Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Spitting and Hitting

Sam started spitting recently.  It's a new way of acting out her anger.  Usually, she makes a noise and dribbles down her chin, but once she spat directly at me.  I let her have it for that, giving her a stern lecture in a way that I reserve for really heinous behavior.  It seemed to work, as she has stopped (at least for the moment).

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.


  1. I also have problems with Positive Parenting because it leaves out the parental control over the situation, and sometimes a parent needs to state what is acceptable behavior and act on that. Is think that Faber and Mazlish have the right approach in stating objectively "I am angry at your spitting, and now I don't want to take you to McDonald's" Rachel Miner has a very good post on her blog about how she handled behaviour this way.

  2. Hi Amy! I have some thoughts about your critique of Assume Positive Intent. Very briefly, and then I'll probably write a responding post on my blog, assuming positive intent is a starting point for the parent. It doesn't mean don't use your judgment---if the child is clearly doing something they shouldn't be because they KNOW they shouldn't be, then by all means, it should be judged and handled according. API is there to remind the parent that that isn't always the case, to give the child the benefit of the doubt before beginning a parenting interaction/intervention. It's also to remind the parent that there is some kind of need the child is trying to fulfill in an appropriate way--he needs attention or is expressing an emotion, etc. Basically, I use API as a starting point that helps get ME in a good frame of mind for dealing with challenging behavior. It's for the parent; not the child.

    Secondly, we send our kids to their rooms--that is a technique that can be handled positively. When people are spitting or hitting or screeching until my eardrums bleed, they are given some choices. They can control their body. They can let me help them control their body. Or they can leave and go somewhere else and do that annoying thing. When they are ready to control their body--and DEMONSTRATE this control by their behavior--THEY get to decide when to leave their rooms. Sometimes, especially with more than one child, it's not feasible for me to leave room, and you're right, it's not always in my self-interest to be the one doing the leaving. Plus it's not fair.

    We use the "go somewhere else" method not as a punishment, but as a true alternative, a choice for the child to make. Often, they don't want to be separated from the rest of us (we're too fun!), so they make the choice to control their own body. Sometimes they do and we're spared the inappropriate behavior/being used as a punching bag. Sometimes the "elsewhere" choice is their room; sometimes it's going outside; sometimes it's going into the bathroom to use the sink to spit.

    Btw, I completely agree with Susan's remarks, and Rachel's post, and view both Rachel's handling as consistent with PD and Faber/Mazlish, too. So I'm a little confused that this would be seen as not in line with PD. I guess I have some more work to do, to clarify things.

  3. ARG! Typos! Should be (IN ALL CAPS):

    "...then by all means, it should be judged and handled ACCORDINGLY. API is there to remind the parent that that isn’t always the case, to give the child the benefit of the doubt before beginning a parenting interaction/intervention. It’s also to remind the parent that there is some kind of need the child is trying to fulfill in an INAPPROPRIATE way

  4. I share your concerns about Assume Positive Intent, Amy. In the manner Jenn's always presented it, it is a directive about how to read a child's intentions. As such, it is demonstrably false because kids can and do have a very negative intent behind their actions.

    But Jenn's statement about Assume Positive Intent here is one with which I'd agree. Sometimes you need to read the context with a fresh eye and realize that the child isn't trying to get your goat. I'd call that "It Isn't Always About You" and suggest that it applies to life in general, well beyond parenting.

    But the problem for me arises from "Assume." That word means something beyond "benefit of the doubt," which is similar to what I just expressed. It means to take something for granted. There is *no* positive intent in hitting or spitting on your parents. It's an inherently antagonistic act. Assuming positive intent here would be saying that "the child cannot control his body," which again is demonstrably false since spitting (or hitting) a target requires a very precise control of the body.

  5. I have repeatedly tried to demonstrate in my writing the meaning of API as I wrote it here. Apparently, I could improve on this, but everything I've written is consistent with that principle, even if I haven't clarified it properly.

