Is Your Baby A Bully? Smart? Shy? Why We Should Lose Labels

Wouldn’t we all like the freedom to reinvent ourselves? I know I would. For example, I’ve been pegged (can’t imagine why) as an “un-domestic” type, lacking talent and confidence in the kitchen, never living down the fact that I had no idea how to make a cup of tea until I was forced to learn (in a panic) while waiting tables at Marie Callender’s at 15, a job I quit (to no one’s surprise) after two days. Still, I would like to know that I could possibly study to be a master chef at the Cordon Bleu someday…if I wanted to…and that I’d have the open-minded support of my family and friends, and they’d hold their guffaws. 

At one time or another we’ve all felt labeled, and most of us have acted on the normal tendency to label others. Tagging people with a word or two is like speed reading. It cuts corners, but by oversimplifying it often impedes accurate comprehension while inviting cliché.

There is usually at least an ounce of truth in labels. Still, they hold us back, and are especially detrimental to children. Our children are rapidly evolving. They need to feel unencumbered by judgments — good, bad, or indifferent — while they are learning who they are, and how to relate to others.

Bullies and Victims. As children get older, bullying is a serious, even deadly issue. We must be always be aware of our children’s behavior and do all in our power to prevent them from bullying or being victimized, but labeling children ‘bullies’ or ‘victims’ at any age will not help alleviate the problem.  Early branding makes it far more difficult for children to grow and change, to comprehend the complexities of social situations and handle them effectively.

The RIE Parent/Infant and Toddler Classes are unusual because we allow even the youngest infants to interact with minimal adult intervention, and we aim to observe as objectively as possible.  The children are grouped with others of the same age, and kept from hurting each other.

Parents worry when children struggle over a toy. If their child ‘wins’ they worry that she is aggressive.  It their child is “taken from” they worry that their child is too passive. But if we step in and return the toy to the child who had it first, or say, “Don’t take that away, that’s not nice,” we project and reinforce those beliefs about both children, rather than supporting them to learn to navigate social situations themselves through experimentation.

If we refrain from intervening, the children usually show far more interest in the interaction itself then they do in the toy. There are often multiples of a toy, but the toy that is in another child’s hand is almost always the only one of interest.  The class facilitator acknowledges the situation non-judgmentally, “You both want that ball. Now David has it.”

Giving and taking are ways that infants and young toddlers connect with each other. Eventually the child who behaves more passively will learn to find another toy, or hold on more tightly, bait and switch, shout “no!” or run away if he wants to keep the toy.

The young child who behaves more “aggressively” eventually learns that taking toys is not the best way to “join” with another. This learning process takes time and practice. The lesson infants and toddlers learn when an adult steps in and fixes things is that they are incapable of handling a social situation themselves, and that the most influential people in their lives may perceive them as bullies or helpless victims.

Why shy is painful. I prefer to think of shyness as a feeling rather than a character trait. I feel shy in certain situations, and sometimes it comes over me when I least expect it. Being shy is perceived as a negative, not a designation a child can feel proud about, and it is hard to break out of.  (“Whoa, look at you dance! What happened to my shy boy?”) It is often said teasingly, or used as an excuse when a parent is disappointed in a child’s social response. Yes, some of us are more introverted, but labeling a child “shy” makes him feel…well…shyer.

You’re so smart! A revealing study recently reported in Po Bronson’s New York Magazine article “How Not To Talk To Your Kids”, and discussed in my post “Praising Children, Risking Failure“, dramatically demonstrates the danger of labeling children “smart”. The New York City schoolchildren who were praised for their intelligence after the first in a series of tests lost confidence and motivation, while the children who were praised for “trying hard” persevered and succeeded.  The “smart” label, like all labels, gave the children a designation that stifled. While we can control our level of effort, the only place to go from being “smart” is to being proven “not smart”. And that possible loss makes giving one’s effort a risky thing for a child to do.

Labels are static and unconstructive. They make us feel stuck rather than free to change, improve, reshuffle the deck. If we can’t reinvent ourselves weekly, daily, even moment-to-moment as infants and toddlers, when can we? So let’s keep an open mind, lose the labels and witness every twist and turn of discovery in our ever-evolving children. I love a mystery, don’t you?


I share more about fostering healthy social skills in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Thanks for another great post!

    Kind of off-topic, but has taught me more about cooking than anything else — extremely well-produced video tutorials, and delicious recipes.

