From the time my first baby stepped her tiny feet into her preschool classroom with its lavender walls and wooden toys, she made friends easily. She was interested in the other children from the get-go and was kind and gentle with them. Pushing, shoving and fighting over toys just wasn't her thing. Even as a toddler, parents and teachers didn't have a harsh word to say about her. She was an only child, and she just wanted other kids to play with. It was as if she had already decided, at the ripe old age of 2 1/2, to be easy-going. She simply came to play.
I was only the mother of one at the time, and I didn't know enough then to be amazed as her list of 2- and 3-year-old companions grew quickly and without conflict. She made friends at the park, at the play gym and the library. She often played with another child for 10 minutes, then put me in the awkward position of promptly scheduling a playdate at our house for that afternoon. She was likeable, and at the time, I patted myself on my semi-new parent back and said "my, what a good job I've done."
Then on one occasion, to my surprise, a child in my daughter's preschool class bit her. I was helping her put on her shoes at pick-up when the teacher, with her soft voice and long flowy hair, came over to tell me about what had happened. She lifted up my daughter's sleeve to show me the marks on her arm that were deep black and blue. It was the first time anyone had hurt my child, and although she was fully recovered, I was dumbfounded. "How dare he bite my precious baby?!" I thought. I secretly wondered what the child's parents weren't teaching him and pegged him "the biter" in my mind.
Fast-forward to a few years down the road and my daughter is no longer an only child. She has a toddler brother who came out of the womb with a completely different disposition than she has. He also happens to be a "biter" at not much younger than my daughter was when she entered preschool. Most of the time, he's happy-go-lucky, but he has a sort of roughness that I've still to this day, never seen from my older child, who is now 6. He hits, kicks and throws himself backwards on the floor in epic tantrums at the drop of a hat. His bites have caused tears from my daughter and shrieks of pain from both my husband and me on many occasions. He's broken skin and left bruises, all while smirking in delight at a job well done.
So far, his rough behavior has stayed inside of our four walls. But I'm sure that won't always be the case. Because, even though we've tried repeatedly to teach him not to hit or bite, he does it anyway. He bites when he's happy and playing, and he bites when he's having a tantrum. He'll grin from ear to ear, wind up and whack you in the face with all his might at the drop of a hat. And the more you yell "No!" as you cover your face and pray he lets up soon, the harder it gets. He hits, bites, pushes and is rougher than any 21-month-old kid I've ever met in my life. And while his transgressions haven't caused him social conflicts quite yet, I can only imagine that one day soon, they probably will.
Over the years, I've learned that child behavior is not as cut and dry as I once might've believed. Some kids aren't born with a "don't hit" and "be gentle" button, and it takes time to nurture those things. No two children are alike, and having a son that hits and bites is further confirmation of that fact. And while before I was a seasoned parent, I thought the only thing that resulted from good parenting was kind and obedient children, now I know otherwise. In fact, I've met plenty of wonderful parents over the years with kids who seem like they go out looking for trouble. I've come to believe that it's one of the great lessons of parenting—that you can't control everything your children do. Your child's personality is not always about you or a reflection of everything you're doing wrong. And if you believe it is, it will likely make you go a little crazy.
When I encounter a rough or disobedient child, I don't judge these things like I would have years ago, and I ask my kids to be understanding, whenever possible. Instead of pegging the child as a "bad kid," I think of the struggles the parents must encounter at home. I think of my own difficult evenings with my own rambunctious toddler, as I struggle to make dinner while reasoning with an illogical, hitting, biting, tantrum-throwing maniac looming at my feet and conspiring against me. Because most parents agree, children with an edge are typically much more badly behaved in the comfort of their own homes than in the sandbox.
These days, I'm not one to make assumptions or point fingers about other people's children or parenting tactics. Too many factors go into child-rearing to make those kind of snap judgments. Giving parents the benefit of the doubt and exercising compassion don't hurt anybody. No, I'm not going to bring every kid who causes trouble home on a playdate. But rude behavior from a child who is still learning won't stop me from being kind and understanding to that child's parent. All parenting struggles are not created equal, and we're the ones who should be teaching kindness.