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Awkward Situations Edition: What Do You Do When Another Kid Hits/Pushes/Bites/etc.Yours? (And the mom says he ‘didn’t mean to’…again.)

We have a toddler friend who’s got a year—and twice the poundage—on Kaspar. We generally play at this boy’s house, instead of ours, since he has a big backyard and another mom and kiddo sometimes join us, and I’ve noticed for the past several visits that—perhaps because we’re on his turf, and toddlers are by nature territorial—this other boy’s gotten a little aggressive around Kaspar. It’s nothing unusual, just your run-of-the-mill toy-grabbing, and some pushing here and there. Until yesterday, we moms would either divert the kids’ attention with another toy, or, in the case of more aggressive grabbing, and definitely in the case of pushing, I’ve tried to scoop Kaspar up and relocate him when I see the push coming on. This past week, however, while hanging with this other friend, Kaspar lunged for me whenever his friend came near him (even when his friend was just playing, and not going for Kaspar); he was clearly feeling afraid, and needing a physical buffer. We let the kids get to playing and figuring out their space, and then, as Kaspar was standing next to the boy’s bed (he still holds on to furniture when standing, most of the time), the other boy approached him from behind, and pushed him in the back.

I picked Kaspar up and said something like “Are you okay, Kaspar?” He was surprised, but fine. His friend’s mom came over and said “You didn’t mean to push,” to her son.

So, here’s the thing. He did mean to push. And it wasn’t the first time. And while that’s perfectly predictable behavior for a two-year-old, it’s also behavior that I would expect a parent to follow up with a “Pushing is not okay,” type statement, to some degree, before everyone moves on. I mean, that’s the whole point of the pushing, right? To test the waters and see where they lead? That’s our big opening as parents to explain what’s acceptable and what’s not. Like, we don’t push, we don’t bite, we don’t yell, we try our best to share… But when other people’s kids do do these things, and their parents don’t step in, what do you do then?

Here’s what I did. I wondered about it, and felt pretty conflicted as to whether it was worth saying anything. We’d been discussing potentially leaving Kaspar with this mom for a couple of days a week in lieu of formal childcare—she’s been toying with the idea of taking a couple of extra kids on and thereby earning some money—so I landed on the side of yes, worth saying something, but probably better to do so later. Our other mom friend had arrived at that point, so it seemed the wrong time to talk it out. Within several minutes, however, Kaspar was playing with a toy on the floor, and the boy lunged, and sort of pried it from Kaspar’s grasp. At that point, I said “Please don’t push Kaspar; it’s not nice to grab things and push.” The other mom said “Can I intervene?”—this was getting tense, though; it was obvious she was not cool with my having said something—and then said “Oh, Kaspar has your favorite toy, but we have two of those.” A good diversion, definitely, and I followed up by giving Kaspar something else to play with, and handing the toy to the older kid. The kids moved on. But the moms did not. A few underhanded comments were spoken in the following minutes “Come here, other kid (name has been changed); Kaspar needs more personal space than you do…” and so forth.

In hindsight, I realize that this had been a mounting problem and that it probably wasn’t worth bringing up; I clearly didn’t feel that this woman was taking enough initiative on the side of enforcing a no-pushing precedent, and given that she brushed off her son’s push as a “mistake,” it wasn’t likely that she’d see it differently in a mom-to-mom conversation. I should have just dropped it like a bad date and declined to play there again. Still, I somehow thought a conversation could be had around it, something like “I’m a little concerned about the pushing… and feel I’m put in a weird position if you’re not going to intervene.” I gave it a shot, and—suffice to say—it did not go well.

Actually, it was a straight up mom-to-mom cage match via cell phone… It was completely bizarre and awful. I could not get a word in edgewise as she explained 'how toddlers are’ to me, and said that ‘if Kaspar’s too small to play, then…’. As I began to assure her that I’m well aware of how toddlers are and that my call was really about where we parents come in, I was cut off with demands for me to change my tone of voice and to take deep breaths, with my name repeated at the beginning of each statement… No joke. I got an earful about how inappropriate it was for me to step in after the toy-grabbing incident; in fact, she said that she felt she needed to 'protect' her son from me in doing so. This was followed up with some triangulation: ‘well we of the play-date triad feel such-and-such a way about you’ … I should have ended this call, clearly, but I haven’t had a proper fight with anyone since before high school, and didn’t recognize it for what it was until it was too late. I was working on the assumption that we would somehow come to some common ground, and tried to keep my cool. This holier-than-thou, condescending conversation tactic was new to me, though, and I was caught off-guard. By the end, I was legitimately pissed. I wished afterward that I’d called her out on commandeering the discussion by barking angry accusations about my aggression (in calling to talk about it in an apparently offensive tone of voice) and lacking conflict resolution skills (she used that phrase exactly… and I didn’t audibly gag), but that wouldn’t have done any good. We were obviously having very different experiences of what was going on, and no one in active fight mode can effectively self-reflect. Needless to say, it ended badly. Way worse than I expected, and I didn’t expect it to be an easy one. 

So, wow, I just had a mom fight, and it was dirty. Luckily, in this case, it doesn’t really matter. It can be a learning experience. I talked to a good friend about it later, another mom who doesn’t know these people; she encouraged me to just count it as a dose of crazy and move on. “What if this happened between us, though?” I asked. I mean, we have kids in the mix, and I’d just learned from experience that kids can be a wild card where communication between parents is concerned. “I really don’t think it’d get to that point,” she assured me. And in her case, I know that’s true. But I’m a little shaken on the parenting front. Which is to say, a little unsettled about this kind of thing with parents-at-large.

I haven't, until now, given much thought to the inevitability that not all of the parents we interact with are going to be people we get along with. Having kids doesn’t automatically make people agreeable (though it hopefully makes them more so… parenting is profound like that). I find pretty much everyone agreeable, generally, and this situation was a little extra weird because it was someone I knew and thought I could approach with regard to her kid deliberately pushing mine. But maybe it’d be even more complicated if it were a parent I didn’t know at all. What if this kind of thing happened in a school setting?  I suppose in that situation there’d be an impartial third party (a teacher) supervising things. But still… parental politics are looking, from here, like some potentially tricky terrain.

I’m sure I’ll find myself on the other side of this divide, too, sooner rather than later; Kaspar will no doubt experiment with pushing other kids. He’s a beefy little baby, and he’ll topple the new-walkers right over. My approach to that will be to immediately tell him-- directly, firmly, calmly-- that pushing is not okay. Hopefully that’ll take care of it, if I’m consistent. I’m okay with another mom doing the same thing, if I’m not on it, for whatever reason, but I wouldn’t be at all okay with, say, spanking (or any level of physical discipline). At all. Some parents are okay with spanking. I’m not. Perhaps this other mom and I also just have really different approaches to delivering ‘that’s not okay’ messages to our kids (how “he didn’t mean to” delivers that message is not quite clear to me, but I’ll assume it’s backed by strategy)… I can relate, and that’s kind of why I called. To figure it out and, in one way or another-- without talking about it in front of the kids or the other mom-- keep the pushing at bay. … Didn’t work. Big fat fail. Glad that’s over, anyway.

Have you ever found yourself in the awkward position of addressing another child’s aggressive or physical behavior around your kid? Have you navigated the communication around the issue with that child’s parents? How did it go? Were you able to resolve it, or did you just remove yourself from the situation? Has your child ever been the biter/hitter/pusher etc (full disclosure—I bit a kid in preschool once)? How did you teach him or her that those behaviors don’t fly? Really looking forward to your thoughts on this one.