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Playground Thunderdome

Playground Thunderdome

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

I have loved poring over your advice for the last two years, and I’m hoping you can help me now. Last night I yelled at a toddler I don’t know.

Let me set the scene for you: a crowded kid-friendly restaurant on a Saturday evening, the kid area has a playhouse and all ages of kids are playing and getting a bit crazy because they’re having so much fun. My 22-month-old was going in and out through the playhouse door, enjoying the open-and-close action and not really interacting with any other kids directly. Then one time she opened the door to go back inside the house, and a little girl who was inside (who was only slightly bigger, and probably was very close in age because my daughter is on the small side) was standing there. And then she punched my daughter with a closed fist in the neck/chest a couple of times. I scooped up my daughter while blurting out “what the hell is wrong with you?!” I was shocked because it was so unprovoked. If there had been some lead up, I would have tried to intervene or at least have been on my guard, but it came out of seemingly nowhere.

I am really embarrassed. Thank goodness the little girl couldn’t understand me because I spoke in English and I live in a non-English-speaking country. I had never been in the situation before, and I honestly don’t know what I would have said if I were in an English-speaking environment. I like to think I would have said, “there is no reason for hitting!” or something along those lines. But I honestly don’t know. I should have prepared myself for that months ago, but I just didn’t. And I feel awful. My temper was a little frayed because I had just cleaned up a crazy amount of poo in the bathroom (in the restaurant we had the first poo-in-pants accident since we started potty training and instead of remaining calm when I was trying to delicately peel off her pants so that the poo would fall nicely into the toilet, she panicked. Poo went all over the toilet seat, on the back of the toilet, on the floor, on my leg, on her shoe, etc.), but that is no excuse. Today I have been practicing simply responding with a firm ‘no!’ in the local language and I hope I’m ready to act like an adult next time.

But here is my question: what do I say to my daughter? I don’t want her to hit back. I would like her to be comfortable getting out of violent situations even if she is mad. What should I tell her so she will have the appropriate script in her head?

Thanks for any advice you can give!

Okay, let’s break a couple things down here that you probably already know:

1) Toddlers hit. Toddlers hit and punch and push and bite and pull hair. And they do all of these things a) completely out-of-the-blue and unprovoked, quite often, and b) for no other reason than to see what happens. That little under-two girl on the playground probably isn’t a bully or a sociopath in the making; she was just experimenting with cause and effect. And hoo boy, did you ever give her an effect.

2) Your toddler will very likely do something similar someday. Either to you or another child or an animal, possibly out in public in front of other people for maximum mortification purposes. And you probably won’t want another parent to react the way you did.

So that right there is my overarching guiding principle when it comes to interacting/correcting other people’s children in general: Do unto other peoples’ children as you would have other people do unto yours. And if I may double up on the quasi-religious tenets: Never forget that there but for the grace of God go you. One day your kid might be the one displaying the exact same awful behavior out in public that you once judged another child (and its mother) for so harshly, and man, that crow tastes super salty and bitter.

Obviously, hitting and punching and biting and pushing is not okay and requires a reaction. While I would probably freak out if I heard someone ask my toddler “what the hell was wrong with you,” I would be absolutely okay with another mother stepping in to intervene if my child was hitting or throwing toys or anything like that. (Especially since there’s a high likelihood that the only reason I’m not intervening myself is because I’m trying to watch three children at once, in three different places. I would bet cash money that your little playground puncher has older siblings as well, and is mimicking some less-than-awesome behavior she’s learned from them. Yaaay siblings!)

Our personal scripts for aggressive behaviors are hands are not for hitting, feet are not for kicking, teeth are not for hurting, etc. (There’s a nice series of books along these lines that I’ve found really helpful.) Pick the appropriate phrase and say it as calmly and evenly as possible. If it is my own child, I put my hands gently over the offending body part, then offer a redirection. (Hands are for…building with these blocks! Feet are for…walking into the playhouse!) If it is a complete stranger’s child and I don’t feel comfortable touching them (i.e. I have never met the parents, they aren’t a neighbor or part of a playgroup, etc.), I still use the same verbal cue but put my hands on where the physical contact was made on my own child. Then again, redirect, then step back.

Whisking your daughter away at the first sign of conflict (and responding with angry words) actually means you lose a valuable teaching moment. She does need to learn to deal with kids who play rough or take toys or who are just flat-out aggressive. And you don’t want her to have a big emotional reaction over every minor playground scuffle, so try to help guide her through the proper reaction. And believe it or not, the lesson is actually more likely to “stick” during a real-world encounter with a close-in-age peer than if you simply try to hammer down a script for her to use the next time it happens.

