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Baby Steps: Demolition Man?

Q. My son is 8 months old and takes great joy in destroying things. For example, I'll start building a tower out of blocks, and before I finish, he'll knock them down and act very proud of himself. He loves taking books off his shelf and throwing them on the floor. I'm concerned that he's becoming too aggressive. Is there something I should be doing?

A. Even though it may seem like your little boy is becoming a wrecking ball, he is just being an 8-month-old. He has no notion of the concept of destruction (or creation, for that matter). Rather, what your son is doing is experimenting with the concepts of cause and effect.

By 4 to 8 months of age, babies start to notice that their actions have an impact on objects. Generally, this happens by accident: A baby's random movements bump a mobile or a musical toy, and he notices that the sound or motion that results is related to the thing he just did. This is a marvelous discovery, and he'll want to test it again and again. We all learn by doing -- by trial and error -- but children of different ages learn best in different ways. For babies, repetition and predictability are key, and seeing the same thing happen over and over can be thrilling.

Early on, your son's understanding of the relationship between his actions and outcomes was limited. He didn't know, for example, that when he flailed his hands, his hands hit the blocks, which knocked them over and made a noise; he just noticed that his hand motion resulted in sound and movement from the blocks. Over time, and with practice, babies learn which actions result in what outcomes.

By 8 to 12 months, babies can actually start doing things with a specific purpose. Developmental psychologists call these sorts of behaviors "goal-directed chains." This means that your baby can now engage in one action in order to achieve another specific goal, such as moving a toy to reach something behind it. The exciting thing about this seemingly simple behavior is that it shows that your baby can anticipate the outcome of his actions. His regular experimentation -- and your patience -- have paid off.

Your son has figured out that moving his arm does something to the blocks, and he can predict that thwacking the blocks results in a crash. Similarly, tossing all the books on the floor results in certain sounds and patterns. (He has probably also realized that these activities result in a response from you, which may be fun for him to provoke as well.) So you can stop worrying that your son has destructive tendencies, and be pleased at how well he's developing cognitively. You can also comment on what he's doing by identifying what causes what ("You knocked down all those blocks with your hand! You made a crashing sound!"). Sharing in his delight will make him very happy and will encourage him to continue his experimentation and learning with other toys.