to you) to punish him or to “show him how it feels.” Even though I know it can be tempting. You don’t want to hit and yell because you’ll be modeling for your son that this is an acceptable response to situations that make you angry.

You need stay calm and in control, and stop his behavior by removing him from the situation. If you have to, restrain his hands to protect yourself.

Some children hit their parent to get their attention and then we reward the behavior by teaching them that hitting is a good way to get it. But to get them stop this negative behavior you have to be consistent in your body language and tone. At a young age they don’t really understand a lot of talking so you have to firmly use simple words like “NO!” “We don’t hit!” “Hands are not for hitting.” Try doing this while holding their hands and counting backward slowly from 10. After doing this enough times your child will not like being confined and the message will catch on.

I noticed that you didn’t say when your son acts violently with you—are there things that make him angry, or is he doing these things randomly?

Acknowledge your child’s feelings and let him know that it is okay to feel mad but hitting hurts and it is not okay. Show your child what to do instead of hitting. Show him how to touch people gently and to use appropriate words to express his frustration. (Use the helpful feelings chart below) Give him positive reinforcement when he is gentle and kind.

A helpful feelings chart,

I want you to notice when your son acts like this. Write it down—take some notes with details to see if there might be a pattern. Also take him to the pediatrician and ask your doctor if there is anything going on medically or with your son’s health that could be causing this violence.

Next, think about what your son likes to do—toys or games he likes to play with, TV shows he likes to watch, things he likes to eat, etc. Explain to your son—calmly and gently—that hitting, spitting, punching, pulling hair—those are not acceptable ways to let you know if he’s feeling angry, tired, hungry, frustrated or scared. Teach him the words for those feelings, and encourage him to use them. At his age, you might also want to try a feelings chart that the two of you can use to see how he’s feeling, and then you can talk to him about better ways to handle those feelings.

Right now, your son doesn’t have healthy or safe ways to let you know what’s he’s feeling. Talk with the doctor, and if you feel helpless, ask for help. Ask if there are books you can read, videos you can watch, even classes you can take (parenting classes can really help in tough situations). The good news is that you’re not the first mother to experience this and it doesn’t mean you’re doing a bad job. You just need to take control of the situation before it gets even worse.

Your son might need more gentle, affectionate, soothing touch. Find out what calms him. Hold him, rock him, and make sure he’s getting plenty of love. And he might be a child who uses his hands to express himself. Look for fun, safe ways to help him express his feelings without hurting others (or himself).

Good luck! Be sure to check back and let me know how it’s going, okay? You might learn some things that can help other parents, and that’s what this is really all about.

With love,

Mother Wit

Dear Mother Wit: “My Two-Year-Old Is Telling Me ‘No’!”

Dear Mother Wit:

I popped my daughter on the behind today. I feel bad, but I don’t know how else to get her to pay attention to me.  She’s 27 months and taking me through the terrible twos.  When I tell her to do something, she says, “No!” with an attitude.  How does a child that young even know how to have an attitude?  The more I try to correct her, the more stubborn she gets.  I love her so much, but I cannot have her being disrespectful.  I wasn’t raised like that.  My mama would have popped me in the mouth if I acted like that.  If hitting is bad and my daughter won’t listen, what am I supposed to do?  I need some advice because I’m fed up!

Dear Fed Up Mama:

I remember feeling exactly that way with each of my children.  They can work your nerves like a full-time job with overtime, can’t they?  

I know what your daughter is doing feels like disrespect.  But at just past two years old, she doesn’t understand “disrespect” the way that we do.  She’s just learning to be her own person and a natural part of that is starting to see herself as separate from you.  It’s easy to feel angry and frustrated, but this is an important stage that’s gonna set the tone for your relationship with her in the years to come.  

Here are a few things you can try:

First, as crazy as it sounds, she’s not disrespecting you!   She’s learning the power of “NO,” which is something she needs to know as she grows up.  Right now it feels bad because she’s defying you.  If you can see it that way, try to take a deep breath and move out of feeling angry.  The calmer you can be with her, the more power and authority you will have.