    1. Hi Olivia!

      Cool…thanks, I’ll have to check that out… My cooking never seems to turn out the way the book says it will!

  2. Greg Allan says:

    I’m sorry, but this is the most ridiculous parenting article I’ve ever read. Labels are important because they define a set of behaviors. Bullies are pushy, bossy, and possessive. Sometimes they take things from others and sometimes they’re violent. I would agree that we don’t want to tell a child that they are a bully, but if a child is being pushy and taking things from others, I don’t see anything wrong with telling them that they’re acting like a bully.

    If I pulled you out of your car at a stop light and drove away, would you stand there marveling at the interaction we just had, or would you call the police and expect them to recover your stolen car for you? Obviously a toddler who takes another child’s toy isn’t the same as a car thief, but the behavior is the same. The child has taken something that didn’t belong to them and it’s the parent’s job as enforcer of the rules to recover the toy and let that child know that what they did was wrong. We’re not teaching them that they’re incapable of handling social situations. We’re teaching them that there are rules for acceptable behavior and that they’re expected to follow those rules. We expect other adults to obey the law. Why should we not expect our children to obey the rules?

    A parent’s job is to teach their child how to function well in society, but how can we do that when we raise them in a utopian bubble where it’s ok to take things that don’t belong to you? Certainly the child who has been taken from could, “find another toy, or hold on more tightly, bait and switch, shout “no!” or run away” but why should they have to? There’s no good reason to expect a passive child to defend what is rightfully theirs. We should instead be expecting the aggressive child to not take what doesn’t belong to them. After all, how would you feel if you called the police about your stolen car and were told that you should hold on more tightly next time?

    1. Yes, I agree with everything you wrote.

      A child needs to be aware of right and wrong. At 2 they are not completely able to understand more complex cause and effect situations. Social skills are just that, a complex set of skills based on cause and effect.

      A child who constantly has toys taken from them will more then likily begin to shy from social interaction b/c they don’t yet have the skill set to defend themselves from that situation…other then with frustration and probably a bit of hitting.

      The child who constantly takes toys is getting immediate gradification from the exchange. The getting of what he wants.

      What motivation is there to change the behaviour when they are gaining what they want?

      Yes, I can definitely see that as they gain social skills they should be allowed and encouraged to work things out by themselves. I dont however agree that at the age of 2 these kids are able to fully interact without adult interaction.

      By saying “You both want the ball and David has it” you are telling the child that..well…you want it but you didnt have the skills to keep it.

      Your not labelling either child as good or bad…which is perfect. But your also not awknowleging that the child had a right to the toy that was in his hand and the other child didnt have the right to take it.

      Why cant that child have thier feelings validated? thats not labelling the children.

      1. Jenna,

        Yes, a child’s feelings should be always be validated. If a toddler is upset about losing a toy to another (which is rarely the case) we would always say something like, “You were holding that. You really wanted it.” Sometimes, if a child gives up easily, we might add, “You can hold on to that if you want it.” Or, “You can tell him, ‘No’.” Once again, if possessiveness is not modeled for the children, they usually care little about the toys. It’s all about the interaction with another child.

        I agree that social skills are learned through cause and effect. If the “effect” is a parent intervening and deciding what’s ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, the children learn that they need adults to manage even the simplest, safest, age-appropriate social situations for them.

        I have been observing toddlers playing together for 15 years. They have amazing and surprising play experiences when adults stay out of the way. But, if they are not trusted to have safe struggles, they don’t have the opportunity for truly joyful moments together either.

        1. I completely agree with you, perhaps for different reasons.
          By taking the toy away from the “aggressive” child (I don’t like that label either, by the way), you are telling that child that his/her feelings are invalid.
          I like the non-judgmental way your instructors deal with such a situation, I might also suggest that it’s an opportunity to teach empathy.
          “Jenny looks so sad when someone takes a toy away from her.”
          Why is one child’s feelings more important than another’s? And by punishing the “aggressive” child, you are refusing to recognize the NEED which motivated the behavior. That child has a need too, and addressing that need will serve as a connection between you and the child; whereas punishing the child may hurt your connection or the child’s trust in you.

          1. Hi Dionna,

            Thanks for contributing your thoughts! I agree with the importance of teaching empathy, and I believe we model it by the way we intervene with children, but I think we have to be careful not to assume a feeling. If a child does have an obvious emotional reaction to a toy being taken away, I recommend gently acknowledging that child’s feelings, i.e., “You wanted that and Josie has it now. I saw what happened. You are upset about that.” The “aggressor” (no, not a great word to describe the mildness of this situation!) is taking in the other child’s reaction. Toddlers are so sensitive and aware that even pointing out how sad another child looks can feel a little heavy-handed to me. And I have seen that little bit of extra attention to the “aggressive” child backfire, and spark her to want to retest the parent by repeating the action.