If the other child KEEPS hitting or punching (and there’s no parent nearby to intervene), by all means, remove your child from the situation. Calmly, though. “We don’t like playing with people who hit, so we’re going to play somewhere else.” But she’ll get so much more from the experience if you take a deep breath and accept that this is a natural part of toddlerhood, and BOTH children will benefit if you can keep your temper in check. You are part of the village, and sometimes the village includes little bratty kids that man, you just don’t like very much. But that doesn’t mean it’s okay to let them know that, because you know, you’re the grown up.

Confession time, though, lest you think I’m all perfect at stuff like this: Once, I yelled at a little girl on the playground. YELLED. Noah was probably two and a half, and an older (I’d guess age four or so) girl approached him, talked to him nicely and put her arms out like she wanted a hug. When he obliged, she pushed him backwards as hard as she could. He toppled off a raised platform of mulch and landed on his butt on a cement sidewalk. I ran over and very, very sharply rebuked her. She was a big girl, he was just a BABY, you do not TREAT people that way, do not PUSH, she could have HURT him, etc. She took one look at me and fled. Turns out her mother was chilling at a far-away picnic table with a bunch of other moms, with her back toward us. The little girl ran to “tell” on me (I assume) and the mom sort of…looked over in my direction for a bit before shrugging and sending her daughter back off to play.

In that case, I felt kind of justified for having the “big” reaction (Noah could have been seriously hurt, there was a big age difference, and whatever, that girl knew EXACTLY what she was doing, and probably taking advantage of her mother’s disinterest). But I really try not to respond that way that often, as difficult as it can be to suppress those rage-y mama bear first instincts and keep your perspective on the actual risk of injury/danger. It’s gotten easier, admittedly, now that I have a handful of “oh, that’s MY child who’s acting up/stealing toys/playing too rough” moments under my belt. Hands are not for hitting. Tempers are not for losing. And that rule applies to moms, too.


Published November 26, 2012. Last updated July 18, 2017.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Hillary

    November 26, 2012 at 3:59 pm

    Nice answer, Amy! To the OP – please go easy on yourself. I admire the fact that you’re acknowledging your rather inappropriate reaction instead of justifying it to yourself after the fact. I tend to beat myself up a bit after I catch myself failing as a parent. But we’re only human. And this was a teaching moment for YOU. Next time, it can be a teaching moment for your little one. Whenever I have a parent screw up, I make myself acknowledge it and apologize to my kids, even though they may be too young to understand. I figure it is a good habit to get into because eventually they WILL understand and they should know not every thing I do is a model of good behavior. Also, acknowledging it helps me move past feeling guilty and jerky and all that other bad stuff.

    • Isabel


      November 26, 2012 at 4:50 pm

      great answer, Hillary!

  • Olivia

    November 26, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    I try to do what Amy described when I see a kid hit or push my daughter. Actually, I often let it go on the first offense if it isn’t egregious. A little pushing to get on a toy, and wait to see how my daughter deals with it. Usually, she just waits a tic and then gets on after the pushy kid. If the shoving gets too rambunctious I talk to all the children about not pushing and taking turns. 

    A little story: once at a toddler play area I watched as a mother literally hovered over her 18 month old. An older child, probably about 3 yrs old, ran by and barely brushed her kid. She flipped out, and yelled at the kid, “What the hell is wrong with you! You better watch yourself!” Then she continued to say more stuff to the 3 yr old when ever she came near her kid. It was ridiculous. All I could think was the awful example she was teaching her own kid. It wasn’t about teaching children to respect each other, it was just about “don’t mess with my kid. I mean, if my kid is being a bully, please protect your child, but then please tell me so I can correct the behavior.

  • Karen

    November 26, 2012 at 5:09 pm

    My daughter is almost 3.5 and in the last couple days we have spent time with a 2.5 year old and a 22 month old and I was reminded of how completely irrational those ages are. I had tuned it all out.

  • Lauren B

    November 26, 2012 at 7:41 pm

    I still distinctly remember the time when a little girl (probably between 18 mo – 2 yrs ) old came crying to her mother who was sitting about 2 feet away from me saying my son (who was about 3 1/2) pushed her in the playhouse. That mother pulled my kid aside and started chewing him out never even giving me the chance to do anything. I grabbed my 18 mo old and 3.5 yr old and just left. Neither of us saw what happened because area they were in was inside the playhouse but there were no marks or visible injuries. I felt her reaction was completely over the top. Kids don’t always display appropriate behavior especially in large groups in places like playgrounds where there is a large variety of ages. I think it is more of the responsibility of the parent of a barely mobile toddler to keep an eye on things than to expect a three year old to always act like an adult would. If I feel bigger kids are playing too rough near my younger child then I remove them or ask the kids to be more careful. Still, no need to feel too badly there was no harm done and you will be more careful what you say in the future.

