Taking Children Seriously

Biting Children

Posted by David Deutsch on the TCS List on Mon, 21 Oct 1996 01:28:00 +0100

A poster asked:

I submit the following strategy for analysis from what is likely the most sensitive coercion-o-meter in the world. This list!

My 17 month old son has continued to bite a wide range of victims, including helpless ones. In an effort to help him understand what is happening I am attempting to show him by biting him non-coercively. When he bites I bite him in a way that hurts a little, but not too much. I say “Biting hurts! This is what biting feels like...” and bite him hard enough so that it is not fun, but it doesn't make him cry or complain. Whenever he bites anyone, including the cat, I remind him of what he is doing. If he is not distressed, it is not coercion, right?

Correct. But that's a big ‘if’. A number of severe disadvantages and risks of this strategy occur to me. The first one you mentioned yourself:

Admittedly, I am walking a fine line. Hard enough to produce pain, yet soft enough to avoid distress.

Are you sure you have enough insight and empathy to know when he is not distressed? Not all forms of distress give rise to crying or complaining. An important category that often does not is fear. Are you sure you are not frightening him? Indeed, are you sure that the purpose of this strategy is not to cause him to cease biting people for fear of being punished in this way? I'm not saying it is, it's just a question that comes naturally to mind.

In many families children are (overtly or implicitly) punished for displaying their feelings, especially negative feelings. Fear of such punishments is a type of fear that, by definition, tends not to show itself, and the more distressing it is, the less it shows itself.

Secondly, if this biting of yours is

hard enough so that it is not fun

then you've diverted some creativity away from your important duty of giving him fun. Naturally I'd worry whether you are not in fact devoting creativity to the task of depriving him of fun. In addition to the pain and possible fear, we would then have to add the psychological distress of his realising that his nearest and dearest are not on his side.

Thirdly, if the sole justification of this strategy is to give him information, I don't understand why it needs to be applied more than once. Conversely, if you find yourself biting him repeatedly, then I'd suspect that you and he may be engaged in a battle of wills vis a vis biting, rather than a friendly interaction, made physical only by the temporary fact that he doesn't know enough language yet to be told the relevant information in words.

Fourthly, I wonder whether he does not in fact know perfectly well that biting hurts, and whether he has what seems to him a good reason for hurting the people he hurts. In which case, there would be an urgent problem here, which needs to be solved by you and him jointly, by creative means. This strategy at the very least is diverting effort away from such solutions. At worst it may be worsening the problem and disabling the relevant creative processes.

Fifthly: this is not strictly relevant to your question, but in my opinion biting a cat is an act that is in a completely different moral universe from biting a person. Cats have no rights. This suggests a possible solution to this whole problem: When you next feel the urge to bite your son, why not sink your teeth into the cat instead? I'm sure it will be at least as effective, and will satisfy all concerned without incurring any of the risks I have mentioned.

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