Why Not Swat My Toddler’s Hand?

In this episode: The mother of a 14-month-old writes that she wants to be a respectful parent, but her living situation presents some physical dangers for an active toddler, and lately she finds herself swatting his hand. “I feel torn between two world,” she says. “Is there any place in gentle parenting for a hand swat?”

Transcript of Why Not Swat My Toddler’s Hand?”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m responding to an email from a parent who’s feeling very conflicted about what she calls an occasional hand swat. Given the circumstances of her lifestyle which she says includes a lot of wood burning stoves, she’s wondering if that sort of interaction with her 14-month-old can coexist with respectful parenting.

Here’s the note that I received.

“Hi Janet. I feel almost evil asking you this question because I feel like it would such a no no in gentle parenting. I guess I haven’t really seen you address a hand swat specifically so I don’t really know your take on it. But I can only guess. I have to say that I’m in almost total agreement with pretty much everything that comes out of your mouth. I love the idea of accepting our children’s feelings and empowering them to handle themselves instead of micromanaging them. I pretty much follow the ideas in your toddler books to a T.

That being said, I still feel a little torn between two worlds. My parents occasionally used a swat on my sister and I when I was growing up and I don’t feel very traumatized by their parenting methods. Right now I have a 14-month-old that loves to grab the handle and open the door of our wood burning stove.

We live and work on an off the grid facility that has a wood burning stove in nearly every room so it isn’t feasible to block them all off. And try as I might to supervise appropriately, there are still times when I’m bending over to get something, et cetera, and he starts fiddling with the door handles and/or opens a stove door.

I’ve stopped his hand hundreds of times and said I won’t let you open the stove. It doesn’t seem to be making an impression. Lately, I’ve started swatting his hand because I guess I would rather he learned not to touch them because of the hand swat and not a burn later on.

Anyhow, he doesn’t seem to even remember the hand swat and will just go play with the stove a short time later. I guess I’m curious about your take on this developmental stage and whatnot. Is he incapable of remembering at this age? As much as I would love to just be able to follow my child around all day and tell him I won’t let you touch that, I have other responsibilities and it isn’t doable in my off the grid life right now.

Is there any place in gentle parenting for a hand swat? Am I crazy to think I can combine several schools of thought on parenting? Should I just give up the swat and risk a burn later? How did pioneers do it? Thanks for any clarity.”

Okay, the short answer to these questions is it isn’t possible to combine an approach where there is physical punishment even if it’s just as minor as a swat on the hand with gentle or respectful discipline.

Here’s why. Respectful discipline is about the relationship, and for the relationship that we have with children to be successful and intimate it has to be based on trust. And there’s only so much trust a child can have in a parent who uses their power to inflict pain on the child.

It doesn’t mean that you would be traumatized. What it does mean is it’s not possible to have the level of intimacy that I know I want with my children, and I believe that most of the parents that are drawn to this approach want with their children, under those circumstances.

Intimacy, trust, these are delicate things, and what often happens is that children don’t grow up blaming their parents for these things at all but they feel a little less trust in themselves. They feel that maybe they aren’t quite … That there are bad parts of them.

A lot of parents say to me well, I really needed that. I was an ornery kid. I needed that kind of punishment. Well, why do some children need that and others not need that that are just as strong willed and just as defiant? I don’t believe any child needs that. In fact, I know for sure that they don’t. And there are a lot of studies now that show that teaching children that hurting someone is an okay thing to do when you’re not happy with what they’re doing is a message that people take with them from this kind of experience in childhood.

The choice that this parent offers: “do I just give up the swat and risk a burn later on?” Neither one of those options are acceptable in my view for parents. Children need us to protect them and they also need us to understand them. And a 14-month-old, a two-year-old, three-year-old, their job is to be a curious explorer. That means testing everything in their environment, and that’s why I’m an advocate for creating safe play spaces where children can be free to explore without them getting into trouble or doing things that we don’t want them to do.

So it’s hard for me to imagine that it isn’t possible for this parent to have a space, maybe in the child’s bedroom. I don’t know if there’s a wood burning stove in there. Or maybe there is a way to gate off a section of a larger room so that the stove is not part of this child’s play area. But he really needs to be encouraged to be curious rather than punished for it and hurt for it. We don’t want to discourage curiosity. That’s a precious, precious commodity that children have that allows them to be explorers and learners.

The other part to understand here is that, with the respectful parenting approach, it’s understood that the relationship that we have with children the most important way of providing discipline. Having that relationship of trust, helping our child when they’re doing things they shouldn’t be doing rather than turning against them or manipulating them or creating distance. That’s a time where we need to join with them and stop them kindly and help them. And let them know that we understand they’re impulsive. We understand that they’re curious, and we are on the same team.

And we’re modeling the kind of behavior that we want our child to have. So if we don’t want our child to be grabbing at things, then we can’t grab at their bodies. And we can’t abruptly lash out at them. We have to be the models of what we teach because that is what we teach is ourselves. Magda Gerber said that. That was one of my favorite of her quotes: “What we teach is ourselves.” We can’t get around that. For better or worse, that’s where we are.

So I believe there is a solution for this parent so that she doesn’t need to be in the position that she’s either swatting her child or allowing him to get hurt. Neither of those are acceptable.

I also understand this mom not wanting to follow her child around. No, that’s not a workable situation for a parent. You can’t be doing that and again, that discourages them from being the explorers that they need to be to develop the foundational learning skills that will serve them throughout life. This is the time when these things begin.

So just going back to a couple of specifics that this mother shares, she says that her 14-month-old loves to grab the handle and open the door of our wood burning stove. Yes, I mean, that’s an interesting and fun thing to do. And again, I hope that she can find a way to prevent this from being an option for him while he’s exploring, while he’s doing his job.