    For instance, in this scenario, Assume Positive Intent does NOT mean "the child cannot control his body." When a child is clearly doing something wrong on purpose to antagonize, the issue is not one of impulse control.

    What needs might the child then need to fulfill? Maybe he's curious about spitting. Obviously not, in this case. Maybe he is angry and wants to make his mom feel that anger, too. I'd say that this might be the case based on what Amy has written.

    So if I am a PD parent, I'd say to myself: "Hmmm...why is he spitting? Aha! He's trying to make me as mad as he is. It is an immature attempt to elicit a similar emotional response from me. THAT is his need that he's trying to fulfill." That is all API is for.

    Note that the child's need in this case need not be rational, or make any kind of sense, or be just. Children are irrational. They are immature. That is a fact of reality. BUT, I think it's important to know what they are trying to do so that then you can address it properly. A child who is exploring the wonderful world of spitting might require a reminder "Hey, remember? Keep your spit in your mouth. If you want to learn about your spit, go do it in the bathroom."

    A child who is deliberately trying to antagonize someone needs a different parental response. "You're angry with me. It's okay to be angry, but spitting is definitely not okay. Can you stop spitting all by yourself?"

    "Positive" in the API does not mean "assume the child is trying to do something positive." It means: "assume the child has a real need he is trying to satisfy." I didn't make up the phrase API (and I truly don't know who did), but if the word "positive" is confusing people, then maybe it needs clarifying, a different definition. I think many people get confused by the "P" in PD in other ways, too. Some people mistakenly mean you need to be a cheerleader all the time, that you can't be sad, etc. But to me, "P" means keep the focus on moving forward, heading toward the right direction. Maybe if I had dreamed up the ideas PD proponents use I might have picked a different word.

  6. “Positive” in the API does not mean “assume the child is trying to do something positive.” It means: “assume the child has a real need he is trying to satisfy.”

    So really Assume Positive Intent could just be shortened to Assume Intent? Because that's all your second sentence amounts to. "Real need" as you've expressed here and your other writing on the subject may be rational or it may not be, it may stem from a slight or it may not, and it may be utterly impulsive or it may not be. Essentially, the child has a whim and needs to fulfill it and the parent has to figure out how to satisfy it in a way that does not infringe on other's rights or fits appropriately into some social scenario.

    I just re-read your most complete writing on this matter and it supports my evaluation also. In that post you cite Ryan's frequent "need" to scream at the dinner table. Then you state, "[w]ith PD, I acknowledge the child's need to shout (his self-interest) and I also can talk to the child about what I want (my self-interest)." Self-interest means rational self-interest. Ryan here had a *desire* to shout and you indulged his desire by saying he could do it outside (or up in his room) all he wanted. The other examples are of a piece--throwing things, writing on walls, pulling tails--in that none of them were about self-interest, except the false notion of self-interest that equates it with "doing what I want to do."

    The point of all that is it is all about *intent* and not about *positive*. But positive means something very precise as an adjective and there is nothing positive in the examples above or the spitting incident. I think that there is a package deal at play here (not of your origination, mind you) but I'm not fully prepared at this point to explain it.

  7. Yikes, I can't keep up with the comments!

    For API: The way Jenn states it in her first comment is exactly what my point was in the post. API is the starting point and not a way to avoid judgment. And all it means is that the child is not nihilistic. That, even if irrational, the child is seeking some THING for some REASON. Jenn, I've always known that's what you mean by it. I think you have been very clear and the terminology is fine. But I needed to clarify it for myself, because I really do not think that Positive Discipline proponents mean it the way you do. I think PD is very unclear and mixed. And I don't think that "official" PD way of thinking is as rational as you are.

