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At my two-year-old daughter's nursery, there's one "energetic" boy who is perhaps a little lacking in the empathy or discipline department. What I'm saying is, he occasionally behaves too roughly towards the other children, going as far as hitting them. Now I'm sure it's nothing too extreme - there's adult supervision after all, and I know he's reprimanded when caught - but what I'd like to ask is: what behaviour should I teach my daughter when he's hitting her? I see two alternatives:

  • Fight fire with fire. Encourage her to hit him back. Obviously, there are problems with this approach. I'd very much like to convey to her that hitting is not-okay behaviour. However, I definitely do not want her to fall into a victim role, and being proactively defiant may help with that. Also, the boy might benefit, when he realizes that there are boundaries that can not be crossed without repercussions.

  • Have her respond verbally: yell at him not to hit her. This is more in line with avoiding not-okay behaviour (hitting), but I'm not sure this will have the desired effect of him not hitting her.

  • Encourage her to ask the adults for help. This is my least preferred course of action, because it is the least self-reliant, and I'd rather she feels self-empowered to deal with these situations.

Are there other ways I could pursue?

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Sometimes children up to a certain age need a "hands-on" approach to their misbehaviour.

Let me tell you what happened to both my children, especially to my daughter:

We have a clear "no hitting" policy in the family and two verbally competent children who up to this day can yell at each other like a bunch of fishwives but don't retort to physical violence. (And no, yelling is not "accepted behaviour" at our house, but sometimes arguments do escalate, especially if both parties are actively involved.)

  • Son started preschool, met a bunch of boys his age, got shoved the first day, came home complaining loudly. We gave him permission to react (= defend himself), problem solved after two or three mock fights had cleared the pecking order. Remained BFFs until school.
  • Daughter was more difficult, because her knee-jerk reaction is to remove herself from any fight scene - she declares the attacker to be stupid and walks away. In her second year a new boy came to the group (mixed age group from three to six) that was a bit like the boy you described. Third child, with two sisters that wouldn't hold back either - daughter once said "I won't play with 'N' (second sister), because 'N' bites." and had the marks to prove it. So this boy had no inhibitions to shove her from behind into a ditch. And she wasn't the only target. When we talked to her it became apparent that she had no idea how to fight back. We gave her a "lesson" that mainly consisted of how to give a hard shove with her full body weight and some pointers. She used her new knowledge together with a sound tongue-lashing when he tried again a few days later. After the his "flight lesson" he never stired trouble again.

So why am I telling you all this?

Because raising your kids to abstain from hitting etc. is a good thing to do. Yes, saying "Stop it!" and walking away is a reasonable choice. But there will be circumstances where your daughter needs your permission to fight back - and the knowledge how to do this.

Our escalation steps:

  1. Verbal.
    The skill that will probably be the most valuable long-term.
  2. Physical.
    Know how to fight in case you need to defend yourself. If you must hit, hit hard and mean it.
  3. Authorities.
    Call for help if you can't solve the situation alone. Don't be afraid to ask, you are 2 (3, 4, ...) years old and we (the teacher, ...) will help you solve the conflict. But we won't simpy get you what you want, we ensure fairness.
  • I really like your strategy of dealing with this, although this "escalation chain" is probably too complex for a two-year-old. But when the understanding comes, I'll probably act along these lines. – karstenr Jul 7 '15 at 8:27
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    I agree globally with you but still wouldn't advise a child to hit back, or at least not as second point of escalation. Cause when you fight back, you've already lost a few "points" when you escalate to authorities : how to blame violence when yourself use it. Also, at some point, if the opposing kid doesn't let go and is stronger than yours, your kid might well get hurt before getting the chance to escalate anything. It's much easier escape a fight than "win" a fight, and I actually think when it comes to fighting there's really no winner, but that's only my opinion. – Laurent S. Jul 7 '15 at 14:36
  • @Bartdude Before I had children I would have agreed with you 100%. But seeing my children interact with other children whose parents clearly didn't enforce the "no hitting" rule changed my view. Sometimes - and to a certain degree even for the benefit of the other child - the "Neanderthal reaction" of a peer drives the point home a lot better that many, many reprimands from teachers and other grown-ups. And of course if you are or feel weaker than your "opponent" that is also a case of "doesn't work" and you go directly to step 3, the authorities... – Stephie Jul 7 '15 at 14:54
  • @Stephie I admit I still haven't really had to deal with such situation as my girl is only 2,5. But although I realize these little things can quickly have us forget all our great theorical principles, I still hope I will be able to keep straight with some of mines, including this one :-) ... Even if I admit I love seeing a bully's ass kicked, you never know up to which level it will escalate. It might aswell teach him a lesson or give him the idea to hit even harder the next time, or just having him choose a weaker target. It of course supposes reaction from authority is appropriate. – Laurent S. Jul 7 '15 at 17:33
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As the mom of 2 'energetic' boys, here is my take:

