Why Do Toddlers Hit? Is it Genes or Environment?

Why do Toddlers Hit?
Is it genes or environment?
by Judy Arnall, BA, CCFE, DTM
It’s natural for toddlers to hit, but where does this aggression come from?
Actually, it is in our genes. We evolved from humans who could fight and
defend their lives, territory and loved ones, and they passed on the ability to
survive through aggression, to the next generation. Even newborns feel anger
when they need something. In addition, in the later half of the first year, they
demonstrate what is called exploratory aggression – curiosity pushes them to
see what reaction hitting or pushing another animal or child will bring. By
toddlerhood, ages one to four years, aggression is at its peak, where one out of
every four interactions between a child and someone else is physical. This is
almost every hour!
Does nurture or nature affect the amount of aggression a child has? Let’s
pretend that a human is like a car. Aggression is like the acceleration a car can
do. We all feel aggression. Self-control is like the brakes. We all have braking
ability too, but in varying amounts. Some people have more acceleration and
some people have more braking power.
Aggression is a function of the brain. The limbic system is the emotional part of
the brain and if we have low serotonin in the limbic system, we have more
aggressive behaviors. The frontal lobes are shaped by inborn temperament, but
the environment (a parent that says, “No! We don’t hit people!”) coupled with
brain development is responsible for suppression of the physical urge of hitting,
pushing and biting.
By age five, children learn about indirect aggression, as the result of their
higher order thinking skills. They can be sneakily aggressive in order to ensure
they don’t get caught, or immediately hit back impulsively. This is a sign of
brain development as it takes higher order thinking skills to weigh out the
consequences in each act. By age five, children do choose how to express
anger.
Hitting relieves tension and may be the reason why parents spank when they
are angry. In a small way, it feels satisfying for a second. However, we also
realize that we are social groups and we can’t be aggressive toward each other
and still get along enough to live together. If we hit, we are group sanctioned;
by isolation, in the form of time-out when we are young, to social ostracism
during the school-age years, and finally, jail, as adults. Isolation is a big
punishment for social mammals whether humans or animals. Societal
disapproval helps children to suppress their acceleration. Young children are
ego-centric and don’t care what others think about them yet. Their impulses
rule their bodies and their brains. By school-age, children are being exposed to
the wider world and care about what people think, so social isolation has a
broader impact on their self-control. Pride, shame, and embarrassment are
effective social tools to keep mammals aggression in check.
As the brain grows, children learn to cope with emotions and develop more self
control. By school age, most children have stopped hitting their friends and
playmates, although the odd lapse against siblings is common until the teen
years. It’s healthy to feel feelings, and express them in better ways such as
words that don’t hurt anyone. The key is to keep repeating what you want them
to do until they begin to take it on themselves. The more children practice calm
down tools, the more they are stored in their memory and come to mind as
they internalize social and group rules. When children are exposed to all ages of
social groups, in extended families and all-age schools, they learn the rules of
controlling aggressive behaviour.
Play fighting does not encourage aggression. In fact, it is useful for
development. Children discover their own limits, and what other people consider
acceptable, and it helps teach self-control. It’s hard to watch as a parent,
because you know one child is going to come to you crying, but it definitely
teaches both children about limits for later.
What is the role of adults: Adults just need to do two things.
Do hold their hands and say “Stop. No. Can you see this hurts your sister?”
“Let’s do this (stomp our feet on the floor) to express our anger.” Children get
to see their effect on others and can choose a non-violent way to express their
feelings. Keep repeating this message after every aggressive event.
Don’t role model hitting, slapping, spanking or any other aggressive
behaviours. Children learn by modeling. Children who are hit, are more likely to
hit others by thinking that those who have power use physical aggression to
wield it.

 

Childhood Assault Must Be Made Illegal

It is an election year, and Prime Minister Trudeau promised to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report recommendations.  One of those recommendation’s is to remove the legality of children being assaulted.  Ask the MP candidates what they are doing in this area to protect children who have very little self-control (normal young childhood executive function) and risk being hit because of adult’s poor understanding of normal brain development. “He should know better!” is a common statement from parents and caregivers that is created from years of myth, bias, and lack of brain capability knowledge that has been passed on from previous generations. As you can see from the above chart, by the time children are old enough to understand “consequences”, about age 6, they are old enough to problem-solve situations without being hit. They have enough self-control to not “do the deed” and really do begin to “know better.” No one would assault a child in a wheelchair for not being able to ascend a staircase, yet, we do it all the time for young children incapable of self-control.

For more help on the difference between punishment and discipline/gentle guidance, read “Discipline Without Distress.” It was written with 5 kids (3 spirited ones) in mind!

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For more help, on handling parent anger, and child/teen anger read “Parenting With Patience.”

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For more help on day-to-day non-punitive handling of all parenting challenges, consult “Attachment Parenting Tips Raising Toddlers To Teens.” 

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All the above books have up-to-date charts on child capabilities and brain development.