            I agree that infants and toddlers need to trust us, and feel our empathy rather than be judged and punished as they navigate social situations!

        2. sara el kady says:

          This is so perfect; but when I do this with my 4 and 2.9 kids, they start chasing each other to hurt each other.

          4 takes the ball from 2.9 he chases her to get it back (they hit each other. when I stop the hitting, the 4 yr old runs and hides and he keeps crying for his toy.

          when I acknowledge his feelings, he keeps crying and saying I want it back and screams in a tantrum and refuses to listen or be hugged. I think it is unfair to him and not sure what to do.

    2. Greg,

      One of the interesting things about the way young toddlers give and take is that the child who is “taken from” rarely gets upset at all. Parents often do, especially if they do not understand this stage of development. If allowed to have the experience without an “enforcer” stepping in, the children usually stop and stare at each other for a moment — take each other in — both interested in the exchange. This is an early way of socializing, of playing together.

      We make a huge mistake when we project our adult ideas about “stealing” and “ownership” onto our 1 and 2 year-olds. They are innocent about those concepts — until we teach them otherwise by jumping in and deciding one is “wrong” and the other one is “helpless”. Toddlers (thankfully) don’t yet have an adult understanding of ownership. If they have it or want it, it’s theirs. They live in the moment and never hold grudges.

      Yes, we must always step in before a child pushes or hits, and disallow any violent behavior. But even then, toddlers don’t need our accusing, pointed fingers. Those same children are usually smiling and laughing together a moment later.

      I believe our toddlers do need a little “utopian bubble” while they are socializing in the first couple of years of their lives, so that they can learn to get along with others without the projections and judgments of hovering adults. We all have a lot to learn from toddlers.

      Thanks for not attacking my cooking!

      1. Hi Janet,

        What do you think about the idea of children becoming conditioned to disrespect? Or feeling that adults don’t care enough to step in and help, even if they are empathising, which may lead to not asking for help when really needed?

        When my daughter was about one, an older toddler consistently snatched everything she was playing with. She wasn’t used to this, and the way she connected with other children always tended to be by giving them something, so she didn’t vocalise anything or try to get the tots back. I could still see the disappointment and powerlessness she felt. She was too young for me to give her suggestions, so I stood up for her and asked the other child to give my daughter a turn. I feel that I was only intervening at the point where my daughter couldn’t act for herself, but I really do believe it matters for her to expect respect from others.

        What do you think? Thanks,

    3. > I don’t see anything wrong with telling them that they’re acting like a bully.

      I know a fellow who was often told to “go to your room and think about what you’ve done”. He did. He thought long and hard about it. What he didn’t do is realize that he had done something wrong. And the times that he realized that *something* must be wrong, he couldn’t really figure out what it was.

      I think that one of the issues with saying “you’re acting like a bully” is that it’s not specific — it’s not specific about what behavior is bully-ish, and what is wrong about it. “I won’t let you hit” is specific.

      Negotiating toys at the age of 1 and 2 is not about rules and belongings, and it certainly is not about sharing (I rarely share my toys, and nobody is around to make me)! If parents always jump in to save the day, then the child who was taken away from is likely to end up with learned helplessness (or whatever the experts call it). How are you going to learn to negotiate and interact if you can’t do it when it’s safe, such as with a situation of “we both want the same thing”?

  3. Gracelaronde says:

    Wow, Greg… Did you read the post? We’re talking 1 and 2 yr olds here, yes? How is a 2yr old a bully, unless you believe it’s genetic. If you believe that, then it’s a non-starter w/out stem cell therapy.

    “Bullies are pushy, bossy, and possessive.” yes, they are, but if a toddler is testing another by pulling a toy out of another’s hands, are you going to assume this child is a bully?

    BTW, if you try to take my car you’ll find yourself on the business end of a .45 (carry permit). But what in the world does that have to do with a couple of toddlers testing each other over a toy?

    Have a beautiful day!

