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

In a recent column a grandmother recommended her solution to the problem of children biting: Bite back. We demurred. Now another mother lobbies for the fight-fire-with-fire approach.

Q. This is in support of the politically incorrect biting mother and grandmother. There is nothing like experience to teach us, and I’m talking about biting toddlers. We can talk a blue streak, and it’s all abstract to a toddler; they need to learn that if they cause pain, it comes back at them.

These are my biting stories from the trenches. I was nursing my baby and his teeth were starting to come in. After having toyed with the idea for some time, he finally bit me while nursing. I let out a very loud bellow out of proportion to the pain, because I was not going to have that happen again. The poor baby got quite traumatized by my loud scream, but he never bit me again.

When he was a toddler, I took him to a day care where there was a hyperactive boy who was a frequent biter. Nothing the parents or day-care provider tried changed anything. Finally the day-care provider’s toddler took matters into his own hands and bit him back. End of biting.

When my boy was a toddler, he kicked my leg. Like the politically incorrect grandma, I very carefully placed a kick on his leg (I was so scared of hurting him that the first attempts were air kicks). He never kicked anybody again. I must add that this boy is now 14 and a joy (besides the fact that, being a teenager, he counters everything his parents say).

A. Small children’s biting certainly creates a red flag for everyone. Yet it is such a universal response in late infancy and toddlerhood that it deserves all its eminence.

Starting out as an exploratory and often loving response when a nursing baby bites the breast of his mother, it gathers drama from the surprised, angry and even frightened response, “Have I lost my baby? Do I deserve this negative hurtful response when I’m giving him everything I can? Will he turn out to be a monster?”

For him, it is likely to mean that when he suddenly raised such a dramatic response, “Should I try it again when I need to get her attention?” Then, he may begin to fall back on it when he is tired or overwhelmed or doesn’t know any other way to get the attention of someone he craves. He tries it out on a peer toddler. The world blows up. Everyone overreacts. “Wow! This is more important than I thought. I’d better shove this behavior way down underneath. I’ve learned there are certain behaviors that I don’t dare to express. They mean something terrible to other people, even though that’s not what I meant when I tried them. I’d better be more inhibited than I was.”

Inhibitions can be expensive in the long run. Your method of retaliation has surely worked. But what has it meant to the baby or toddler? “I’m bad, or she wouldn’t have hurt me, and I’m not sure why. But I guess I’m just a bad kid.” Is that what you meant to teach him by your response?

Meanwhile, seeing it from the standpoint of the baby’s development, it has been a missed opportunity. Each behavior which becomes an intrusive or painful one presents the child the chance for him to learn about how to control himself.

A child who learns self-control is already way ahead of a child who must rely on an adult’s presence to be controlled by force or by retaliation. Learning self-control is a major goal for childhood in our present out-of-control society. Discipline (teaching) is the second most important gift we as parents can give a child. Love first, but discipline that says, “I shall have to stop you until you can stop yourself.” That’s a much longer goal in time than just teaching him to suppress his responses and his feelings.

Everything we know from research in child development demonstrates that suppressing angry, hurt feelings just postpones them. For a parent or a teacher or any caring adult, each episode needs to be understood from the child’s standpoint. We can use his hurtful behavior, share the idea of self-control rather than just shutting it off. “I can’t let you bite. It hurts and no one likes to be hurt. Let’s find another way for you to say what you’re trying to say.”

The story you tell of the child’s learning from another child how biting hurts and how necessary it was to control himself was on a different level. Children learn so much more from each other than they do from an adult. It’s fascinating to watch two toddlers as they reproduce by imitation hunks of behavior from each other.

I have recommended putting two 2-year-old biters together. One would bite the other. They’d look at each other with a startled look. “That hurt.” And they wouldn’t bite again. This is an almost sure cure, but maybe one to be used sparingly, in case it could get out of hand. When it works, one can see on the biter’s face that he recognizes the fact that he’d hurt him. “I never knew what I was doing could hurt someone. I can’t do that again.” He will have learned (at 2) how to experience what another is feeling – a major step toward empathy for others.

When an adult bites him back, his reactions are hurt and anger. He may not have meant to be aggressive in the first place. Now, biting could become loaded with angry feelings. Certainly, it has not been a learning experience except to stop the biting – but not the anger that being bitten has generated.

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.