    But I am surprised that you, Jenn, send your kids to their rooms. My recolletion of Jane Nelsen's book (or maybe it's just stuff I've read on the Yahoo group or Kelly's blog) is that that is punishment and not ok. But I do diverge here from you still. I used to give Sam the choice to go scream in her room. But she just doesn't go and keeps screaming. Every time. I'm no longer going to give her a choice. She doesn't deserve it, frankly. (Except when I can tell she's just lost control and needs help. And I really can tell the difference.) In the future, I might or might not allow her to go into another room other than her own, if she shows that she can stay away from me. But right now she needs a concrete instruction and command or she just flails about.

    I'm also not going to say things like, "You're angry with me, and that's ok, but spitting is not. Can you stop yourself?" That's what I've been doing but she is not taking me seriously. I suppose the bottom line is that, with spitting and hitting, she does not even get one chance or warning. No more. I am adopting a zero tolerance policy, and I am not going to consider her reasons or motivations in these cases any more. Right now, she has no way of knowing that hitting is worse than grabbing at my phone because, regarless of my words, my actions are basically the same. I don't mind telling her a thousand times to ask for my phone instead of grabbing, but I will not do that anymore for hitting. Zero tolerance. Shock and awe. No more physical abuse. I've had it.

    With yelling (which is also a big problem right now) she always gets a warning/chance to change, but like I said, no choice. It's an ultimatum. Stop screaming or you go to your room. If she's calm enough, she gets an explanation of why, too. If not, not.

    I agree with Susan that Faber and Mazlish have a much more coherent and rational way of thinking than Jane Nelsen (especially Nelsen's horrible core principle of, paraphrasing, "human beings greatest need is to feel like they belong.") I lumped them together at one point because there are so many similarities, but now that I have more experience, I think they have significant differences. I plan to read more by Faber and Mazlish and the guy who taught them whose name I can't think of right now.

  8. That’s what I’ve been doing but she is not taking me seriously.

    It's possible that she is liking the negative attention you are giving her even when you give her a stern lecture, explain consequences, or what have you. The point isn't that she's getting a rise out of you, but that she's getting your full attention. I don't know the context surrounding this outburst (like if you've been focused on doing something else or whatever) but I do know that children will sometimes seek parental attention any way they can.

  9. I don't know enough about PD.

    Looking back, my way of dealing with this would be to tell my son why it was not appropriate and give him an alternative. If he repeated the behavior, I would explain that if he could not control this, I would have to do XYZ (that could be sending him to his room, or something else that would make such behavior physically impossible).

  10. Bill, I agree that this is at least part of what she is doing. Whatever I've been doing is not having the intended effect, that's for sure.

  11. First, thanks for all the nice comments Susan, Jenn, and Amy :)

    It sound like we agree that a different location, the room, is a fully acceptable consequence here. I recently had an issue in the car where I used this as a belated consequence. My son was just unable to keep his voice to acceptable levels consistently and every five minutes or so the energy would pop out in an exuberant yell. I told him the yelling voices were hurting my ears, but, we were in the car. I could not get away. I could not safely cover his mouth. In this case, he was starting to give me a headache. I said something like, if the voices get loud again, I'm going to need some quiet time when we get home to let my head feel better. It happened only one more time, we talked the whole rest of the ride home (in happily normal volume voices) about how I was going to need three minutes downstairs alone so my head could feel better. (I think I've mentioned what a talker this kid is.) He spent three minutes upstairs while I was snuggled in a chair with my favorite blankie. It made my head feel better and it made an impression and it resolved the issue (so far) of loud voices in the car. So, I think the consequence of separation is powerful, natural, and a justified tool to keep in the toolbox.

  12. Okay, finally getting back to this discussion.

    Bill--API is a beginning point. Start off with this assumption. Then, if evidence appears to the contrary--for example, that the kid is spitting at you in the face in order to make you mad--change your evaluation of the situation. I don't blithely float along with a child who is trying to piss me off and say to myself, "Oh, the Little Dear is trying to fulfill his rational need. Let me find a way to help him do it!" No--in a situation like that, other parental intervention is warranted, and I use it--up to and including physical restraint, or taking the child up to his room so that the rights of others are not violated. In those cases, I set the limit and enforce compliance with the limit--and I do it without adding an additional punishment.