  4. Interesting and obviously controversial post, Janet! I get what you’re saying about the cons of labeling – I’d argue we parents often get fixated on our kids as one way or another, good at this, bad at that. I do and I’m a psychologist! There’s no excuse for bullying behavior in school-aged kids. I prefer to point out the poor behavior than obviously telling kid they’re bullies or impugning their personalities or self-worth, etc. Goes along with the whole praise idea that Po Bronson co-opted from child psychologists – make children feel good about their efforts and not some innate quality they feel they cannot change – and it works with both positive and negative behavior.

    The interesting aspect to bullying – bullies often turn out to have been bullied themselves.

    Shyness/Introversion. My kids and I, probably husband too, all fall on the more introverted side of the spectrum. Seems to me there’s a belief out there that the introverted are somehow immature socially or just need to feel confident enough to come out of their shells. It’s true, they do need to learn how to navigate an overwhelmingly extroverted world, but it shouldn’t be viewed as a developmental delay or flaw in need of fixing! Technically, shyness is a slightly different trait that if intense enough can qualify as a social disorder. Anyhow, I wish I didn’t have to feel apologetic or defensive about being introverted!

    1. Hi Polly,

      I agree! And, since I join you and your family on the introverted side of the spectrum, I’ve decided that I like the word ‘introspective’ better than both ‘introverted’ (which rhymes with an unpleasant, sick-sounding “P” word) and ‘shy’. Yes…an introspective, deep thinker — that’s me — and I’m conjuring up some really important ideas!

      Thank you for your psychologist’s take on all this!

  5. Greg Allan says:

    > One of the interesting things about the way young toddlers give and take is that the child who is “taken from” rarely gets upset at all.

    I’ve visited hundreds of daycare centers as part of my studies and I’m going to have to adamantly disagree. From my observations, the vast majority of the time a toy gets taken, the child who was taken from will get angry and lash out, most often at the other child. My own son has come home from daycare with bumps and bruises because another child tried to take a toy from him and he wouldn’t let go, so the other child hit him.

    Toddlers are generally innocent of all adult concepts, but it’s our job to teach them. My question for you would be, at what age do you think it’s appropriate to teach a child about stealing and ownership? Does a child turn four or five and suddenly it’s not ok to be doing what you’ve been letting them do all along? “Sorry Billy, but it’s not ok for you to take toys from other kids anymore. I know it’s been ok for the past few years, but starting today it’s not.”

    > Wow, Greg… Did you read the post? We’re talking 1 and 2 yr olds here, yes? How is a 2yr old a bully, unless you believe it’s genetic.

    Yes, I did read the post. Did you read mine? I said from the beginning that I agree that calling a child a bully is not ok. However, my argument was that labels can be useful because they help to define a set of behaviors that we can then use to teach our children how to act appropriately. That’s why I don’t see anything wrong with telling a child that they’re ACTING like a bully (assuming you’ve adequately defined for the child what a bully is).

    I vividly remember a time when I was in kindergarten when a police officer in uniform came to visit the class. He was there to talk about stealing and why it was wrong. He used the word “Thief” a lot, and used heavy emphasis each time he said it. I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “Wow, that sounds awful! I don’t want to be a thief.” That memory has stuck with me for over 30 years.

    The point is, labels can be a driving force for appropriate behavior. Positive labels give our children something to strive for and something to be proud of when they achieve it. Likewise, negative labels give our children something to avoid. Labels like hero, winner, and champion paint a picture that can often evoke a much stronger emotion than describing the action itself. A four-year-old who saves the class gold-fish when the bowl tips over can be called a hero and he’ll remember the word being used when the class discussed fire-fighters or when his grandmother talked about his grandfather’s military service.

    1. Greg,

      I can certainly understand how upset you must have felt when your son came home with bumps and bruises from day care.

      I guess I can’t explain why the 3 month-olds to 2 1/2 year-olds in our classes don’t seem to get upset when a child takes a toy from them. Maybe it is because they are well-supervised, feel safe, their parents give them clear, consistent behavior boundaries, and then within those boundaries allow them to problem-solve. I’m not suggesting that this would work anywhere, anytime with all families.

      Yes, there are situations in which I would intervene before a child takes a toy from another. Occasionally, in the older classes (the 2 year-olds), a child develops a project, like a boy who recently stacked the buses to make a quadruple- decker bus. I would not let another child interrupt this project and take something away, but I would not tell that child he is behaving badly, or like a theif or bully, I would simply put my hand in front of the toy and say “I won’t let you take this from so-and-so. He’s working on something.” Toddlers should not have to start identifying themselves as either bad guys or victims.

