Q&A: altercations between toddlers

I got two somewhat similar questions about toddlers (17-20 months) fighting. The first was from Kristin, who writes:

"Our question relates to the effects of physical aggression at play group. We have started to take our 19 month daughter to a playgroup that is apparently run according to Steiner principles. One of the shared, central rules is never saying "no" to a child and never directly correcting what I often consider to be inappropriate behaviour. Most of the time this approach doesn't worry me, even though I don't agree with it, but my daughter is now being hurt by other children. For three weeks in a row she has been pushed over, punched and bitten by two older children in four separate incidents. When this has happened I've asked the children to stop hurting Boo but was given a very clear message by the parents that it is not my place to do so. However,the only intervention from the mothers has been a hug for the perpetrator - no apologies and no attempt to "make up". We're really uncomfortable with this but we're torn about leaving because there are some lovely kids,  Boo does seem to have a good time in many ways and we feel it's important that she is exposed to different situations with other people (she's also going to another playgroup where these situations just don't occur).  Our concerns are two-fold: will my daughter end up believing that aggression is okay, or that it goes unpunished?; will the aggression have a lasting impact on her, undermining her security and confidence? This second outcome is particularly worrying as Boo has started to bring up the aggression seemingly out of the blue: "Jilly push. Boo bump. Sad".  Are we being over-protective?"

So, yeah. Short answer: No. You're not being over-protective. Long answer will follow the next question. B writes:

"My 17-month-old daughter is in an all-day daycare program that's affiliated with a university and generally of high quality. There are ten one-year-olds in her classroom and usually three teachers. She's been at the receiving end of 2 biting incidents and maybe one or two-kids-piling-on-top-of-each-other collisions that resulted in a bleeding lip. Overall, she's very good at avoiding physical confrontations and knows which kids seem most dangerous to her--an excellent social skill to have, in my opinion. Thus far, she's not been aggressing against other kids.

I know that biting is to be expected in this age group and think that the teaching staff respond appropriately. But I also know that one of the biters has been engaging in this behavior for 2-3 months now. Worse, I've seen the notorious biter choke other kids by coming up from behind, putting them in a headlock and yanking their hair when teachers seek to break up the choke. Several things worry me about this:
a) it looks like a well-practiced move and rather more, shall we say, "advanced" than I would expect from a one-year-old;
b) the choking incidents are not reported to the parents of either victim or assailant, yet clearly taken seriously by the staff, who coming rushing to the scene to free the choking victim;
c) the choking behavior, along with the biting, has been going on for what seems to me an awfully long time, i.e. 2-3 months; but
d) since the center doesn't keep statistics on these incidents, I have no idea about the frequency of either the bites nor the chokes--my kid, after all, can't tell me.

Now here are my questions: Do you think that the choking is age-appropriate? Do you think that any aggressive behavior that goes on for 2-3 months or more is usefully chalked up to developmentally normal nuisances? Or would you say that the problem is grave enough for the teachers to either question the parenting that goes on at home or call in expert help or both? Further, do you think that a childcare center should document choking incidents to the parents even if they don't leave marks the way bites do? And does it strike you as a reasonable request to say that a daycare center should keep stats on the frequency of biting incidents and similar aggressive encounters in the classroom?  (After all, every poopy diaper gets recorded and every arts activity photographically documented.)"

This is all just a different version of the question we talked about last week about how to help a 1 1/2-year-old with tantrums.  The bottom line is that tantrums and aggression (hitting, biting, scratching, even choking) are normal for lots of kids. (And 2-3 months is not at all a long time for this to be going on.) They aren't doing those things because they're bad kids. They're doing it because they don't know how to communicate what they want, and because they don't know how to process their feelings or deal with the frustration of being so little and wanting to be big, or because they can't deal with other kids doing things they don't like.

It is the job of the adults around them to teach them how to deal with their frustration. This can be a tough job, because the toddlers are taking out their frustration on you sometimes, and it's hard not to just want to tape their arms to their bodies and their mouths shut with duct tape. But, as always, you have to keep your eyes on the long-term goal of teaching them to be civilized people who can communicate in better ways and manage their emotions in productive ways.

That's what's so disturbing about both situations. In Kristin's situation, it just seems counterproductive and ridiculous for the adults just to observe what the toddlers are doing without helping them. At the very least they should be protecting the kids who get hurt from the kids who are hurting, and reinforcing to the hurters that that's not acceptable behavior. At that age, toddlers absolutely cannot work it out on their own. Occasionally they may be able to navigate a situation in which two kids want the same toy, for example, but it's certainly not something adults can expect to happen all the time. They need firm rules and guidance in how to interact with each other. They need help from the adults around them.

I can't speak to Steiner principles (I know the basics of Waldorf method, but not all the ins and outs of Steiner stuff), but it just seems strange to me that the parents of kids this young are deliberately holding back from teaching their kids necessary life lessons. If there's no room to change the way the adults manage kids' physical aggression, then I think I'd just leave the playgroup so my kid didn't get hurt anymore. You absolutely do not want to teach your daughter that it's acceptable for her to be hurt repeatedly.

In B's situation, the adult caregivers are seriously dropping the ball. They need to be protecting the kids. All the kids. The kids who are the victims of the biting and choking, and the kids who are doing the biting and choking. It isn't like it's coming out of the blue. They know who the offenders and victims are, so they should be more proactive about stopping it before it happens. Yes, it sucks to have to be on top of a kid constantly to prevent him from hurting someone else, but what's the alternative? Kids who have no other way to manage their frustration and aren't learning appropriate boundaries, and kids who get hurt all the time (and don't learn appropriate boundaries).

It sounds like the management of the center is not qualified to deal with this sort of problem, because there's no clear policy for the caregivers to manage the kids to stop the hurting, and because there's no clear policy about reporting incidents to the parents. In this situation I'd talk to the other parents in the room and get together as a group to talk to the management and caregivers about what you want done. But it's not acceptable, and it's a problem with the adults, not the kids, who are just moving through this developmental stage the way kids do.