    Children aren't always rational, as we are all well aware. But I take issue with your saying that I indulge their whims. Some of the limits I set are pretty standard, ones upon which I'm sure we'd all agree: no hitting, no spitting, no destroying the property of others. Some parental limits are set based on the parent's optional values: don't eat graham crackers on the couch, don't dig holes in the backyard, no earsplitting screams in my face. With those limits that fall into the "optional values" (and that might not be the best term, but I don't have much time to think of a better one right now) realm, whether or not a limit is set will be different in my household than yours.

    To me, "earsplitting screams" is something that IS okay to do--outside, and in the daytime, so our neighbors are not disturbed at night. Is it a whim? I don't know--it doesn't make sense to me. I don't know if I can convince anyone who doesn't personally know this child that the production of noise IS kind of a physical need he has. Some kids need to kick out their anger, some need to scream it. Some kids scream because they enjoy the physical sensation even when happy.

    If I allowed him to scream in my face, THAT would be indulging his whim. If I caught him writing on the walls, and didn't want it to happen but let it happen anyway, THAT would be indulging a whim. If I just let them sit on top of the cat and didn't do anything to prevent it, THAT would be indulging a whim.

    But I do not do these things. I set rational limits on their behavior based on my, and their, rational self-interest. Even when they can't understand the rational reason. I don't let them write on the walls--in the example I gave in that post, the writing had already been done. We made him clean it up and it really hasn't been a problem since then. I stop them from being rough with the cat--if I can, I PREVENT that behavior, because it's not kind to the cat, and they might get (deservedly) scratched or bitten. I recognize that sometimes kids need to be loud, and since that in and of itself doesn't bother me so much, I provide them with an outlet for that activity in an area where my right not to have my eardrums bleed is also respected.

    I hope this clarifies my position. I do not indulge in whim-worship. I do not encourage the kids to whim-worship--but I do allow them to experience the full-on consequences of some of their irrational decisions, which I think (over time) is a natural deterrent to growing up as a whim-worshiper.

    Amy, I was going to address your long comment, but I see that I must go set a few limits. :o) Later, or maybe in a quick blog post of my own. Thanks for being patient.

  13. I do allow them to experience the full-on consequences of some of their irrational decisions, which I think (over time) is a natural deterrent to growing up as a whim-worshiper.

    I think this is an essential difference between our styles (though seemingly not our principles). Reality is a great teacher when it's clear-cut and not obscured by confounding variables and mental inattention. While it's true that anyone could become an Objectivist if they maintain a full-on reality-oriented focus, I think it's safe to say that there's only one data point about that at present. We take the enormously wonderful shortcut of standing on the mind of Ayn Rand. Providing we don't keep our focus straight down, there's nothing wrong with doing so.

    But reality isn't always so clear. It doesn't take much introspection to think of instances where we blundered along and took the exact wrong lessons from reality. In fact, there's an entire curriculum based on acquiring wisdom through painful experience at the School of Hard Knocks. Life would be easier if people, left to their own devices, could be counted on to draw the right conclusions.

    My problem with unschooling especially, group-based education more largely, and "reality parenting" for our purposes here is that people have a surer footing when a footing is provided for them without them having to construct it on their own. The best you can get with the latter is a haphazard, oft-irrelevant foundation and the worst is completely useless. Teachers and parents hold important experiences and knowledge that they can pass down to the next generation.

    To bring the point closer to our examples, I do not regard releasing an earsplitting scream as a legitimate "need." When done in a social setting, it is for attention. When done in private, it's out of terror. My role as a parent is to help my kids to understand why that isn't legitimate. It is not to scold them into never doing that particular action again—that'd be concrete-bounded—but to internalize that we should be respectful of others when we're not alone. I'd tie it in with picking noses, burping, farting, swearing, and pointing.