      As I said before, the younger children are trying to figure out ways to connect with each other through the toys. They are seldom invested at all in the actual toy. It interrupts them when adults step in and say, “so-and-so had this first!” “Share!” or whatever. Sometimes we point the child to another of the exact same toy, and at least 85% of time, the younger toddler has no interest in the toy at all. He or she is trying to figure out the interaction.

      But this post is about labeling. For an older child, I agree with Polly that it is the behavior that should be labeled (and hopefully in a constructive way so that the child is directed to do better), not the child.

      You are right about the ‘hero’ label. It’s hard for me to think of any negatives to that one! Although, I suppose Superman can sometimes feel a bit pressured to always have to save the day, being labeled a superhero.

      If we drill in the “winner” label, should our child turn to the friend he beat and call him a loser? Or feel like a loser next time he doesn’t win? I want my children to learn that sometimes we win, sometimes we lose, but that doesn’t change who we are.

      I’m still for losing labels.

      1. Hi Janet

        My daughter often gets labelled as ‘shy’ or ‘smart’, or as a ‘mummy’s girl’ and I am at a loss of how to reframe what they see.

        Any suggestions?

    2. hi greg,

      I see your point regarding labels. If they were used as concepts for children to strive towards (like hero) then I think labels can really work. The problem is that labels aren’t used just as concepts. They’re used to identify people and sweep them into general categories. There’s a good article by Nancy Devlin called “The dangers of labeling children” it may bring clarity to janet’s point. In addition, I suggest reading the NY mag article she links above. But and the big but is, janet is speaking of infants and toddlers who aren’t quite at the child level of understanding concepts yet.

      My point was…i was in Janet’s class with my son Ben last year -hi janet!- and I assure you it’s not a rampage of infants all hitting each other. In fact, from what I witnessed, if two infants start going at it and things get rough, the instructor is there to mediate the situation in the fairest way possible. However, if there’s a “tug of war” the intervention is not immediate and often it’s not needed. the infants seem to resolve the situation mostly on their own and i’ve definitely witnessed it a few times. When a toddler hits another toddler s/he isn’t told “you’re acting like a bully and this is what a bully means.. aggressive etc.” but they’re spoken to specifically about their actions and how it affects the other person. It’s also quite a different environment than a daycare. In Janet’s class there’s a lot of “modeling” (and no not running down the runway :D) For instance, if a toddler becomes too aggressive then there’s intervention and the instructor shows that “gentle” is a better way. The instructor will gently pat the infant on the head and other objects to communicate the desired behavior.

      Greg, I’m not an expert but just a first time mom who is always looking for the best way to raise our only child. I’ve also been a participant of RIE with my toddler and witnessed exactly what she has written about. from my experience as a child myself (who was coincidentally labeled as shy) i’m dropping the label thing and letting Ben become Ben and not shy Ben, Smart Ben or a bully Ben.

      1. Hi Michi!

        Thanks for adding your perspective. My best to you and Ben!

    3. Wait- your child comes home from daycare with bumps and bruises? I think that you need to direct your hostility towards your own choice in a facility and its management rather than bullying Janet. You mentioned in your (extremely rude) initial post that bullies are “pushy, bossy, possessive”. Your tone is exactly that, sir.

      Also, I wish you would have clarified your statement “I’ve visited hundreds of daycare centers as part of my studies and I’m going to have to adamantly disagree. From my observations, the vast majority of the time a toy gets taken, the child who was taken from will get angry and lash out, most often at the other child. ”

      Hundreds of daycares? For what, 10 minutes? Whilst speaking with an administrator? Or did you visit, and observe for a prolonged period of time? And what studies out of curiosity?

      Now, I am sure in the course of your ‘studies’ you may have observed that there are different factors that contribute to a volatile environment amongst the kiddos, I am surprised that you didn’t mention that.

      So, since you are all for labeling, I have one for you – obnoxious.

  6. Roseann Murphy says:

    I’ve thought about this article and all the responses for a couple of days.
    I have tried to put all of the responses in perspective, and after thirty plus years of teaching and caregiving and parenting, I still cannot see the benefit of “labeling” or name-calling.

    Temperaments are developed while in utero, reseachers tell us that 50% of temperament is genetic. Some children are more assertive than others. Some children are more introspective or observant.

    A child’s temperament characteristics are inborn, not learned behavior. Temperament is not deliberate behavior. It’s just the way the child is. It’s important to recognize this and, as parents or caregivers make accommodations.