Let her know the rules—explain things simply in a way that she can understand.  Have a plan in place so that when she gets stubborn, you already know how you’re going to handle it.  Let her know what will happen if she doesn’t do as you say.  For instance, “When mommy tells you to do something, I need for you to do it.  The first time.  If you don’t listen and do as I say, then you’ll have to go to time-out.  That means you can’t play with your toys or watch TV or anything fun.  You have to sit still and stare at the wall.”  The hardest thing about discipline can be to follow up on what you promised.  So be prepared to put your plan into action.  

Now, she’s gonna test you to see if you mean it.  So when she acts out, punish her as you said you would.  You don’t have to yell, scream or hit her (even though you might want to).  You’ll have to do this more than once to teach her what she needs to know.  The important thing is to stick to the plan and let her know the pattern: if she acts out, she gets punished.  

If your daughter cries or gets upset or throws a tantrum, try to remember that she’s not being “bad.” She’s too young to know how to express her feelings, especially frustration or anger.  She might also be feeling sad.  When her punishment is over, talk with her calmly.  Explain that she needs to do as you say. Give her a hug and tell her you love her.  Remind her that you’re in charge, and that you know she can do the right thing.

Also praise and compliment her when she does things right, especially doing as you say.  Catch her being good and let her know you’re pleased.

The “terrible twos” won’t last forever.  They’re a normal and healthy part of your daughter’s growth, no matter how frustrating it feels to you.  Find ways to release your stress and focus on making sure she knows you’re the Head Momma in Charge.  This is where you’re teaching her how to treat you.  And it’s important because the next time she acts this way, she’ll have hormones and be asking for your car keys.  But don’t worry—I’ll be here for you when that time comes!

With love,

Mother Wit.

Too Tired To Play

Anthony Gordon Asks:

My wife and I have a 2 (soon to be 3) year old boy. He is an only child for the most part and we have no plans for any more. He goes to daycare 5 days per week however when we get home after picking him up, he wants to play with us as though we are his playmates from daycare. We work long hours and are usually exhausted when we get home. We bought him a dog to play with and that has helped some. We force ourselves to have some play time and read to him nightly before bed. Any suggestions?

Mother Wit says:

Dear Anthony,

It’s hard to come home after a long day of work and then have to spend more time and energy playing with the little ones. Lord knows, there were plenty of days when I was just too tired to get on the floor and play horsie or sit on one of those little chairs and pour another pretend pot of tea.

When my children were young I swear sometimes I wished they would magically disappear. Not forever – but just for a little while so I could read the paper, watch the news, chat on the phone or just unwind for an hour or two after work.

Some of my friends believe that they have to constantly entertain their children every waking moment of the day, but this mentality doesn’t leave time for relaxation and it can create stress. Your job as a parent is to be a role model, not a playmate.

So I learned to fill my children’s “play cups” half way and taught them how to fill it the rest of the way themselves. Sometimes I would sit down with them for a specific amount of time just to get them into an activity – like puzzles or some kind of arts or crafts – that they could continue without me. And then, I would slowly remove myself. When I would give them a little of my time then I found they were more receptive to doing things by themselves.

My oldest son was a little more of a challenge because he was my little shadow. So I would plan little activities or projects that he could do in close proximity to me and let him know the he had to play quietly while mama was doing her thing.

The other thing that worked was allowing for what I call “creative chaos.” As I took a “Mommy Break” I’d create some Kid Space where they could make a mess to keep them preoccupied for long periods of time. One time I lined their room with an old shower curtain and let them finger paint. If you look around the house you can find all kinds of old things that will keep them stimulated. I found that this approach taught my children boundaries, how to self soothe, build focus, and to be independent. Try this approach and see what happens.

How Do We Deal With Our Children’s Constant Fighting?

