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The Bright Side of Bad Behavior

Playing Rough

The bad behavior: Patty Middleton of Queensbury, New York, has two boys who are a year and a half apart, so she's been keeping the peace since Benjamin, 6, and Noah, 4, were in diapers. It's not just moms of siblings who see aggressive behavior: One day, your toddler plays happily alongside the next kid. But at the next playdate, despite all the patient parenting you've put in, he grabs, shoves, yanks, kicks, or bites his "friend" to get what he wants. Unfortunately, this turn for the worse is very common in kids between 20 months and 3 years old.

The bright side: Though it may feel like the end of the world the first time your child inflicts harm on another, being pushy on a playdate at this age is a normal and oddly effective way for little kids to get one another's attention. Pushing and shoving is just a step on the road from parallel play to what we, as adults, like to think of as "play."

Even though this kind of behavior needs to be defused and discouraged, those first tries at rough play are not signs of a bully in the making, says Tovah Klein, Ph.D., the director of the Center for Toddler Development at Barnard College in New York City. "You want your child to be able to go after what he wants and stick up for himself," she says, "and this is where it starts."

How to handle it: Even if you want your child to grow up to be a go-getter, you need to intervene and show him a better way to get what he wants. "For a while, we lived by the microwave timer," Middleton says. "We set it to teach the boys how long a turn was because they were constantly fighting over the same toys  -- even if we had a duplicate."

The first times your toddler acts aggressively toward a playmate or sibling are when you have your best opportunities to curb rough behavior. Don't shame him for being aggressive, but do remove him from the situation, and say, "You want the toy? Then say, 'I need the toy.'" Then give him a few minutes to cool down before you let him try again. When he's older, you can point out how his actions make the other kid feel.