    Children are working their way through life and different experiences. It is up to us as adults to show them the way without harsh labels.
    Some of the children being labeled as bullies have only been on earth 24 months.
    Our job is to keep our children safe, teach them the way and do this without devastating life long labels. Early labels can stay with children throughout their young lives and change the way people look at them. Blessed is the child who acts out and is treated with dignity and shown how to act with kindness.

    Thank you again for incredible site and insight.

    1. Roseann,

      Thank you! I so appreciate your insights and expertise on this subject.

  7. About a month ago I went with my baby to a children´s playground. My baby was playing with a toy and suddenly a toddler (maybe a month older) came and took it away from her. The mother was about to intervene and I told her not to worry, maybe we could wait and see how they solved it. Amazingly my daughter was not at all disturbed, she looked intrigued about the baby and the situation. When the toddler saw that she wasn´s gonna fight it, he just let go of the toy and went for something else. My baby took the toy back. Imagine all the energy we saved by not intervening and the respect we showed them by letting them solve their own issues.
    And then, about a week ago, I was with a friend and her baby and the opposite happened. My baby took a toy from her baby boy. Thankfully my friend is a Magda Gerber follower, so everything was solved in our baby´s own perfect way.
    And talking about labels. I was labeled as the funny one ever since I can remember. When I was in a bad mood I felt like I was expected to remain being funny and “forget” about my feelings. My sister was the “smart one” so she had to be always smart!! Imagine the pressure!! And I was just talking to a cousin who is very good at painting and she became the “artistic one” and now at 28 she found out that because of that she never studied wat she really wanted to be, a doctor!!

    1. Hi Jeronima,

      Wow. Thanks for sharing these insights and experiences! I’ve experienced many toddler interactions similar to the one you describe. Yes, babies don’t need to be hovered over…they can do things and problem-solve!

      Family roles and labels fascinate me. I wanted to touch on the subject in this post, but I couldn’t quite fit it in without going way over my 1,000 word limit (and keep in mind, I’m shooting for that 500 word post…never seems to happen for me). I understand why parents with multiple children give labels, but I think they are the ultimate stiflers, and we are often stuck with them our whole lives! No matter what our family role is, we feel hemmed in and pressured by it. I’ve made it a point to encourage there to be…for example…3 soccer players in my family. No one “owns” any personality trait or area of interest in this house. And your interests can change on a dime. My children will probably complain when they are grown about their “lack of family roles”. Ah, well.

  8. I just commented on your newer post about playgroup tips, but anyway, I agree we shouldn’t label babies/toddlers, but thought it was interesting to note that my son reacts strongly when toys are taken from him by adults, older kids, or other babies. He usually squaks and reaches for it and tries to grab it back. He’ll follow around another baby, even an older one, and tug on their clothes to try to pull himself closer to the toy (I then intervene so he doesn’t pull a 15 month old down on the concrete at the park or anything else like that-he’s big enough he is actually capable of toppling little ones quite a bit older than him) he’s pretty persistent, and if unsuccessful in the end he arches his back and cries. Suggestions?

    1. When an adult needs to take something from a baby, it’s best to be gentle and respectful and explain, “I can’t let you use that — it isn’t safe. Can you give it to me? You don’t want to give it to me, so I will have to take it away.” Maybe you are doing that already, but he still objects to your action. It’s okay for him to disagree, arch his back and cry, or otherwise demonstrate his frustration (though not fun for you, I know!) Acknowledging helps, i.e., “I see how upset you are. You really wanted that. It’s hard not to get what you want.” I definitely wouldn’t let him tug on clothes or hurt anyone.

      It helps a lot to give your infants and toddlers safe places to play where there are not inappropriate objects at their disposal. And, referring to the comment you left on the baby playgroup post (thanks!), I don’t believe children of different ages can be trusted to have safe conflicts. It isn’t a level playing field. Yes, siblings deal with this (and I’m planning a post on that issue) but multi-age groups require much more monitoring than groups of a similar age.

      Thanks for your comment!

  9. Alexandra says:

    What about the explorative hand-swipe of my six-month-old? She often reaches out to touch if the face of another child is nearby – how would you keep that safe? Especially around moms who are not familiar with the philosophy? I don’t want her to hurt another child, but I also don’t want to limit her initiating a connection.

    1. Hi Alexandra,

      I smile when I picture that six-month-old hand swipe. I’ve seen it many times!