Vincent Powell asks:

Mother Wit we need your help! Me and my wife have two children and they are always fighting over their toys. The younger one always starts trouble with the older child. Sometimes their fights get out of control. They bite, wrestle and hit each other with objects. I’m afraid they are going to seriously hurt each other one day. I know that sibling rivalry is normal but this has gotten out of hand. We take things away from them and we separate them when they fight but neither tactic has worked. How do we get them to stop fighting?

Mother Wit says:

Sibling rivalry is definitely a normal part of growing up. It’s as old as the Bible story of Cain and Abel. It’s only natural for them to compete for attention, toys and other resources. But it’s your job to protect your children, even from one another. How they behave toward each another is their first social lesson in how to behave in a group and in public.

When my kids had their little squabbles over toys I taught them to handle it themselves. I would tell them, “I’ll be back in one minute. If neither of you can figure out how to share the toy then it will be locked away where neither of you can get to it. Try this technique and what you’ll be doing is giving your children two choices – work it out themselves or face the consequences if you have to work it out for them.

Help! I Yell At My Kids Too Much!

Cheryl T. asks:

I’m a single mom. My kids are 9, 7 & 4. I yell at my kids too much. I try not to but it’s hard because I don’t have much help with them. They don’t always listen when I tell them to do things. I’ve only hit them a few times but I don’t really believe in beating butts. My mother raised me and my brother that way and I hated it. But these kids of mine are wearing my patience thin. How can I stop yelling so much so that I don’t stress myself out and them too? Thanks.

Mother Wit says:

Dear Cheryl,

First let me say that I admire you for wanting to make some changes in how you interact with your kids. A lot folks don’t always realize that they need to make changes so they just go on doing the same old things and dealing with the same old problems.

Believe me, I know that children can work your nerves. But a whole lot of hollering doesn’t help you or the situation. When my kids would lose their minds I used self-control methods to distract me from the tension of the moment and help me keep control over the situation. Sometimes I would look up to the ceiling and pray, “Lord Jesus please help me. I don’t want to hurt these kids. Father please give me the strength to endure.” Sometimes I would count to 30 and just breathe. Sometimes I would leave the room and close myself off in a closet or bathroom until I was calm.

Cheryl, it’s normal and human to have moments when you get angry. But yelling makes the situation worse and teaches your little ones that it’s okay for them to act that way when they get upset. You might think this is a bit radical, but when you do yell, apologize to your kids and tell them something like: “Mama was frustrated. I’m sorry I yelled at you.” Then, tell them what you’re going to do differently next time. This models for your kids what they should do when they make a mistake.

Make a plan to help you stay calm. Identify what makes you feel like yelling. Write down what your kids do that causes you to lose your temper. Be specific. Include when and where the behavior occurs. Identify what happens to you before you yell so that you learn to recognize your warning signs and take steps to calm down before you begin yelling. Write down what you will do differently such as taking a deep breath, leaving the situation for five minutes or using positive self-talk. Staying calm is not easy, and you have to work at it.

Dear Mother Wit: My Child Is Playing With His Poop!

Dear Mother Wit,

I’m a young mom trying to raise two young boys.  I don’t know what to do about my son’s behavior. He only does this at school.  Today he threw his poop in another stall and I soooo bad wanted to kill him but your posts keep reminding me that I could be his first bully.  Please help.

Dear frustrated Mama,

Thanks for writing.  I realize this behavior is frustrating and just straight up nasty, but don’t hurt him.  The fact is, and this may sound strange, “diaper digging” is perfectly normal behavior in young children.  Every behavior meets a need: before you punish your son, investigate.

Before we can explore some tips to help guide your son through this phase, we gotta figure out the WHY behind your son’s poo play.

When a child plays with their own poop that means he or she is struggling with attempting to master his or her own body, to control their own functions, and is quite curious about what his body is producing.  And this is actually a sign that your son is interested in exploring potty training.  Your son might be taking his poop out of the diaper because he doesn’t like the feeling of being dirty, or because his nose is stimulated by the smell, or because he is simply curious.