Check out the video help at http://professionalparenting.ca/press-media.php

Here is some information of Repeal 43, written by my friend and passionate advocate of non-spanking discipline, Kathy Lynn.

Why Repeal 43? 

Section 43 of the Criminal Code of Canada

Every schoolteacher, parent or person standing in the place of a parent is justified in using force by way of correction toward a pupil or child, as the case may be, who is under his care, if the force does not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances. R.S.C., 1985, c .C-4

This is the wording in the criminal code but

The constitutionality of Section 43 was challenged in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice: then by way of appeal in the Ontario Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada. The Section appears verbatim as it did prior to the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision. However, the Court narrowed the scope of defense to assault under section 43 of the Criminal Code of Canada and to set out a series of judicial limitations to assist in the interpretation of the justifiable or so-called “reasonable” limits of corporal punishment. The  judicial limitations (which again don’t appear in the Criminal Code of Canada) are as follows:

1)    Only parents may use reasonable force solely for purposes of correction;

2)    Teachers may use reasonable force only to “remove a child from a classroom or secure compliance with instructions, but not merely as corporal punishment”;

3)    Corporal punishment cannot be administered to “children under two or teenagers”;

4)    The use of force on children of any age “incapable of learning from [it] because of disability or some other contextual factor” is not protected;

5)    “Discipline by the use of objects or blows or slaps to the head is unreasonable”;

6)    “Degrading, inhuman or harmful conduct is not protected”, including conduct that “raises a reasonable prospect of harm”;

7)    Only “minor corrective force of a transitory and trifling nature” may be used;

8)    The physical punishment must be “corrective, which rules out conduct stemming from the caregiver’s frustration, loss of temper or abusive personality”;

9)    “The gravity of the precipitating event is not relevant”; and

10) The question of what is “reasonable under the circumstances” requires an “objective” test and “must be considered in context and in light of all the circumstances of the case.”

 Violence against children should be against the law, not defined by it.

Decades ago, it wasn’t a criminal assault to physically beat

slaves,

servants,

apprentices,

prisoners,

dogs,

wives and

children.

In today’s Canada, only children are still on that list.

That’s just wrong.  And it’s not who Canadians are.

This is not a child discipline issue. It’s a human rights issue.  All Canadians, whatever their age, deserve the protection of law against violence in any form.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The Government has promised to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action.

Call to action #6 calls for the Repeal of S43 of the Criminal Code of Canada. Of the many calls to action this is one that is simple to implement and will protect all of Canada’s children.

Research

Research demonstrates that hitting children can lead to impaired parent-child relationships, poorer child mental health, child aggression and weaker internalization of moral standards and delinquency, often carrying on into adulthood.

United Nations on the Rights of the Child

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wants to gain a seat on the United Nations Security Council.

The focus for this initiative has been on foreign policy.

But there is another issue that the Liberal Government could easily address.

On December 13, 1991, Canada formally ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention, which is a comprehensive statement on children’ rights, covers every aspect of a child’s life.

The presence of S43 in our Criminal Code is in direct conflict with the UN Convention. It seems to us, at Corinne’s Quest that our government should repeal S43 and come into compliance with the United Nations.

Bottom Line

All that being said, it is 2019 and the culture in Canada is that of non-violence. Bullying is not acceptable in any cases and we say that domestic violence is also not accepted. However, children are not covered when we talk about domestic violence and they can, under certain circumstances, be legally assaulted.

To have a section (S43) of our criminal code which accepts, and in some cases, encourages physical punishment of children is appalling.

It is a question human (children’s) rights and when the simple act of Repeal can protect children from this violence and its unintended risks it should be done.

-Kathy Lynn

 

When Do Children Understand “Consequences?”

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Why is it so difficult to teach children that actions have consequences?  The question might be, “Why do children not choose the best course of action?”

It is difficult because of caregiver/parent’s unrealistic expectations of children’s brain development. Honestly, I think every parent should take an online course about brain biology when they have a child! Brain growth occurs at different ages, and when parents understand the appropriate ages, they will learn when it is best to expect that children can base decisions on understanding consequences. Most parents give children “consequences” as a punishment much too young an age, when they can’t yet understand them.

The prefrontal cortex is the last section of the brain to fully develop and is responsible for behaviour control and critical thinking. Before age 6, children are pre-operational in their thinking, which means they do not have the ability to think out plans and imagine consequences of those decisions. They do not have all the information in order to make the right decision. When they reach school-aged, from ages 6–13, they get better at understanding consequences and can make decisions. However, they do not have abstract thinking skills yet. School-aged children are still operational in their thinking which means they understand what is tangible and what is in their immediate environment – things they can readily see, hear, touch, smell and taste. They can’t think conceptually until the teen years, so they don’t understand the “gray” areas of decisions, or theory or ideology. Consequences demand that the chooser understands all aspects of the decision in order to make an informed choice.