She says, I’ve stopped his hand hundreds of times and said I won’t let you open the stove and it doesn’t seem to be making an impression. Well, it is making an impression because everything we do with children makes an impression. But it’s not teaching him what she wants to teach him. It’s showing him that this gets an interesting reaction out of my mother when I do this. So that makes me even more curious about it because there’s some tension here. My world isn’t comfortable when I do this. This person who I look to to help keep me safe and to be my calm, confident leader is rattled when I do this. So I’ve got to keep doing that.

So I’m going to talk about a way to handle this kind of situation when we’re in a position where, maybe, we’re at someone else’s house or somewhere where we can’t provide the safe place that our children need, where we can’t childproof an area for our child to explore in because we do all find ourselves in those situations. I’m going to get into that in a second, but let me just finish with what’s going on with this mother…

She says lately she’s started swatting his hand because she would rather he learn not to touch because of the hand swat than get burned. So I’ve talked about how those aren’t acceptable options to me, either one of them. Or helpful options. Then she says he doesn’t seem to even remember the hand swat and will just go play with the stove a short time later.

I am at least 95% sure that he remembers the hand swat. But again, that is a tense situation for him. In that moment, that’s something that’s going to draw him back into repeating that activity to see why his mother is uncomfortable in the situation. Why there is this tension and this kind of powerful reaction.

So that’s interesting, isn’t it? That even though it hurts him, he’s still compelled to return to it. And that’s not because he doesn’t remember. Children this age are highly aware and sensitive. They are … and Alison Gopnik’s studies show this, they are actually more aware of everything than we are as adults. They are taking everything in. So it’s not that he wants to feel the pain again. But he can’t help himself. He’s got to find out, What is this? What’s going on? Why does my doing this small action here that’s very easy for me to do, why does this set off something in my leader that I look up to?

She says, “I guess I’m curious about your take on this developmental stage and whatnot.”

Yes, so his developmental stage is I want to learn everything about my surroundings and I want to explore and I want to test things out.  One of the things I want to test out is my leader’s reactions because I want to see who they are, are they comfortable in their role with me? What’s our relationship? That’s a big part of what they’re learning at this age.

And she says, “As much as I would love to just be able to follow my child around all day and tell him I won’t let you touch that, I have other responsibilities.”

Yes, I agree with that. I want to help this mom not be doing that, because that’s just not tenable for her or for him.

So I’m now going to explain how to handle these situations when they do come up. Knowing that children are so aware and tuned into our feelings about things, we’ve got to really understand that he’s doing his job. This isn’t a crisis. And obviously he’s going to go check everything out. With those reasonable expectations, we can anticipate, and so we see him going over to something that’s a bit of a problem. We stay calm. We very slowly, boringly stop him. I see you want to open that. I’m going to stop you. I can’t let you do that. It has to be very matter of fact. Very low key. Not getting a rise out of us so we’re not giving this behavior power.

If we don’t have control over something, then we have to go to plan B which is that we do the most minimal thing, putting our hand there. Not letting him do it. We don’t do a big thing like picking him up and moving him because that will again show that he’s done something powerful here. Look at this big reaction he got. Just our hand there, la, la, la. And, “Oh yeah, that is interesting isn’t it?” And even acknowledging his curiosity and encouraging it in a way by saying, “Yeah, look how that works? That handle. Yeah, wow, you know how to open that too. I’m going to stop you because I can’t let you open it all the way. But if you want to play with the handle, that’s okay.” And meanwhile you’re holding your hand over so he can’t open it. And you’re letting him do what he can do there.

There’s a good chance if you respond that way, he will be done with it.

But, if we jump over and we’re not ready for these things… That’s why it’s so important to understand their developmental stage. This mother asked about that and that is really, really helpful to us as parents, because understanding that stage, we can understand that our child is doing normal things. There’s nothing to worry about here. And we can say well, here’s this guy. Of course, he’s going to explore everything here and, oh, there he’s going towards that. Of course he is. And I’m not sure about that if he’s going to do something safe with that or not so I’m going to be close. I’m going to be ready.

And when we’re close and we’re ready, we can have a small reaction. Almost like no reaction. But just noticing, “Oh, that’s the handle to the stove, mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah it’s hot in there.” And meanwhile, your hand is there and you’re making sure that he doesn’t do anything that’s unsafe.

We still won’t have a guarantee that we could leave him unmonitored and that he won’t do something dangerous. We never know that. That’s why safety always has to be number one, a 100% safe environment for our child to play in. Even if it’s not that big. Someplace where we know that we can look away and our child will not get hurt. That’s the most important thing, really. That’s square one.

So that’s what I would focus on here. That’s what I would encourage this parent to work on. And I’ve got to believe there’s a way. I mean, I’m not in her house. I can’t see it. I believe that she has a lot of wood burning stoves. That sounds really interesting, but there’s got to be a way. There’s got to be a room or a hallway that she could gate off somehow. Something for him.

And then, when she does have him in those other areas or there is a bit of danger, then she’s always there and she’s ready to have a very nonchalant, matter of fact, validating kind of response instead of treating him like an unthinking, unaware person who needs to be trained with pain. It’s just not necessary. Now she said this isn’t working for her.  So there’s a better way.

I hope that helps.

Please check out some of my other podcasts on my site, janetlansbury.com. And both of my books are available on audio at Audible.com, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame  gives a lot of details for these types of questions. And Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and on e-book at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple.com.

Also, my new audio series Sessions. These are individual recordings of private consultations I’ve had with parents discussing their urgent parenting issues. These are available by going to my website, janetlansbury.com, and clicking the button that says Sessions on the top toolbar.

Thanks for listening. We can do this.


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