How old is your son, by the way?  If he is playing with his poo past age 4 or 5 then you should be concerned and talk to his pediatrician.  I did a little bit of medical reading for you and found that there might be some medical causes.  Here’s a list for you.  Write these down on a sheet of paper, take it to your pediatrician and ask him/her to check to see if your son has any of these issues:

PROTOZOAL INFECTIONS can cause rectal digging behavior.

PICA the ingestion of non-foods, may be caused by nutritional deficiencies.

ENCOPORESIS (the medical term for chronic constipation, impacted stool and soiling) causes abdominal discomfort that is relieved by rectal digging.

HEMORRHOIDS are caused by straining to evacuate the bowels, and are the source of itching and pain around the anus, which leads to anal exploration and rectal digging.

RECTAL PROLAPSE occurs when the rectum slips out of position, and can be caused by prolonged encoporesis or low muscle tone in the pelvic floor.  Symptoms include fecal incontinence and a sensation of incomplete bowel evacuation, which lead to fecal smearing behaviors.

There may also be some underlying psychological issues at play.  I’m not suggesting that this is the case in your son, but we must explore this, Mama.  Fecal smearing past age 4 or 5 may be a sign of developmental delays or post-traumatic stress.  If so, your son may be engaging in this behavior as a form of communication.

So why do some children communicate with poo?  A number of shrinks and pediatricians have explain that it does the following:

— It gives a child the sense of control over his body and environment when other areas of life are out of control.

— It gives a child a sense of ownership over his actions.

— It helps a child express feelings of anger, frustration, helplessness and powerlessness.

— Allows a child to avoid unwanted social interaction.  And since you’ve indicated that he’s only doing this at school you may want to investigate what kinds of social interactions may be going down between him and other children or with his teacher.  He may be trying to communicate that something negative is going down in that environment.

— Allows the child to comfort himself, or it may be part of an obsession that is getting out of control.

So what can you do?

1. You have to use his poop play as a teaching moment and try to calmly say, “No playing with poop. Poop stays in the diaper or in the potty. We play with toys.”  Don’t get pissed off.  If you do that then your son knows that you will get pissed off every time this happens.  So he’ll keep doing it to get a lot of attention from you.

2. Limit your son’s access to his feces. Dress him in onesies, zip-up pajamas, or overalls.  This will at least buy you a few extra minutes to respond.

3. Closely monitor his bathroom routine, changing him or her soon after pooping or peeing.  And be sure to praise him once he has successfully used the bathroom.  Often parents only give a child negative attention when things go wrong.

4. Give him something messy to play with: clay, finger paints, shaving cream, and bread dough. Give him LOTS of praise for playing with this messy stuff verses the poo.  LOL.  A child that is deprived of sensory input who is then given frequent periods of supervised play with soft or sticky substances with strong smells to satisfying the craving for odors, can be alleviated from the need to play with poo.

If your son is not getting enough appropriate touching and stimulation of his senses, then frequent periods of supervised play with soft or sticky substances such as clay, shaving cream or bread dough can alleviate his need for handling feces.  Substances with a strong smell may also satisfy any craving for odors.

Remember, every behavior meets a need.  You need to move beyond your very understandable feelings of disgust and frustration and focus on what is behind your son’s behavior.  Your son’s behavior is a message that you need to focus on decoding.

Don’t hit the kids, hit the keyboard.  For alternatives to hitting ask Mother Wit!





How To Talk To Children About Mike Brown, Ferguson & Matters of Race

Dear Mother Wit,

Because of all of the news about the cop killings of Mike Brown, Eric Garner and John Crawford, my son is having nightmares about being murdered by police. How do I make him feel safe when he feels like his skin puts him in clear and present danger by law enforcement? What’s the appropriate way to talk to a kindergartener about racial profiling, police brutality and the criminalizing of Black bodies and reassure him while preparing him adequately for the reality of how he’ll be perceived as a threat?

— Ferguson Nightmares

Dear Ferguson Nightmares,

Alas, this is the plight of Black and brown parents here in America: we have to raise our children to live within and honor a system that, at every turn, consistently reminds us that we are not respected by it. This becomes glaringly apparent when protests against police brutality reach fever pitch and we Black folk voice our frustrations with tactics that target our families.

