The XX Factor

Hands-Free Preschool

The New York Times City Room blog had an item yesterday about a dispute among parents in a private, co-op preschool over what to do with three children “in the 15-student class [who] were taunting, kicking and biting their children.” Some parents wanted a “zero-tolerance” policy enforced at the school, which would have sent home any children who physically or emotionally hurt others. Others disagreed. It led to what seems like a miserable year, so much so that the head teacher, Kerrie Nasse, said in an e-mail to parents, “In my entire 12 years of teaching, I have never experienced such an ineffective and distressing chain of events.”

The blog post brings up a lot of important questions parents always deal with, chief among them, how much do you step in for your kid? A lot of the commenters on the post said that the Park Slope preschool parents need to stop sheltering their kids so much and teach them how to deal with life’s hard knocks, which makes sense.

In the preschool world I travel in, a Title I (read: high poverty) D.C. public school, there aren’t many helicopter parents. But there is consensus that biting is a felony in the world of children’s possible offenses. Teachers can do a great deal to prevent this sort of behavior, and the City Room post did not talk about the specifics of their role in this kerfuffle. How did they and the parents of the kids who did the biting work on the issue? What were the consequences for bad behavior in class?

After a year with a great preschool teacher and aide, my 3-year-old’s class at full-day preschool-which had some regular hitters at first-largely didn’t use their hands anymore. They faced consistent, repeated consequences for making “good choices” and “bad choices,” in the latter case, usually time in the “thinking chair”-I kid you not-and no stickers at the end of the day.

There is another solution to your kid getting hit that I think most well-meaning, self-aware parents shy away from. I told my kid that it was OK to take care of her puny self when adults failed to. We worked hard to get her not to hit when she was 2 or so and to go to adults with physical disputes. But at camp last summer, almost every day for two weeks, a friend of hers from school would shove her till she fell, and it cast a pall over each day. I asked my daughter what the adults did, and she said they told her buddy, M., not to push. That wasn’t working.

After about eight days of this, I told my daughter that if M. pushed her, she had my permission to push her back hard, since M. outweighed her by a good 10 pounds. Even if she got in trouble at camp, she wouldn’t get in trouble with me or her dad. The next day at pick-up, my daughter bounded up to me. She told me that M. had pushed her. My daughter shoved her back. I asked, “What did M. do then?” “Told the counselors,” my kid said. They told my daughter to stop pushing. She did, for good, because M., whom she still loves to pieces, never shoved her again.

Photograph of schoolchildren by Daniel Mihailescu/Getty Images.