Children are able to begin understanding consequences around age 6 and are much better at it around age 13. Parents and caregivers need to adjust their expectations accordingly. And consequences should never be given to punish children for their decisions. They need an adult/caregivers help to problem solve a solution instead of “pay” for their behaviour with a “consequence.”

 

Consequences or Problem-Solving?

In parenting classes, I often get asked the following question:

When I give my 11 year-old daughter a consequence, she insists that I am being mean to her. I believe that it is respectful discipline. What is the difference between consequences and a punishment?

Brain development stage: Between the ages of 5 and 12, most children figure out that they are not choosing the consequence, and it is the parents imposing the order on them in the name of discipline. If the child doesn’t see the point, she may experience it as a punishment.

Here are the differences:

  • Consequences are parent imposed. The conflict is now between the parent and child. Problem-solving is the parent and child working together to come up with a solution to fix the problem. The conflict is now between the parent-child team against the problem (even if the child caused it.)
  • Problem-solving is a more real-world skill. It teaches kids how to fix things, make restitution, repair relationships and make things right.
  • Consequences are focused on the child, where problem-solving is focused on the end result; a common goal.
  • Consequences tend to be one solution. Problem-solving can be many solutions that would take care of the problem. The goal is repair, whereas the goal of consequences is to teach the child a lesson, which is punitive.
  • Consequences are almost always designed to hurt a child – either financially (pay for a broken item), socially (grounding or taking away cell phone), emotionally (time-out) or physically (hard physical labor). Problem-solving is designed to be pain-neutral. The goal is not to hurt the child, but help the situation. The goal is to fix the problem. Sometimes that is financial or physical, but the payoff is that the child feels good that they are now owning the solution and not just the problem. Children are very fair and more likely to dive into helping fix the problem when they know they caused it, because the focus is no longer on what they did, but what they can do to make it right. When they can put effort into fixing the problem, they feel better about themselves, learn real-world solutions and will make better decisions in the future.

Parents argue, “Yes, but it works!  Consequences change my child behaviour!” That may be correct, but the price is impaired communication.  Parents wonder why they don’t enjoy the open, caring, free communication that they once had with their child. They wonder why they are receiving attitude and silence. Pushback of imposed consequences comes in many forms. Ditch the consequences and use the adult method of problem-solving.

 

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Consequences Versus Problem-solving

Celebrate Your Toddler’s “No!”

I walked into the kitchen and discovered my two-year-old blonde haired daughter, dressed in her little pink fleece sleeper with the padded feet, standing on top of the chair next to the counter. She was preoccupied with dipping her fingers into the butter bowl and then into the sugar bowl before they headed into her waiting mouth. When she saw me enter the kitchen, a potential threat to her wonderful activity, she formed a very concise pointed finger at me, and firmly delivered “NO!” at my astonished expression.

“NO!” It’s probably the most commonly used word in toddlerhood! It flies out of our children’s mouths before they even have time to really think about what they are saying “no” to.

When my five children were young, they were allowed to say “no” as much as they wanted to. I would always try to respect their “no” as much as I could within the parameters of the particular situation, and especially in circumstances such as when they didn’t want to be tickled by me, or didn’t want to hear me sing, or didn’t want to be kissed by Grandma or didn’t want to share their prized possessions. I think “no” is an important word for asserting their feelings and desires and unless it is a matter of safety, they have the right to have their opinion listened to and respected. Here is why children should be allowed to say “no”:

I want my daughter to say “no” when she is three and her daddy might want to put her in the front seat and not the car seat because it is less hassle.

I want my daughter to say “no” when she is five and her little five-year-old friend might want her to cross a busy street without an adult.

I want my daughter to say “no” when she is nine and her Uncle might want to touch her in her private places.

I want my daughter to say “no” when she is twelve and her friends might want her to steal a candy bar from the grocery store.

I want my daughter to say “no” when she is fourteen and her friends might bully a fellow student.

I want my daughter to say “no” when she is fifteen and a friend’s drunk parent might want to drive her home from a sleepover party.

I want my daughter to say “no” when she is sixteen and her boyfriend might want to show her how much he loves her.

I want my daughter to say “no” when she is eighteen and her buddies might want her to try some “ecstasy.”

So, when she is two-years-old, my daughter can practice saying “no” as much as she needs to. And I won’t take it personally.

Judy Arnall is a professional international award-winning Parenting and Teacher Conference Speaker, and Trainer, Mom of five children, and author of the best-selling book, Discipline Without Distress: 135 tools for raising caring, responsible children without time-out, spanking, punishment or bribery and the new DVD, Plugged-In Parenting: Connecting with the digital generation for health, safety and love as well as the new book, The Last Word on Parenting Advice http://www.professionalparenting.ca, jarnall@shaw.ca, 403-714-6766

Copyright permission granted for “reproduction without permission” of this article in whole or part, if the above credit is included in its entirety.

Time-In, instead of Time-out for child discipline, by parenting expert, Judy Arnall