There are protests (like that surrounding the death of Mike Brown, whose shooting death by a cop sparked mass demonstrations in Ferguson), there are angry demands (like the call for a change in policing tactics after the killing of Eric Garner, whose strangling death at the hands of police officers was caught on cell phones) and there’s lots of chatter about how incredulous these cases are (like the shooting death of John Crawford in a crowded Walmart, while he was holding a toy rifle police thought was real). All that anger about the injustice of it all plays out in one big, loud, emotional stereo on our TVs, radios, social media, and haunts our dinner table conversations, and rightfully so. We’re crying out and trying to figure out how to cope with it all—maybe even figure out how to fix this thing.

The problem is that those emotional conversations often happen in front of our kids, sans the filter necessary to help them process it all. We’re talking around them, but not to them. The result: a 5-year-old child is left to consider all the scary details of these incidents—shootings, chokings, being murdered for playing with toys, riots, tear gassings, scary police officers who kill people for being Black—all on his own. And since five-year-olds are developmentally incapable of reasoning and separating fantasy from reality, it is only natural that they would gather up all the anger, emotion and snippets of information and conclude they and the people they love are in imminent danger.

How do you help your son deal with it all? Consider these steps:

Encourage conversation and listen to him.

It’s important you give up that old Black folk saying, “Children are to be seen, not heard,” and give your son the opportunity to talk about it all. He doesn’t have to be in adult conversation, but he does need for you to give him the chance to express his fears and beliefs in a safe space where his feelings are validated, he doesn’t have to check his emotions and he can count on the person who loves him most—his mother—to help him process it all. For instance, if he says, “Police are bad, they kill Black people and they are going to kill me, too,” you can counter that by acknowledging that there are police officers who do bad things to people for a number of reasons, but that an overwhelming number of them are there to protect and help people. If you really listen to what he’s saying, you can allay his fears, dispel what is unreasonable and give him the tools he needs to cope.

Answer his questions about the high-profile police brutality cases with facts.

Remember: your child’s understanding of what happened to kids like Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin and the like comes from a myriad of sources—family, friends, nightly news, fellow 5-year-olds—and the “facts” can come fast and furious, sometimes contradicting one another, sometimes embellished. It’s important, then, to let him both say what he knows and ask questions. Then answer him with basic facts and honest, developmentally-appropriate conversation that considers his feelings about the matter. Acknowledge that the details are scary, but that the chances of something like that happening to him really are low. Remind him, too, that you don’t have all the answers and that this world is not perfect, but that you are going to do everything within your power to protect him, love him, and be there for him if he feels upset or doesn’t understand what is going on.

Monitor what he sees and hears.

News coverage of both Eric Garner and Mike Brown’s deaths is graphic and full of imagery that is wholly inappropriate for kindergarteners. Simply put: seeing a dead body laying in the street or watching a man be choked to death is not something 5-year-olds should be consuming. Ever. If your child has seen it already, explain to him what happened, and put it into age-appropriate context for him: “I’m really sorry you saw that; I’m sure it was scary to watch. We are going to wish good thoughts for their families and hope that anyone who did anything wrong gets punished for it.” Then, here comes the important part: turn off the TV and radio and let your child get the information he needs about the case directly from you. Remember: the news is meant for adults. It’s up to parents to craft news into age-appropriate conversation.

Get him involved.

Racism, police brutality and racial profiling show us the absolute worst in people; the shock, sadness, hostility and anger can be heartbreaking and overwhelming, even for adults. But we know that raising our voices—whether by signing petitions, protesting or exercising our right to vote—helps not only contextualize ways to fix what’s broken, but also gives us the opportunity to work with others to make some kind of difference. This is cathartic. Give your son the chance to do the same: consider helping him write a letter to the families of Mike Brown or Eric Garner. Let him listen to music that speaks to social issues—think Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” Raheem DeVaughn’s “Nobody Wins a War,” or Jill Scott’s “My Petition”—and discuss their context. Share books and poems of hope: think Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” or Langston Hughes’ “I, Too, Sing America,” and talk to him about their meanings, too. Let him know that ours is a mighty people that has come a long way, and with each passing generation, we’ve gotten stronger—and it is possible to continue doing so.  With your love, care and attention, surely, he will come around—and be the better for it.


