But now she is back to hitting and screaming at us. She has just shifted the form of her angry response, and there is no reason to believe that she won't start spitting again at any moment.
Before I knew that the specific spitting problem was resolved, I posted a question about it on two parenting lists I belong to. The responses fell into three essential categories:
- Explain why spitting is wrong and give alternatives for expressing angry feelings
- The child cannot control her body so, as a last resort, do it for her by covering her mouth
- The child is showing that she cannot behave properly in a social context, so remove the social context by sending her to her room (or to time-out)
(There were other points about how to handle things like spitting bath water and playing with one's spit, but those did not apply to Sam's situation, which is all about expressing anger.)
The first response is a Positive Discipline approach and definitely needs to happen. Before you can take any other action, as a parent your first responsibility is to assume positive intent, respect the child's intelligence, and give reasons. Sometimes the child just doesn't know how to express her feelings in an appropriate way.
But, "assume positive intent" does not mean "your child always acts with positive intent." Sam's hitting and spitting is (usually) done precisely because she wants to make an impact by doing the "wrong" thing. (Although there are certainly times where she just forgets, but I can tell the difference now.) The first approach would be worse than a waste of breath in these cases - it would be a default on proper judgment of really inappropriate behavior. It would be an injustice.
The second response is kind of like the last resort of Positive Discipline and it's what I've been doing with the hitting (restraining her body) for the past year or so. But the hitting has continued, off and on.
The third is a more traditional approach, and something that PD advocates might call a "punishment." But in the end, I think the third approach is best for our situation.
I've been thinking a lot lately about the problems with Positive Discipline. I don't think it's a really good concept to begin with, although I think a lot of the techniques are fabulous. (I don't have any clear, overall, positive principle of my own, but I'm working on it.) Here is one area where I think PD falls short. With PD, you have to be willing to make the correction or give the guidance hundreds of times before the child gets it. This is fine and dandy for most things (table manners, treating toys respectfully, cleaning up, etc.). But for some things, I'm not willing to allow the behavior to happen over and over. With hitting, I'm not willing any more to have it happen 20 times a day for a week and go through the restraint and explanations and apologies and all of that before she stops. It's not something I'm willing to continue to be a patient "guide" about any more. The behavior needs to end now, and for good, for my own, selfish reasons. I feel like a punching bag, and that is not ok. (And honestly, it gets to the point where I fantasize about hitting her back, and that is scary, and a real signal that something is wrong.) Selfishness is always a good guide, but I also do think that it is in the child's interest to understand that hitting is not just another way of being impolite, but is in a different category from those other things. This is not something that she has the luxury of taking any more time to "learn." It does need to be treated differently. Spitting is in the same category. It is out of bounds. Period.
This was my original instinct a year ago and the reason that I tried time-outs. But making a child sit on the step for a couple of minutes is not a clear way of isolating her and removing her from the social context. And the endless Supernanny method of returning the child to the step when she gets up is too painful, and really just too much trouble. Why should I spend an hour physically battling my child when I'm trying to teach her the lesson that force is not ok? Sure, I'm using force as a response to force, which we adults know is not only acceptable, but a requirement, but can a child really understand that in the heat of the moment? I think the child would see this as bullying. And that's the way it felt when I used that technique. It was miserable, and it didn't make sense.
So even before I got those three responses, we had started sending Sammy to her room for certain things, not as punishment, but because the minute she hits or spits, she has declared herself incapable of acting properly in a social context, and so must be removed from it. PD has some techniques to deal with this in a similar way, like removing yourself from the child. But for some reason, time-outs and sending the child to her room are seen as punishments, and therefore, not ok.
Well, I'm coming to strongly disagree with this view. We cannot walk away from Sam when she hits because she follows us and continues to hit us. I could lock myself in my own room, but I don't think I should have to stop what I am doing because she is acting improperly. If she hits me at the dinner table, am I supposed to leave? No. It is she who needs to be isolated, not me. And if she cannot stay in her room on her own, I am ok with locking her in there. (That has happened a couple of times.) And there is no arbitrary time that she must spend in her room, like one minute for each year of age. She must stay there until she is ready to act like a human being. Sometimes this means that she comes out and asks if she can come downstairs. Sometimes it means we go in to her. There are no formulas for this, but simply our perception of exactly what is going on, and whether she has truly changed her attitude.
I'm gaining a little bit more respect for this traditional, "go to your room" technique. Sure, it can be abused (see Betty Draper in Mad Men), but I think it can also be used properly.
So, thanks to Betsy Speicher on the Rational Parenting List for the identification of the "social context" issue. I was already using it, but having it stated this way has helped me to clarify why it is an appropriate measure to take. It can be a logical consequence, not an arbitrary punishment, if used the right way.