      If you are nearby, you might softly and briefly model a gentler touch for the two infants, while calmly saying, “Gentle, touch gently”, or something like that. Maybe you could even anticipate and gently block the action. But, as you say, you don’t want to discourage your daughter, and any intervention that is abrupt might do that. A sensitive baby will be bothered by the swipe, but that same baby might also be bothered by the close proximity of another infant. If we have a more sensitive baby, we might have to be a little more protective in social situations, keep them closer to us and allow them to get used to others more gradually.

      I think it works best with other parents to discuss the “ground rules” ahead of time. If we agree to allow the babies to interact, it won’t be perfect! There may be swipes, maybe even some crying, etc. I think we have to consider it a trade-off, but if the babies are close in age the injuries will be very minor.

  10. I was once at the library with my son, and had an incident in which another boy wanted to “share” the computer my preschooler was using. The boy didn’t ask, and my son didn’t want to share, and told him to go away. Not the most polite thing to say, but I thought I’d hang back and observe to see if they could work it out. Unfortunately, the other boy’s grandmother swooped in and pulled him away, saying in an exaggerated voice, “That boy is a BAD boy. You don’t want to play with him. What a BAD, BAD, boy,” as she looked in my direction. I was shocked, and told her that it was inappropriate to label a young child that way. She (obviously) disagreed.

    It made me realize though that a lot of parental intervention in our children’s playgroups isn’t really about what the children need. It’s about saving face in front of other parents. No one wants to look like they’re not trying to civilize their children.

    I have found that if you moderate the kids’ play too closely, they seem to have more fights than if you set a few ground rules and try to give them space to work out concerns. For my son, it’s often reminding him that toys he doesn’t want to share can be put away when he has friends over, for instance. I also step in whenever there’s a hitting or too-rough horseplay incident. That ‘sportscaster’ trick does seem to help – I didn’t realize I was doing it, but I recognized that I do as soon as I read the description of the technique. Ending the playdate is my option of last resort.

    1. Hi Briana,

      Thanks for sharing your insights. I agree that the grandparent in the library was highly inappropriate. I also agree that we over-intervene sometimes to show our manners to other parents, even when it is not in our children’s best interest. It certainly doesn’t help a child to learn to get along with his peers to have an adult charge in before he has a chance to try to figure things out.

      Giving your son the option of putting toys that he does not want to share away before a playdate is a great idea! I always recommend that, too.

  11. Hi Janet —

    I just found this post after emailing you earlier today. It’s answered so many questions but brought up more (and reinforces how the learning will never stop).

    My 2-year-old often takes things from other children, and does so more in environments where adults step in to try and solve the conflicts. Sometimes it makes other children upset. Today at the park he ran between two girls playing in sand, and I allowed him to do it because it didn’t seem to bother the girls very much (but it bothered the parents). I’m at a loss . . .

    I want to allow my son to explore and work out resolutions on his own (which I’ve observed him do, often — for all the times he’s taken things from others, he’s brought toys and given as well). But I don’t want him to feel bad about the negative labels others are giving him.

    I know this is something he will encounter — no one pleases everyone all the time. Do you have any suggestions on how parents can handle the pressure from other parents, both in terms of being true to our own beliefs while being respectful of others, as well as introducing those concepts to our children?

  12. What a great discussion. Like most of the contributors I tend not to label a child, or a person, though I would say I have know many adults who evince bullying tendencies. For that reason I suppose I am coming at this discussion from a different place. Like Greg has said, and most people have agreed, letting a child know that a type of behaviour is not ok seems to be fundamental to helping it develop self respect, emotional awareness and the skills of socialising and “getting along” with others as an older child and as an adult.

    I have many interactions with older children ranging from 3-11. I am startled with the degree to which anti-social behaviours dominate in the playgrounds of the UK. These range from mild chiding to very aggressive and systematic victimisation. Perhaps this is utterly normal and I simply have forgotten what it was like when I was a child. Perhaps it is the law of the jungle and an innate attribute of humans. I would be very interested to know how the way in which very young children are taught or have “appropriate” behaviour modelled to them impacts on the learning and embracing of inappropriate forms of behaviour towards other children in later years.

    What constantly plagues me is not what a behaviour should be called but the sense that many parents subtly and overtly teach and encourage aggressive, bullying and “me-centric” behaviours, perhaps through their own “issues”. There is not a lot one can do about that. What one can do though is teach and model the skills of resilience and a sense of self.