Taming Out-Of-Control Playdates, Without the Smackdown

Dear Mother Wit,

My 8-year-old is friends with a white classmate whose parents let her do just any ol’ thing when my daughter goes to their home for playdates, like leave toys all in the floor, snack in her room and play kickball in the living room. If my daughter pulled that mess here, I’d tear her little behind up! But now her friend is coming over and I’m thinking that if she tries me, we’re going to have some problems around here. I don’t want to snatch someone else’s kid. How do I get her and my daughter to behave by my rules while they’re playing in my house? —  I’m No Playdate Punk

Dear I’m No Playdate Punk,

Let’s be clear: there isn’t an 8-year-old on the earth who’s going to be the model citizen when she’s got a playmate at the house ripping and running and having a blast alongside her. Kids are prone to shenanigans. Shenanigans will most definitely be had during a play date.

In all the excitement, your child may be tempted to temporarily lose her mind and act a fool, too, right alongside her partner. Hitting your daughter for being a kid with another kid is overkill. Really, there’s no transgression they could make in the house that would warrant you pulling out the belt to make a point that in playing, they’ve broken some of your rules. Stopping them from playing together while they get a little act right in them is more than enough punishment, I promise.

That’s not to say that your kid should be allowed to go hog wild when company’s over. It just means you should consider approaching the playdate a little differently when it’s at your house, that’s all. Do what I do with my grandkids: Lay down the law with your daughter before company arrives, and when her little friend steps through the door, sit the two of them down and go over the ground rules again: No running through the house, no tossing balls in the living room, no eating outside of the kitchen, etc.

I make very clear to my grandchildren and their guests that the rules don’t change just because they’ve got friends over, and that they’re all to be on their best behavior—to both set an example for the kids visiting, and to stay out of trouble. Somewhere in the conversation, I remind mine that they really don’t want to get embarrassed in front of their little friends, but I will lay down the law if they get out of hand–no matter who is listening and watching. Laying down the law includes extending a couple of reminders and warnings, and, if the foolishness persists, having everyone sit down in the middle of the playdate for some quiet time to reflect about how they could have avoided breaking my rules. If too many rules are broken, I haven’t a problem cutting the playdate short. Trust me when I tell you: busting up the playdate hurts way more than any swat you could give with a belt.

Knowing the playdate could go down in a spectacular display of quiet time and “you gotta go” embarrassment is usually deterrent enough for everyone—my grandkids and their friends—to keep calm and play on. But I know they’ll still have their moments when they encourage and participate in things they have no business doing—warnings or no. In those situations, I don’t sweat the small stuff. I simply stop whatever is going on, scold when it calls for it, redirect when it’s not a big deal, and let the kids do what they do: Have fun.


Biracial Mom: What Do I Do When Black Relatives Pressure Me To Spank?

Dear Mother Wit,

I’m a biracial mother married to a black man and we have two kids, ages 8 and 2, and another on the way. When we go to one particular family’s house, my toddler acts out more than usual and recently, at a dinner party, he really showed out. He stood up in a chair, made his dad drop his drink and ran all over the house like a crazy person, ignoring both my husband and I when we told him to listen to us and sit down. I even tried spanking and ignoring him, but he wasn’t listening and he kept crying.

I felt so self-conscious in front of the other family, which is all black. I’m sure they were judging my parenting skills. Their children, ages 5 and 3, acted better and I couldn’t help but to feel like they were expecting something different from our parenting. I know I need to be more consistent with my disciplining, but how do I parent in public and keep control over how I choose to do so in front of a Black audience?

