JOHN ROSEMOND: Time-out not recommended as discipline for biting

By John Rosemond

Q: In the last month, our 36-month-old daughter has started biting her 22-month-old brother, usually over toy struggles. It is always to get his hand to release the toy in question. I’m sorry to say that when she bites, I lose it. My husband says I should put her in her room until he gets home from work no matter what time of day the biting occurs. She is currently in her room until dad gets home. I worry that this is too much for a child her age, but then again, time-outs are a joke. Help!

A: Yes, time-out is a joke, but no, spending an entire day in her very own very nice room is not too much for a 3-year-old. Nonetheless, I don’t recommend it in this instance.

Out of curiosity, I went to the Internet to find out what other “experts” say about 3-year-olds who bite, and sure enough, my suspicions were confirmed: to wit, there’s a whole lot of psychobabble out there concerning this topic.

Several pundits propose that biting is a form of communication; that a child bites because he does not possess the language skills to express frustration and anger. From that point of view, hitting another child over the head with a toy is a form of communication. Furthermore, none of them have the language skills to express frustration and anger. Why do only a very few of them bite?

One expert proposes that “biting demonstrates autonomy,” whatever that means, and recommends that adults teach biters the language skills they need to accomplish what they want to accomplish.

The problem is that it takes a long time to teach a toddler the appropriate language in question (e.g. “I say there good sport, would you mind not violating my personal space? Really now, if you will simply ask me for the toy, thus demonstrating appropriate respect for my person, I will consider giving it to you when I’m finished.”), during which time the biting continues. Furthermore, even a toddler knows that he can achieve his objective far more quickly by biting than talking, and instant gratification is their objective.

Another expert recommends that since teaching very young children to share “simply does not work,” parents should buy two of everything. Isn’t that brilliant? You don’t get that smart unless you have several college degrees.

Enough of this foolishness! The simplest explanation is usually the best explanation, and the simplest explanation is that toddlers who bite have discovered, somewhat accidentally, that it is a quick way of getting what they want. Add in that they have no regard for others — they don’t care that biting hurts — and there you have it.

My standard solution for any aggressive behavior on the part of a toddler toward a younger sibling is to keep the two children away from one another for at least two weeks. The rule becomes that if the younger child is playing in a certain room, the older child must find somewhere else to play. If she doesn’t want to find somewhere else, then somewhere else should be designated by someone else. If separating them requires a gate or gates, so be it.

When your 3-year-old asks why she is not being allowed to play with her brother, tell her, “Because you bite.” Let’s face it, she wants to have a relationship with her brother. The enforced separation will only intensify this desire, and believe me, language skills aside, she will figure out that if she wants to play with him, she mustn’t bite. After two weeks, let them into the same room with one another. You may have to do this several times, but I’ve never, ever heard of it failing.

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Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his website at www.rosemond.com.