  • escalation doesn't work, and all it teaches is that 'might is right'. My kids are sometimes the 'instigator' and sometimes the 'victim', and in either direction it doesn't work. If you hit back, a 'rough' child might think you want to fight for fun, or might be even more aggressive. Especially at 2, I think it would not work.

  • Yelling is not really a respectful way of dealing with it, and if you tell her it is acceptable to yell when something she doesn't like happens, she will yell at you too, when you insist she does something she doesn't like.

  • at 2, I don't really think telling an adult is 'snitching', and I think there are plenty of situations where knowing when to ask for help is ok.

What I tell my boys to do is:

  • Ask that the hitter stop. Say 'stop', 'no', or 'no thank you' (followed by 'I don't like that' when old enough for that) in a firm voice. This teaches that you don't have to put up with behavior like that, and attempts to not make the situation escalate.

  • Walk away. Yes, this might be seen as 'cowardly', but I honestly think that walking away from a situation you don't like is a good thing to know how to do.

  • If the hitter will not leave you alone, fetch an adult. It is part of standing up for bad behavior.

I also tell my kids that they have to respect when someone else says 'no'. It doesn't only apply to hitting, but also playing rough, or playing any game with someone else. "It is not fun unless everyone think it is fun". I think this teaches them the reason they should say stop to others too.

Sometimes it doesn't work. The boy will likely hit again. Since they are only 2, I prefer to say things like: So and so doesn't listen very well. This makes it easier for the kids to deal with I feel, rather than saying someone is not nice or something.

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Although "nobody likes a snitch", there's a line between "looking for help" vs "snitching". I would avdise to keep on going for the idea "Hitting is bad" cause it definitely is, and teaching your child that when he feels like someone's doing bad things to him, it's more than OK to report to an adult. The adult might then take action, was it simply explaining to your child which alternatives he has to react or up to punishing the responsible.

Reporting abuse (or what you think might be abuse) done to you is no snitching and should never be presented like that.

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While I agree with the approaches of the other answers in the long term, two years old is very young for that kind of subtle discernment of a situation. At that age, kids need very simple instructions, and asking for an adult's help is the most effective.

That adult can show in the moment the appropriate response, taking the unique circumstances into account. After enough examples, the child will internalize what response is appropriate for what circumstance, and naturally stop asking the adult for help when they already know what the adult will say. Adults also naturally expect children to gradually assume more responsibility for solving their own problems.

At two years old, it's perfectly acceptable for a child to have almost no self-reliance. They need quite a bit more experience before self-reliance is useful.

  • While I basically agree that it is tough for a two-yo., I think we need to keep the specific circumstances of this question in mind: The child is not under the direct supervision of a parent which can easily intervene, but in preschool, with many other children and few adults. The father is asking for guidlines to teach his child and I simply don't think calling the teacher every time will work. Plus, the child can only report if it's already been hit and I'm not sure whether a late reprimand of the attacker is as effective as a direct punch may sometimes be. Consider the Neanderthal in us... – Stephie Jul 1 '15 at 5:44
  • "At two years old, it's perfectly acceptable for a child to have almost no self-reliance." - I'm not so sure about that. I've seen other children of this age defend themselves and their toys quite rigorously. Don't you think this is an important life skill? When my daughter has a toy taken from her, or sees another child playing with her toys, she often just "freezes up" and dares not take an action - but I can clearly see she's unhappy about the situation. I'd like to empower her to interfere with a situation and do something about it. – karstenr Jul 1 '15 at 8:09

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