                                                                                                                  — Parenting in Public

Dear Parenting in Public,

Oh boy, let me tell you something: there is nothing worse than the side-eyes, blank stares, judgment and general funkiness Black folk toss your way when it looks like you can’t control your kid.

I’ve seen a rainforest full of shade heaped on mamas who couldn’t keep their kids in check at the grocery store, in church service, on public transportation and yes, even at their own homes when company is over. I’ve been there, trust me: my older daughter went through her “Terrible Twos” phase at about age three, and when I’d take her to visit my mother and her friends, those old ladies would practically hold prayer circles and séances to summons up a little “get right” for my wild child, who would cry, scream, squirm and fall out no matter who was in the room, what they were saying or how many death glares they would toss her way.

My younger daughter got more of the same when, as a toddler, she’d show up to a room full of Black folks and refuse to smile and talk and charm her way into everyone’s good graces. The temptation to put a little extra into my disciplining techniques was real: it seemed like it would be easier to pop the meaty part of their fat legs than go up against the judgmental demands of a bunch of stern old ladies who’d swear on a stack of Bibles that their kids never had tantrums, always followed directions and could catch a right hook in front of anybody with eyes if they dared step out of line in public.

Thing is, two-year-olds don’t really give a good hot doggone who’s watching or what onlookers think about their questionable behavior. They’re two. If they want to cry, run, fall out, scream, pout, stomp, laugh like maniacs, do the Dougie and drop into a deep sleep on the kitchen counter after all that Tomfoolery, they will do that. Because that’s what two-year-olds do.

If I’ve said it once I’ve said a million times: toddlers act out because they don’t know how to express themselves the way mature humans with words do. This is because they can’t yet talk. So if they’re angry, they can’t say, “Look here, I’m mad and I need you to fix that.” Instead, they’ll go ham and toss up the room until somebody figures out the 411 on why they’re mad and how they expect it to be handled. It’s nothing personal. They’re not being bad. They don’t need to be beaten to an inch of their lives or shown a wooden spoon to fall in line. They need you to figure out quickly what their needs are and handle them so that they can get back to the fun.

But you know what? This isn’t about getting control of your kid in front of others. It’s about feeling comfortable in your parenting choices, even in the face of relentless, hurtful judgment from people who think you suck because you seem like you can’t control your kid.

The best way to deal with that is to:

1. Have a plan for how to handle your kids’ tantrums—one that doesn’t include beating your baby to appease the audience watching the antics. He cries or falls out, pick him up, go somewhere quiet, let him get calm, figure out what the problem is (outside the prying eyes of the old ladies) and handle that madness like Olivia Pope does in “Scandal.”

2. Come with some words prepared for the people who insist on telling you how to discipline your kid. Whenever one of my mother’s friends would fix their mouths to question why I didn’t hit my daughters, why I didn’t relax their hair or why I didn’t yell at or snatch them up when they cried or got out of pocket, I came with this: “She’s acting her age. She’ll have it together by the time she’s off to Spelman.” Anybody who had a comeback got a very simple, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this.” They could stew all they wanted to, but usually, nobody had much else to say after I insisted they stay out of my business.

3. Be prepared to leave. Real talk: you have an audience ready, willing and able to tell you how to discipline your child and pass judgment because you’re giving them a show. If taking your child out of the room and giving him a chance to get calm doesn’t work, politely tell your hosts that your son is too cranky to be good company and take him home. No, children should not be the baller, shot caller of your lives, but really, there’s only a short window of time when your two-year-old will act like a two-year-old, and soon enough, he’ll have a handle on his feelings, emotions and words and be much too busy having fun to ruin yours.



How To Get Your Kid To Stop Swinging On You When She Can’t Have Her Way

Dear Mother Wit,

My 2-year-old has been hitting me, her big sister, the kids out on the playground, pretty much everybody she comes in contact with.  I popped her hand a few times and told her “No! Stop that, bad girl!” but she keeps on doing it.  How do I get this little girl to listen? — Mom of a Little Mike Tyson

Dear Mom of a Little Mike Tyson,

First things first: you need to understand that hitting your daughter for hitting you or anyone else won’t ever change her behavior.  Why?  Because by hitting her, you’re teaching her that the person who hits the hardest is the one who gets her way.  And what comes from that?  More hitting. By her and you.  A vicious cycle.

