By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

A reader suggests a turnabout-is-fair-play solution to toddlers’ biting.

Q. I can just see your reactions to my solution to the biting problems of toddlers. Politically incorrect? Oh my yes! But as a mother of four, and grandmother of seven, I have a bit of experience on this subject. First, a child rarely tries out this bad habit on a contemporary first. Generally, a parent is the first victim. If the parent shows alarm the child quickly assumes this is a sure-fire attention getter. Instead, if the response is a quickly delivered return bite, the toddler gets the message very quickly that this does not feel good and rewards them with discomfort in return. They are not likely to try this again. On anyone. Of course, I am not speaking of injuring the child in any way. Just a gentle, “See what that feels like.”

A time-out or such might work in the home, but it cannot be applied when the child is not in the care of the parent. They learn what Mom and Dad will not allow but that does not curtail this behavior socially.

Call me old- fashioned but success is a pretty good argument for my case.

A. As you say in your letter, nearly all toddlers go through a stage of biting in the second and third years. First, as infants, they bite their parents. A parent’s first response of pain and surprise is bound to intrigue and confuse a baby. In her attempt to understand what’s going on and to connect cause and effect, she’s bound to bite again. After a few more tries, a less dramatic but unequivocal response _ “I’ll have to put you down until you can learn to stop” _ will suffice to make her stop. Later, as she’s learning to reach out to other toddlers, to attract their interest and entice them to play, or just to get some kind of response, biting is likely to emerge again.

It will also appear when a toddler is pushed over the edge by desire (for the toy she can’t have), frustration (that another child won’t pay attention), or anger (over the toy that the other child grabbed from her). Biting at these ages is a natural step in a toddler’s effort to sort out her role in interacting with others.

One pediatrician we know says that a toddler’s bite is just the flip side of a kiss – another try at communicating with her mouth! But when it stirs up hysterical responses in the adults nearby, biting is bound to take on a life of its own. A toddler’s simple effort, once again, to figure out what the fuss is all about.

When a child bites another child in a childcare center, parents and teachers are often, understandably, incensed. Even if their children have been biters in the past themselves, parents want their child buffered from the current carnivore on the loose. Perhaps they fear that their own child will go at it again.

Yet parents and teachers would be wise to use a straightforward teaching response to a toddler’s bites (stop the biter, separate the children, remind them it’s not acceptable, without overreacting to them and tempting them to try it again), not a punitive one like the one you suggest.

A parent who bites is getting down on the level of the child and is no longer a parent. Most common behavioral challenges defy the “logic” of a parent inflicting a child’s misbehavior on a child so that she’ll “know what it’s like.” Should a parent steal from a child who steals so that she’ll get the point? Should a parent lie? Cheat? Would you suggest we also scratch, hit and kick children who need to learn not to? This is not teaching. This is not problem solving. This is not parenting.

We’re happy to share your disdain for the “politically correct” if you’ll think through the issue you raise with us rather than pigeonholing our response in advance. Freedom from “political correctness” is a pretty handy posture to strike these days in defense of just about anything. But it is a distraction.

The problem is that biting back is a primitive response _ one we’d understand in animals in the wild but not one we’d want to model for our children. No doubt you’ve caused no serious harm with the little nibbles you describe, but we want to assure our readers that you wouldn’t apply your logic to the broader challenges of raising a child.

We’d like to see children to be raised into adults who can show each other enough respect to work to understand each other when they disagree rather than to just throw labels at each other. Perhaps all the pigeonholing in politics these days that shuts down healthy debate before it starts is an adult equivalent of the limited social skills of the toddler who bites, or bites back.

We certainly respect all of your experience but must differ with your conclusion that simply stopping a behavior proves your method to be successful and justified. Raising a child is not about simply stopping unwanted behaviors in the short term. It’s also about teaching the child self-control, respect for herself and others, what’s right and what’s wrong, and what it means to be human. We doubt that arguments such as “do it back so she’ll see what it’s like” and “if it stops the behavior, it works” will accomplish these fundamental goals for raising a child.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton, prior to his passing, was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.