If I had a penny for every time someone took a look at my son and said "well he's a bruiser!", well, I wouldn't be rich but I might be able to treat myself to an upgrade in popcorn size at the cinema (that is, if we ever had time to go to the cinema), but I digress. I have a big boy, but for the most part he's a gentle giant. As one of the youngest in his group of little friends, he's quite happy to watch and learn, and follow the lead of the bigger kids.
Lately though, things have been shifting. As Iwan has become more active and mobile, he's increasingly intent on exploring. He not only wants to explore his environment (hey, what will happen if I bang this ceramic elephant on the fireplace hearth?!), but he also wants to explore his ability to effect the world around him (hey, what will happen if I smack this kid in the face?).
While all of this is developmentally appropriate, it's clearly not okay for Iwan to go around smacking kids in the face. Especially because, the favored variant of this game is "what will happen if I smack mommy in the face/pinch her neck/bite her arm?" Again, not okay.
Bolstered by advice from other mom friends, we tried redirecting (I don't know how many times I've used the phrase "no, gentle, nice!"), putting him down for 30 seconds (yeah, he didn't care), and many other gentle techniques. The hitting still continued, so clearly he wasn't seeing a connection between his behavior and the consequences, or the consequences didn't really bother him. Methinks it was the latter.
I struggled with what to do. In my former life as a teacher, discipline always seemed to work best if it was a logical response to the behavior, a learning opportunity. This philosophy is one I hope to extend into my parenting, but maybe this time I just needed to take a hard line and nip things in the bud. It became increasingly clear that this was necessary after this weekend when Iwan not only smacked his older (and bigger!) cousin in the face, but also managed to pull his hair a couple of times (in Iwan's defense, his cousin does have some awesome curly hair, and I think he just wanted to get his hands into all of that goodness). I don't want my son to be a bully, or the mean kid. I don't want him to think that aggression is the proper outlet for feelings of frustration, curiosity, or excitement.
And so the next day the two of us were playing at home. He stopped in the middle of our game of rolling a ball, looked at me intently (I could see the decision in his eyes), reached out and smacked me hard in the face, keeping his eyes on me to gauge my reaction. I leaned over until my face was level with his and firmly said "No. No hitting." His eyes widened in shock, and then his face crumpled. He erupted in tears, and cried for all he was worth. While we have certainly told Iwan "no" before, I think this was probably the first time he understood that I was unhappy and what he had done was unacceptable.
It didn't feel great. I was quite tempted to sweep my baby up in my arms and calm his tears. But then I thought that this is one of those times that being a good parent isn't so fun, and to undermine the standard that had just been set would only make things more difficult for the both of us in the long run. After waiting a short time, I picked him up said something I can't even remember about being gentle, and distracted him with a new activity. This was a few days ago and there has been no hitting since. Or, no aggressive hitting I should say. A couple of times he has hit me playfully, looked at me gravely, and then shook his head "no." As if he's saying that he knows it's wrong to hit. I really hope this is one of the first steps of Iwan learning to explore his world carefully and gently, as he learns to reconcile those (sometimes overwhelming) feelings of curiosity, excitement, and frustration with the feelings of others.