If you want to stop the hitting, you have to understand why she’s doing it.  Start with the fact that she’s two.  Which means she’s totally acting her age.  Hitting is normal, natural behavior for toddlers, who can’t yet express themselves in the ways that older kids and adults do.  The typical 2-year-old knows only about 50 to 75 words and can barely string them together into phrases or sentences yet, so they tend to hit to get attention, to say they’re hungry or tired, or because they’re frustrated over the fact that they don’t have any control over whatever is going on in the moment.

So while her mind is saying, “I really want a turn on the swing that other kid is swinging on,” or “I really don’t want to sit in this chair right now,” her ability to express those things is severely limited to her saying, “Gimme,” and “No,” with a smack or two to make sure that the other person is totally clear.

Now this is not to say that the hitting is right.  I just want you to understand that it’s normal.  Your kid is not bad.  She doesn’t have violent tendencies.  And she’s going to grow out of this phase where she expresses herself with her hands, rather than her words.  In the meantime, how do you get her to stop hitting? Check out these tips for what to do when your child hits:

1. Calm her down.  Keep it simple: take her away from whatever she’s angry about—the other kid on the swing, her sibling with the toy she wants, that box of colorful cereal she saw in the grocery aisle—get to her eye level, take her hands into your hands (gently!), look her right in the eye and tell her firmly, “No hitting.”  Don’t get any deeper than that because, again, she’s two and mad and lashing out and the last thing she’s going to be here for is a long, drawn-out conversation on why she’s can’t go all Mike Tyson just because she’s not getting her way.  Bonus: when you take her away from the scene of the hitting tantrum, you’re distracting her and making her focus on what you’re saying.

2. Help her find the words to say what she really wants. Of course, it’s not okay for her to hit, but it’s important that you help her understand and express her feelings in that moment.  This requires you to pay attention. When my daughter was little, she had an episode or two over an Elmo doll both she and her sister loved.  If she saw her big sister getting her play on, the little one would run right over and knock the big one right upside the head.  Luckily, my older daughter already knew that hitting was wrong, so she’d either tell her not to hit or she’d come snitch to me.  It took only a few times for me to realize that the little one was hitting the big one because whenever she saw her sister playing with Elmo, she wanted to play with the toy, too.  So I gave her the words to express that, then the rules for how to play with her sister: “I know you want to play with Elmo—that’s your boy. But you have to wait your turn to play with him.”  In that instance, my little sand timer that I kept in the playroom came in handy, too.  “When all the sand runs into the bottom, turn it upside down and then you can play with Elmo until the sand runs out again.” She was a smart little cookie, see?  She couldn’t talk well but she could understand me just fine.  After that, the two could take turns with Elmo and everybody was happy and there was no more hitting.  At least not over Elmo.

3. Give her some options.  She may just not be into being told what to do. I know, I know—you’re the parent, she’s the child and she’s supposed to do what you say.  But before you snatch my mom card and my wig, consider this: there are instances where your daughter is lashing out because she’s frustrated by the lack of options and control.  Nobody likes to feel like they’re not in control, even two-year-olds.  Understand, I’m not advocating you let your kid run the show.  I’m just saying it wouldn’t hurt anybody if you let your kid think she has a little more control.  How does that look?  Well, instead of telling her to pick up her toys, you could say, “Okay, it’s time to put the toys away, baby.  Which one are you going to put in the toy chest first: Elmo or the bouncy ball?”  Instead of saying, “put your shoes on so we can go,” you could say, “It’s time to put your shoes on—which one do you want to wear, the green sneakers or the sandals?”  See?  You still get what you want, and she feels like she’s being included in the decision making process.  And there’s no hitting involved—from either of you. Win for everybody!




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