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Trying out “mean”

Dear Miss Faith, Recently my almost four year old son has become incredibly loud, demanding, and seems to be playing the part of the “mean” kid. He thinks it is funny to hit people, to spit on them, and to be rather bothersome in general, to both children and adults. I know that this is probably a normal phase in which a youngster “tries on different hats”, but I just don’t know how to meet these behaviors. I also know that there was a marked change in his behavior (more neediness, crying, a seeming regression in ability to do things on his own) around the time my second son was born 7 months ago. I am sure there is a connection as my older boy senses that he doesn’t have everyone’s undivided attention any longer. But how do I draw these boundaries with these “annoying” behaviors? I work hard to maintain a rhythm to our day, to make sure he gets enough sleep, and to make sure we are outside playing a good part of the day. I try to offer him appropriately challenging tasks around the house and he does enjoy that. But these behaviors persist. I am really at a loss, find myself losing my temper often and am really sad because I am finding less joy in being with my boy. I hope you can consider this situation and look forward to your thoughts.

Dear Mama,

This answer may surprise you because it’s more direct than many of my suggestions, but I think you should be very direct and clear with him that this is not acceptable behavior, and that it’s important to you that he (and everyone in your family) be both polite and kind. The trick is that you, also, must be both polite and kind–while still being firm. Be firm early, so that you’re not pushed to the point where you’re angry at him and lose your cool. Be compassionate that this is hard for him to change, and and give him alternative ways to ask for what he wants: if he wants attention, he could come up and ask you for a snuggle. If he wants to rough-house, you could bring the couch cushions down and make a ‘wrestling ring’ for him and dad, or him and you, or (with close supervision) him and a friend. If he wants something, you can model how he can ask for it in a kind voice. If he’s disappointed that he can’t have something, be sympathetic and help him move on.
I agree with you that he’s trying this on as a ‘hat,’ but I’d let him know that this is a hat that is not acceptable in your family. We don’t look at a two-year-old who hits and just say, “Oh well, they’ll outgrow it.” We kindly and firmly let them know that it’s not acceptable and we show them more acceptable ways to interact. We practice it with them over and over again until they get the hang of it. Somehow, though, once children become verbal, we tend to think that they can just figure things out for themselves. But they are still very young, and still figuring out what is OK and what’s not OK. It’s up to us as their parents and caregivers to give them clear feedback about what’s expected and acceptable (in this case, that they be polite and kind).
There are things you can do on the side to support this idea of being polite and kind. Stories like “Mother Holle” are good, as well as “Sweet Porridge” (in the version I tell, they have to say “Please cook, little pot, please cook,” and “Please stop, little pot, please stop!” but the mother forgets and says, “Stop, little pot, stop,” then when it doesn’t stop, she gets annoyed and says, “Little pot, stop right now!” and then, “Little pot, stop-stop-stop-stop!” After each one, I say, “Do you think the pot stopped?” And the kids and I chorus, “No!!!!” then the little girl comes back and remembers the ‘please,’ but they had to eat their way out of the house. You can see the full version I tell here.)
You can also play games about respect, where you say, “Let’s pretend I’m the Mean Mom,” and pretend to yell at him about something that you actually want him to do, in an exaggerated and funny way. Then stop and say, “Wait, is THAT the way to ask kindly?” Then ‘try’ again, but in a really whiny voice. He should be cracking up. “Is THAT the way to ask kindly?” If he’s loving it, come up with a few more ways: glaring at him, shaking your finger, stomping your feet, etc. Finally, say, “No, that’s not how we do it. Here’s how:” and then in a normal voice suggest that you do it together, and get to work on it. Play this game quite a bit, and make sure it’s fun. Then when he yells or whines at you, you can bring back the memory of this game. “Is that the way to ask kindly?” and let him try a few different ways till he gets it just right (you might have to prompt him).
Anyhow, a few ideas to try. Let me know how it goes!
Warmly, ~Miss Faith

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