My first frenemy
There’s a good chance you’ve been hanging with “play groups” since before your child could even roll over. There are so many wonderful ways for parents to connect with peers and likewise expose babies to other babies — even if all that looks like is a small cluster of floor blankets with infants independently exploring their own toes.
As your child enters toddlerhood, these gatherings take on new meaning. To your delight and wonder, your toddler begins interacting with other children. The mispronounced Ls and Ws make for perfect entertainment as your little one philosophizes with friends on topics ranging from “cats are furry” to “applesauce is gwoss.”
It’s cute, it’s lovely and it’s liberating to be dethroned from your position as One and Only Playmate.
But then …
Your toddler is still a toddler — strong will and spitfire. Frustrations and outbursts and 0-to-60 tears, you learn, aren’t reserved for parents alone.
Two toddlers, by nature, will inevitably fight.
No — THIS is how we play with the farm animals. The piggy doesn’t go there! That ball is MINE. Don’t talk to MY mommy!
These phrases — classic, normal, adorable — are commonly heard amongst tots with a full vocabulary.
For those who don’t quite have all the words, expression comes in the form of a bite or a hit or a pinch . And don’t put it past the talkers to throw in physical aggression for good measure.
She really means it when she says “Mine.”
Kick, slap, push.
Aggression is normal
From Dr. Sears to What to Expect to Mothering.com, every well-known parenting resource — no matter how mainstream or alternative their leanings — will tell you that toddler aggression is normal. So normal, in fact, parents would do well to look at this phase as developmentally necessary.
This is how we, as humans, learn to communicate. This is how we test boundaries and then test them again.
That didn’t work out well: That boy bit me back. Every time I pull a kid’s hair, Dad says NO.
Full of energy, limited in words and craving adventure beyond capability, toddlers will of course kick and scream and bite and cry. They’re working with the tools they have and in doing so, develop new and more efficient tools.
The cringe factor
Though normal and universal, aggressive behaviors aren’t always easy for the toddler’s parent to stomach, especially in those nervous social circles we call play groups, where parenting choices are weighed and measured as you make —sometimes excellent, sometimes awkward — small talk with mere acquaintances.
“I’m so sorry,” you say, after a game of “shark” ends with an actual chomp.
“He didn’t get enough sleep. I think those molars are coming in,” you stammer after a particularly feisty round of I-want-that-toy-it’s-mine.
But you know what? That other parent is probably thinking, “Thank goodness it wasn’t my kid FOR ONCE,” over your imagined, “They’re terrible parents and that little monster should be locked up.”
We’ve all been there — shocked, embarrassed, apologetic. In my opinion, we should get over THAT and learn to accept our toddlers for what they are — cuddly, monstrous lunatics undecided between neediness and independence.
What more can a parent expect? What more can a parent DO but redirect, offer alternatives and repeat until the concept of sharing kicks in, until further vocabulary develops, until they’re no longer cuddly, monstrous lunatics — say age 4, give or take?
Sometimes it may seem that toddler-on-toddler fighting goes beyond the “norm.” It’s war between two particular kids — unyielding and explosive.
A similar oil-and-water scenario will be faced throughout life — with teachers, failed romances and adult friendships.
Sometimes people just don’t mix.
It’s OK to gradually ease out of play dates with a certain friend when the afternoons consistently erupt in complete chaos. Or, if you can take the heat and enjoy chatting with the toddler nemesis’ parent, keep the relationship going.
You don’t get along with everyone and neither will your kid. There’s growth, development and normalcy, too, in suffering an hour or two of annoyance and adversity.
Jen Wittes lives in St. Paul and is a mother of two.