    Again, I'm not saying that you're taking the opposite position of all that. What you've argued here seems quite different from positions I've seen you take on your site and others. I've read a bit in the positive discipline and unschooling universe and your statements elsewhere seemed in line with either of those camps. I may have blurred the lines between your ideas and theirs slightly in places though—if I did, I apologize.

  14. We've learned through much trial and error that the best thing to do when our son hits is to explain very clearly that it is wrong and then to isolate him. He would also lose a toy and dessert for that night. He started hitting at school and his little sis at home when he was about 3 or so. It's taken a lot of time - he's 5 and a half now - for him to be able to control himself. Now, he hits mostly when he is first hit by another child. We're working on helping him understand that he needs to tell the adult present so the other child gets in trouble, not him. But in a way, this is harder to get him to understand as he does it in self defense. One positive technique we used along with the isolation was a reward system. When he was younger, he really wanted a new toy saxophone. For every day that he did not hit he earned a letter toward spelling the word. If he hit, then he lost all the letters he'd earned. It took a while, but eventually he earned his sax and it was one of the proudest moments of his little life. The other thing we did was post a No Hurting Chart with two columns, one for morning and one for afternoon. If he didn't hit in the morning he'd get a check mark, and so on. If he did hit in the morning then we'd encourage him to earn a check mark in the afternoon. It gave him something to look forward to. Now, on occasion when he is angry at me and looks like he's getting ready to swing, I'll say in a loud voice, "Sam, think about what you are doing. if you hit then you're going on timeout. Think!"

  15. [...] “Things spit is used for” must bring up so many interesting results – I can’t imagine why they clicked over to me on that one. [...]

  16. I realize this entry is a few months old, but I just came across it, because I'm also dealing with a spitter right now!

    Btw, Jenn, I really enjoyed your comments on positive discipline. We try to practice it with our two kiddos.

    In my case, the culprit (3) is doing it for fun. He thinks it's hilarious, and so does his 1-year-old brother, which doesn't help. We do sort of a modified "1-2-3 Magic," with a logical or natural consequence at the end. (In this case, I remove the liquid he's spitting -- usually milk -- or, if he's just spitting spit, I inform him he's free to spit in his room but that the rest of us are tired of it. When we're outside and he spits, I let him know that he's free to do it out there as much as he likes. However, I don't -send- him outside to spit, because he would spend 100 percent of his waking time outdoors if he could, and that feels like a reward to me! "Hmmmm ... I spit and Mom lets me go outside! What a deal!")

    Normally we have great success with "1-2-3 Magic," but this spitting behavior is extremely persistent. Lately, when I give him his sippy, I explain as soon as I hand it to him, "This is for drinking only. If you spit at ALL, Mommy is going to need to put it back in the fridge." We only implemented this a couple of days ago, but so far the one-strike-and-you're-out rule seems to be helping a lot.

  17. Thanks for the comment, Alexis. Since I wrote this, Sammy's spitting and hitting have disappeared (mostly) and I can't say exactly what worked. I think it had a lot more to do with her than with me. I think she moved on. But the only thing I would pull out of all of my confusion is that the negative reinforcement I was giving her was a big problem, and removing it has helped with many issues.

    I am hypersensitive to hitting and to potty accidents, and those are the areas that have given us the most trouble. About a month ago, I had a consultation with Cornelia Lockitch (www.guideyourchild.com) and she assured me that hitting is developmentally normal. That's all I needed to hear (from a professional) to let go of my anxiety about it, and as soon as I did, the hitting practically disappeared. I'm not so worked up about the exact consequences (sometimes she goes right to her room or sometimes I walk away, or sometimes she just gets a reminder not to do it - it depends) but I don't get emotional about it. I think that was the key!

    I'll post a report about the other things I got from Cornelia in the next week or so. She also helped me to cure our morning "get out the door" troubles.