Our 4.5-year-old son has recently been getting into trouble at nursery. On three separate occasions now we have been called in to speak to the teachers there as he has done something naughty. This has included spitting milk in another child's face (one of his friends), and hitting a younger child in the face.

It seems like every time he does something naughty, it is in response to something another child did. So he only spat milk at his friend because the friend did it to him first. And he only hit the smaller child because they hit him first. The problem is, he is huge for his age, and at some point if this carries on he could really hurt another child. He will also be starting school in September and we do not want this behaviour to continue there.

For the most part, he is a lovely, well behaved boy. He eats and sleeps very well. He is just extremely confident, almost to the point where he thinks he is the one in charge! This makes it difficult to explain to him when his behaviour is unacceptable, as he thinks he knows best.

After the first incident, we introduced a reward chart. Whenever he has been especially good, he gets to add a sticker, and when he has enough stickers he gets a treat (normally a new toy). While this seems like a good thing to do, I don't really think this has had a positive effect on his general behaviour.

After the second incident, we tried some punishment (no books at bedtime, which had a huge impact at the time as he loves his books). But I'm not sure this works as all seems to be forgotten after a day or two.

I should also mention that there have been no recent changes in his life that are likely to have caused this behaviour.

What else can we do to address this retaliatory behaviour?

2 Answers 2


I've got a child about the same age and about the same size, and I definitely understand the difficulty you're having.

First off, don't expect to have a 100% perfect solution. All children misbehave from time to time - it's how they find their limits, how they find out what is okay, and how they find their self identity. A child who never misbehaves would be a child I'd worry about more than one that misbehaved a few times. It's a matter of making sure they understand their limits, and making sure the significant misbehavior is infrequent.

Punishments significantly after the fact nearly never work. Punishments in general have limited utility, and the amount of time must be very short between the action and the punishment for it to do anything at all except confuse the child.

What's key here is helping your child understand his limits, understand why they're there, and understand how to properly act when confronted with a challenging situation.

First, try to understand why he took the action he did; that makes a huge difference as far as how you proceed. Did he spit the milk at the other child because he was offended at being spit at? Or did he spit the milk because he saw the other child doing something silly and wanted to copy? Or something else? How you address it with him depends on what he's thinking. Both actions are wrong, but the motivation drives why they're wrong.

Second, once you understand why he took the action, ask if he understands why the teacher/you/whomever was at hand when it happened didn't like the action. It's possible he already understands this, so it's best if you check. Don't push him here, though - the idea is not really to make him tell you - just to make sure you're not repeating something that's unnecessary.

Third, assuming he doesn't already understand why it was wrong, explain why. Not using words like "Your teacher told you not to", but the real, underlying why. You don't spit milk because it makes a mess of people, and if done aggressively can make them feel bad. You don't hit because it hurts people and makes them feel bad. Try to make sure he understands and empathizes with the other party - how would he feel if someone hit him?

Finally, and this probably should be the majority of the discussion, help him find alternate ways of dealing with the situation. If he hit someone because they hit him first, help him develop strategies for what to do when he's been hit. Tell the other person that he doesn't like being hit, and to please stop. If they don't stop, find a teacher. If they're actually hurting him, use minimal force to extract himself and find a teacher. (Usually, bigger kids don't have to take that step, and 'minimal' is important here.)

Helping him develop strategies for dealing with situations like this, and practicing them, is extremely important. It not only helps him deal with stressful situations in a more calm manner, but it also helps him develop strategies of his own if you work with him to develop these strategies (as opposed to just telling him what to do) and explain the reasons why he should do things.

As far as being the one in charge - again, fully sympathize with you there. My four-and-a-half year old does too, sometimes, and it's challenging for him to deal with authority. Here again, though, you can work with him to understand why he needs to respect those in authority - talk about what 'anarchy' is, what might happen if nobody respected the folks in charge, and how he can manage his relationship with authority figures to his own benefit.

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    Also, you might point out that if a child spits milk at him, and he spits it back it might be fair for him but it is not fair for the teacher, who has to clean up the milk. Rules are there to make sure it is fair for everyone. It made total sense to my son to retaliate in kind, but once the greater picture was explained he was able to understand why he shouldn't retaliate. May 10, 2016 at 17:51
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    This is a good answer. I would add that you have to model good behavior. It is NOT ok to retaliate, no matter if it feels 'fair'. When you generally correct his behavior, try not to model retaliation as a solution. For instance, if suddenly throws water on you while you are gardening, don't grab the hose and spray him back (even playful, it is better to acknowledge that he needs to ASK before initiating a water fight)
    – Ida
    May 10, 2016 at 19:42
  • Really useful and detailed answer, many thanks @Joe. Just generally talking to him about the incident in more detail I think is really good advice. So easy to make assumptions with things like this. Not sure if I'll try explaining anarchy to him just yet though, he might decide he likes the concept, hah!
    – Matt
    May 12, 2016 at 8:12

As for ways to handle being punched by other kids, if he sees them trying to punch him he can try to avoid being punched.

Once I sometimes had to move a very large goat by dragging the heavy metal block he was chained to. And three different times the goat charged at me. Each time I caught him by the horns. And instead of hitting him like some of my hot tempered relatives might have, I backed up until the goat was at the end of his chain, let go, walked away, and came back later hoping he wouldn't be so rambunctious.

We eventually gave the goat away to a goat farm. I have later learned that goats are very social animals that need to be with other goats or people. And I have also learned that the family who had him before us treated him like a pet. So I feel sorry I didn't treat the goat more like a pet.

So maybe you could tell the your kid abut the lonely goat and point out that it was better for me to stop the goat from ramming me that it would have been for me to let him ram me and then hit him back.

You might suggest to your son that if he sees a kid trying to hit him he should avoid being hit instead of hitting back. He could try to block or deflect the punch. He could grab the other kid's arm and hold on like the Tar Baby. He could try ducking or dodging or even running away.

You could suggest to your son that the best way for a big boy to be in charge a situation is to make sure that nobody gets hurt. He should stop any kid who tries to hurt him and he should not hurt the other kid while stopping him.

Your kid is much more the master of the situation if he stops the other kid from punching him without punching or hurting the other kid than your kid is if he punches or hurts the other kid while stopping him from hitting him or if he can't stop the other kid from punching him.

And being liked by all the other kids so that none will want or try to punch him is the best method of all.

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