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Thursday, January 25, 2007

About the boy: B-E-Agressive

At a recent playdate a nanny I hadn't seen for a while asked me, "What happened to Jasper? He used to be such a nice, quiet little boy." Jasper had just given the nanny's charge, a little girl, a nasty scratch. I mumbled something about how he'd been playing with boys a lot more lately and that's why he'd gotten so aggressive.

Long before we had Jasper friends told us that having children would decimate any enlightened notions we had about gender. This applies to parents -- feminists going Earth Mama and deciding to stay home with baby, slacker Peter Pans suddenly suffering from provider anxiety. It also applies to kids. Where are the baby dolls I swore I'd buy my own son? He doesn't want one. He wants action figures, planes, trains and automobiles.

He also loves shooting. And explosions. And crashes.

It started about a year ago. Back then we hardly watched any TV at all. There were no action figures in his life and we had him taking classes with a bunch of peacenick kids at a Waldorf school (soft lighting, hand-knit stuffed animals). I don't know, maybe it was the playground. Maybe it's the water. But by summer he was a full-fledged warmonger.

The modern parent has a number of options. She can ignore all parenting theories and just go with her own instincts. She can go with the guilt and read parenting theories that instruct her to mold her child into a perfectly-behaved droid. Or she can look for parenting theories that jive best with her own preferences and her child's personality for better or worse. I'm a validation-seeking nerd, so I've gone with this last approach. And with Jasper's aggression I've looked to my new guru, Michael Thompson.

Thompson accepts boys' tendency towards aggression as a fact of life and is more interested in helping parents channel it appropriately than in repressing it.* Yes! I don't have to change my son's personality. I just have to teach him not to hit other kids. But I wonder which is harder -- teaching your child that all violence is BAD or teaching your child that certain acts of aggression are antisocial?

Let's rewind back to the nanny's comment. Jasper was aggressive with his female friend because she has this little habit of grabbing toys out of his hands. Sure, she says, "let me have that." But he still finds it a threat and retaliates. When he hits, scratches, or (alas) bites her in return she invariably dissolves into tears and demands an apology, a hug, and a kiss.

I'm all for taking responsibility for one's acts of violence, but I can't help but compare this scene with what I've -- very unscientifically -- observed in boys. If Boy A takes Boy B's toy and Boy A retaliates, either a fight ensues or one of the boys backs off and finds a different toy.

This business of apologizing and making amends, on the other hand, is very civilized. It also strikes me as very female. Does it work? Is it a more effective way to deal with conflict? What if it's always one-sided -- always demanding apologies but never volunteering apologies? Always painting oneself as the victim. Should there be books on channeling female aggression?

Maybe parents of girls have a different perspective on the subject. It certainly makes me think about my own relationship to aggression.

*Following a conversation with another parent this morning I realized I was a little simplistic in my description of Thompson. He actually is interested in understanding the origins of boys' aggression, though in this vein he focuses more on adolescent boys, whose emotional lives tend to be more difficult to understand than three-year-olds'. In the case of little boy it's pretty easy to ascertain the root of their aggression: frustration at not controlling all aspects of their lives, frustration in trying new things, changes in routine or environment, etc.


Tania said...

Michael Thompson has done a lot for my relationship with Jacob. Now when he screams & throws the phone across the room I see it as normal venting of frustration, instead of fearing that he's destined for Sing-Sing.
Seriouosly though, I really enjoyed "Raising Cain". I first watched the PBS special about a year ago, then read the book, then told all my relatives with boys to read the book. (But I am still making him give hugs and say sorry.)

Swizzies said...

I cop to being cranky and exhausted, (and more, to typing on a laptop that has been witness to Jasper's random acts of violence ;-), but as much as I don't like kicking someone's ass for them because they took your toy, I even more dislike the crying/demanding an apology bit. Bullshit. She was being a passive-aggressive little bully to begin with, then a weepy victim, and any apology scenarios should also have a healthy dose of her owning up to what she did and why, age-appropriately of course. She wanted the toy and went for it - she should also deal with the consequences of her wants and her power. That said, it's not okay for either of them to give into their aggressive impulses - hers to grab and take, his to lash out in retaliation. But to address her aggression/passive-aggression and victim-ness, the apology should not all be focused on the person who hit. There are two definite learning opportunities in that small scenario you portrayed.


Hevansrich said...

are you kidding me Di? You'd be GREAT on the childcare shift!!

Cherie said...

OK - I can't resist this one.

It seems that some "boy traits" are inborn. I will grant that some often-seen girl traits also can appear, despite the parents' best intentions. (Wearing of princess dresses comes to mind, though, thank god, it has not afflicted our household.)

Take the subject, age 2.4: loves cars and trucks. Do his parents (1 male, 1 female) love cars and trucks? No.

But the Subject in question loves cars and trucks that he will sit still for the first and only time to get a hair cut if you show him truck movies on YouTube.

Good truck movies? No. Just the first ones that come up on the search: the Czech fire department driving their new truck up snowy mountains, and the Bulgaria Lada club driving the Ladas (!) (the most gutless, charisma-less cars on the planet) around a flat dirt track.

Boys. Well, he will grow out of it. Jasper will grow out of it. Maybe. My brother grew up to be a professional player-with-trucks: he works for United Rental and gets to drive the forklifts, cranes, bulldozers. etc.

Adriana Velez said...

Awww, give the girl a break, Swizzies, she's just a little three-year-old! In an adult the same behavior would completely unacceptable, though, and I'm afraid not that unusual.

But this brings up a few interesting issues I'll bring up in Wednesday's post.