Posted by: philosodad | September 16, 2009

not the eyes, little dude

So, the Highlander has a couple of issues right now. I don’t know how big they are, or what terrible things I did to cause them, but he’s got them and I’ve got to deal with them.

The first one is that I’m having trouble teaching him to tackle. We play rough, we always have, and he’s fairly used to take-downs and tackles from my side. But when he tackles me, he tends to punch right in the throat or groin, and occasionally he goes for the eyes. And since he’s almost three, I’m starting to think he’s doing it on purpose. I tend to flinch when we’re playing because I know he’ll grab and poke near my eyes, so I think this is my fault.

The thing is, I want him to learn about this stuff. His self defense and parkour skills should come naturally, like breathing or walking. I don’t think he needs to be protected from the knowledge of how to cause pain or shock. If a stranger grabs him he should go straight for the eyes, head butt the nose, kick for the ‘nads, and run like hell. It’s the correct reaction… in that situation.

But just like he’s learned to tussle with Dog without grabbing the ears, he needs to learn to tussle with Dad without grabbing the face. And I’m struggling with teaching him rules in this situation. He’s pretty young, but I’m starting to wonder if I need to start his formal martial arts training sooner than I planned.

The other problem is hitting. He is expressing his frustration by attempting to smack me or his mother. Not all the time, but enough that I worry. Naturally, I was curious whether this type of behavior was related to the sorts of rough-and-tumble games that he and I tend to play.

The answer appears to be: no. There is support for the idea that angry and aggressive discipline is strongly correlated to angry and aggressive behavior in children, but not that rough housing contributes to aggression.1. That didn’t really surprise me, because the idea that angry parents have angry kids is not particularly controversial. The stress and pressure in our house is contributing to his aggression. The Highlander is the canary in our coal mine.

Which is much, much worse. The literature is pretty clear on this, getting angry does not help with self discipline or even compliance in the long term.2 Worse, depressives like myself are more inclined to lose our tempers than more neuro-typical adults.3

I was raised to think that children can be cowed into proper behavior. I tend to think that way. But the literature suggests that I’m better off trying something completely different, and given my own predilections, it would be safer to try a more positive approach.

We generally take it on faith that–unless the situation is obviously and catastrophically unsustainable–the way our families act towards one another is reasonable. Enough so that the Stuart Smalley figure is a standing joke in our culture; the flighty guidance counselor in Heathers, Frazier Crane in Frazier. Americans respect the laconic über-cowboy, the man who gets compliance by sheer force of bad-assness. We see this as acceptable. I come from lower-middle class, hard-working, god-fearing southerners. The family culture of being a hard-ass is hard to shake.

But I think maybe I should shake up my expectations. Good parenting can’t come from a book. If I’m going to follow a method that differs from what I was taught as a child, I’m going to have to buy into it, internalize the concepts. And that’s going to involve a long skeptical look at where I come from.

[1] R. Conger, T. Neppl, K. Kim, and L. Scaramella. Angry and aggressive behavior across three generations: A prospective, longitudinal study of parents and children. JOURNAL OF ABNORMAL CHILD PSYCHOLOGY, 31(2):143–160, April 2003.

[2] R. E. Larzelere and J. A. Merenda. The effectiveness of parental discipline for toddler misbehavior at different levels of child distress. Family Relations, 43(4):480–488, 1994.

[3] D. W. Leung and A. M. S. Slep. Predicting inept discipline: The role of parental depressive symptoms, anger, and attributions. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74(3):524 – 534, 2006.



  1. Excellent post. It’s tough to overcome your background culture in the face of evidence, but it’s a noble pursuit. I wish you success!

  2. Great Post! I’ve said it before, but I think one of the most Skeptical Parenting methods one can have is critically considering your own methods and motivations. I have been surprised how often that has made a difference.

  3. Yeah, but books help us learn about other ways from the ones we know (usually just whatever our parents did.) Check out “Becoming the Parent You Want to Be.” It’s helped me with different behaviors. It sounds froo-froo but it’s awesome.

    And here’s a nice read on a couple studies that have to do with this too:

    I’m writing on this myself today.

  4. So true – gotta break away from automatic pilot which kicks in with kids when they push buttons and/or when we’re in a hurry, etc. I try hard to be mindful of what the hell I’m doing -just paying attention – and that often makes me stop the automatic pilot. I don’t necessary know – in the moment – the right (effective, reasonable, etc.) approach, but at least I’m not doing the same ol’, same ol’ 🙂

  5. Some martial arts schools have tiny tots programs. And I believe that even families that rough-house can teach where you may and may not (a) rough-house (b) touch another. I suspect that, especially with boys, hitting happens when the child doesn’t have enough language to express strong emotion. It may be better to teach a displacement activity. So when he hits — strong stern NO! and then say, “do this” and model whatever behavior you find appropriate. Stamping feet worked for us with our hitting toddler. The foot stamping died out naturally around the time the toddler started school.

  6. I fear martial arts training is probably double edged.

    My brief flirt with Judo definitely taught me that fighting outside of a competitive situation was silly when avoidable. But I was a fair bit older than your lad.

    Also it depends what they teach them according to:

    Examination of the effects of traditional and modern martial arts training on aggressiveness
    T. A. Nosanchuk *, M. L. Catherine MacNeil
    Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

    So meditation, and philosophy. Sounds about right, my group had a lot of warm-up, wind-down, and breathing exercises, along with clear instruction on how and when to use the skills taught.

    If you find an answer let me know, my 15 month old needs to learn to leave Dad’s spectacles alone, although he seems to understand he shouldn’t be too rough with them already.

    Is it possible he is getting some of this outside of the home setting?

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