    It’s never too soon to start – hence my great respect for RIE – which seems to embrace this ethos for infants and toddlers. If such an approach had a place in every home and elementary school across the board perhaps much anti-social behaviour would start to disappear.

  13. Janet, I am in total agreement about not labeling. What do you suggest I do when someone calls/labels my son? He’s 18 mos old and sometimes when strangers try saying “hi” or talking to him he runs and hides his little face in my legs or chest if I’m holding him. They will respond with, “oh, are you being shy?”, what a shy boy!” Someone even called him a mama’s boy! It doesn’t feel right and I just don’t know what to say, I really just want to say, he just doesn’t know you.

  14. Hello Janet,
    I loved this article. I am interested in what you think about labels such as “good girl” or “good boy”. It seems to be thrown out at my children by granparents and most visitors. It makes my skin crawl many because it seems so meaningless but I wanted to know your perspective on it. Personally I perfer to acknowledge behaviour. I also feel like one of my friends particularly is trying to ‘fix’ my parenting (we do see a lot of one another) by adding ‘good girl’ to all my interactions with my daughter. Shall I ask her to comment on what she notices or find a new stay at home parent to be friends with? Thanks I look forward to your help. Jenny

    1. Hi Jenny! A lot of the time the way we interact with children seems to become ingrained, habitual, that is to say, she might not even realize she is doing it! Have you spoken about your parenting philosophies together? If not perhaps you could, after she has done it a few times, ask her or tell her why you choose specifically NOT to say things like “good girl”, in a way which is more explanatory than accusing. You could start by saying “Do you know why i dont say good girl to my baby when she achieves something? It because…” and you might not need to say “so please stop doing that” as im sure after the explanation she will realize it must bug you. She may just not understand why you dont do it yourself and having you explain that you arent neglecting something she obviously thinks as important, but that you actually have a different opinion of it, might just stop her from doing it without having to end your friendship. Sometimes having these possibly argumentative conversations seems more daunting than just ending a relationship, but they are almost always not as bad as you thought they were going to be! 🙂

  15. Very timely article. I am looking for a way to handle interactions at the playground with myself, my child and other families. For some reason my super playful, exuberant 2.5 yo will often “shy” away from playing with other children around his own age but will want to follow older kids around the playground. When I am the only one there with one other family I will often feel I need to help engage him with the other child so its not awkward, esp if the other child seems interested in playing with my son. When he acts shyly for some reason I feel the need to say “oh he’s just being shy right now”. I don’t want to label him but being an introvert myself I feel at a loss at how to handle these situtations. I would love any help you could guide me too!

  16. Hi Janet,

    I have a 4 year old who is labelled by others as “shy” and no matter how hoard I try to prevent that people around us just don’t get it! I can see how those comments make him even more shy and it breaks my heart.

    Same thing started happening with my 20 month old son. He doesn’t like crowded places and always hide behind me.

    My younger son is really into “mine” stage and every time he wants something from his brother he screams and yells until he gets it. He wants everything all the time! How do I approach these situations? Sometimes I leave them to see how things will go but most times things get even worse and the older one gets frustrated…

  17. Hi Janet,

    It’s great to feel be your website. I’ve instinctively gravitated to a similar philosophy for raising my 10 month old daughter. However, about 2 months ago, she began pulling hair and grabbing other babies. All. The. Time. We have stopped going to playgroup at this point. She is a baby, not a toddler. I see these behaviors as impulses (as opposed to ‘misbehaving’) but it is so intense. I do block her hands and say “gentle” and she has gotten gentler with the dog at home. Maybe because there is so much going on a playgroup (sometimes 10+ babies 6-12 months) she is getting overstimulated? I’m not sure. Any suggestions for us?


  18. Hi Janet, thanks for this article.

    How often would you say an epithet has to be used before it’s a label? For my nearly 2-year old, I can see that being routinely known as e.g. “shy Billy” sets up an expectation, and that’s not good.

    But what if I validate his feelings – in language I think will communicate effectively at this age – by saying “you’re being a shy Billy” one minute and “you’re being a silly Billy!” shortly after?

    Where do you draw the line? One time, two, three? How often before you think a kid takes it to heart?

  19. Heather Craig says:

    My daughter goes ‘mute’ quite often and when she does speak might start saying ga ga. I find myself apologising for her. I don’t want to and always regret it but I do. People often describe her as so shy (a playgroup leader, I moved her from that playgroup) or in Scotland they would say ‘strange’. I get upset some people don’t get the best of her.

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