  • Elizabeth

    November 27, 2012 at 11:37 am

    I just wanted to say thank you for this very timely column. My 16 month old learned all about hitting from her 2.5 year old cousin over Thanksgiving and I am not dealing with it very well. We’ve been doing instant time outs for hitting, but I don’t know what to do when the other kid hits back. We put my nephew in time-out, but he’s my nephew. I’m not comfortable putting a kid that’s not family in time-out. So thank you so much for giving me some very needed parenting strategies.

  • Christi

    November 27, 2012 at 12:52 pm

    The mantra that we use in our house is “hands on your own body” and it’s pretty effective. My daughter went through a looong hitting/pushing/biting phase and so the mantra got a lot of use (as did the books Amy recommended.)

    I knew that the technique was successful when we were eating dinner at a restaurant that was showing a hockey game and my daughter piped up during a fight, “Hands on your OWN bodies, boys! That’s not nice!”

    • Autumn

      November 27, 2012 at 4:24 pm

      LOL!  Love the things kids say.  My 15 month old is trying out her teeth, it’s going to be a long winter

      But the fights in hockey are what make a game worth watching

  • JenVegas

    November 27, 2012 at 3:09 pm

    Ugh so MY kid is most likely the kid on the playground putting hands on other people’s children. I haven’t ever seen him hit anyone or push anyone down but he likes to put his hand on a shoulder to move kids out of the way when he’s trying to get somewhere. He’s going to be 2 next week. I try REALLY HARD to discourage him from touching other kids this way because it looks aggressive even if it isn’t meant to be. He’s an only child but is in a very structured daycare program 3 days a week. I’m really hoping that when he gets promoted to the “Twos” group next month they will help me focus on this. He’s way more verbal than most kids his age and I think some of this behavior stems from the fact that most of the other kids in his “class” right now are non-verbal so there’s bound to be some pushing and shoving. I taught him how to say “excuse me” and he started using that on the playground this weekend I noticed but man it gives me SO MUCH anxiety – worrying that he’s going to be one of THOSE kids. 

  • Kim

    November 28, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    Eh, you got stressed, and you had a bad moment. It wasn’t the best way to handle it, but it certainly wasn’t the worst, either. You’ll do better next time.

    • Wendy

      November 28, 2012 at 2:25 pm

      Ugh, I absolutely DREAD the moment when this will first happen to my son. I was very severely bullied in my youth and it would bring up a lot of hurt and anger for me. Hard to prepare myself for that. …

  • Shannon

    November 30, 2012 at 8:31 pm

    I have two guiding principles on this:

    1) A certain amount of shoving/ hitting/ general scrapping comes with the playground at this age. I mostly ignore the minor stuff.

    2) My job is to keep my kid safe from things that she can’t handle. This includes aggression from much older kids, more severe aggression (things that might cause actual injury, not just indignation), and any repeated incidents of aggression.

    If I feel like I need to step in, I try to make my response age and situation appropriate. Another toddler gets a firm “No hitting!”, but an older kid might get a bit of a lecture along the lines of “You need to be respectful of other children.”

    My own kid is two, so she gets a firm warning at the first sign of any aggression. If she actually hits or pushes or anything, we take her to a “time-out” on the bench for the first offense, and we leave the playground if it happens again. For a while there, we had a lot of extremely short visits. I don’t know what I would do if I had more than one kid. It’s not fair for one to have to leave if they’re not misbehaving, but the sibling is.

    The only time I have ever *yelled* at another child was when two boys who were maybe nine were tearing through the mall playground (in blatant violation of the rules on who is allowed to be in the playground, which is aimed at the toddler and kindergarten or so age range) and knocked over a couple of very small toddlers. It wasn’t even my own kid, but I got all mama bear and used my the-world-is-ending-voice to let them (and the entire playground) know “YOU ARE TOO BIG TO BE RUNNING AND KNOCKING OVER TINY BABIES. KNOCK IT OFF NOW.” They kept a wide berth from me, but they also stopped the whole roller derby nonsense.

  • Laura Schmidt

    July 7, 2014 at 2:06 am

    If their moms are not there to correct them, then you have to do so, otherwise the kids might think it is okay to ihit, etc. It is called standing up to bullies!!!. We all need to do it. A mother can stand up to bullies by being stern or by being soft, but she needs to show disapproval of the behavior at the very least. This can be the mom or another mom if the actual mom is not watching..