Dear Patti, 

Our only child, Arlo, will soon be 3 and is the best experience that ever happened to us. Whenever he smiles and laughs — which is often — both of us melt. For the time being, he’s a mommy’s boy and my wife, Clara, adores him completely.

While Arlo is a complete joy, he’s very willful and high-spirited and has been that way since birth. He laughs hard, cries loudly and he’s like a hurricane when he gets angry. Arlo is also much bigger and stronger than most toddlers his age. He weighed 10 pounds at birth, started walking at 10 months and has been climbing out of his crib ever since. Clara’s cousin believes he’s undisciplined and worries he may be hyperactive. Our pediatrician says that’s absolutely false. He insists Arlo is healthy and normal and will probably outgrow much of this behavior as he matures. 

     The problem is that Arlo has been hitting and pushing other children when they have a toy he wants or when they get in his way. He even bit one child. Clara gets embarrassed and I get angry. When he acts out, I lightly push or hit him or gently, but firmly, pull his hair exactly like he does to another child. At times I even want to spank him. Clara gets furious at me when I engage in this kind of parenting. My mother says that even though my brother and I were the same way as kids (and believes we had difficulties throughout school because of it), she loves to point out we’ve both grown up to become good husbands and fathers. I’m a successful businessman and my brother is an incredible attorney. I guess I’m a little afraid Arlo is too much like me and will have the same problems I had. Maybe I’m trying to circumvent that. I would do anything for Arlo, but Clara and my mother don’t agree with how I’m handling him. I’d appreciate your advice. I respect their opinions and want to make sure I do right by my little boy.

  — David

Dear David,

Toddlers can be a handful, especially when they’re testing the limits of what we consider to be suitable behavior for their age. When a 3-year-old hits, bites and pushes other children, it’s unacceptable. But, at the same time, it’s developmentally appropriate. A 12-year-old who engages in similar acts, however, is doing things that are not only unacceptable but also developmentally inappropriate.

Arlo may be extra willful and unruly, but what you’ve described is normal behavior for a toddler who needs parenting and guidance. Your attempt to exert control by hitting or pushing him back isn’t wise, as you’re putting yourself at his developmental level. Much of his behavior is innocent immaturity. While it’s nothing to worry about, you shouldn’t ignore it, either.

It’s time to set out the “Grumpy Bear Chair,” a technique that uses the same chair in the same place as often as necessary whenever a child misbehaves. Every time Arlo is inappropriate with another child, you need to put him in the chair for two-and-a-half minutes (one minute for each year of age). You may have to put him in the chair many times in one play period but repetition and consistency are necessary and important.

Sit next to him or be close by; he doesn’t need to be sent away or isolated. This is meant to be a training experience, not a punishment. Don’t interact with him while he’s in the chair. React calmly without scolding or arguing. You’re helping him distinguish between his feelings and his behavior and to learn that it’s acceptable to be angry but not acceptable to act on that anger.

Lastly, give him lots of praise when he learns self-control. That will be an important lesson for him. Arlo needs to learn how to get along with others so as not to end up being socially ostracized.

I also recommend you and Clara attend parenting classes. If you’re correct in your assessment that you may be having trouble with Arlo’s personality because it reminds him of traits you find unacceptable in yourself, it would be a good idea for you to explore what residual feelings from childhood are being activated.

As in the case of our children, those we love and are attached to most are often our best teachers. 


Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her website, patticarmalt-vener.com.