Almost every day my 4-year-old tells me one of the kids at day care has kicked him or hit him. The teachers don't have a good explanation. Yesterday I overheard one of the mothers saying to her son, "Well, I told you if one of the other kids hits you, hit them back." I don't want my son to be a push-over, but is hitting back the only solution?
-- A.L. Rodriguez, Miami, Fla.
While experts say hitting is normal behavior for children this age, that's little comfort when it's your child who always seems to come home with bruised shins and sore arms.
Before you do anything drastic -- and before you tell your child to hit back -- parents and experts say you should get the facts.
"Periodically stop in at day care unexpected and see what kind of behavior your son is exhibiting," advises Madelyn Holmes, a parent from Chicago, Ill. "Children sometimes exaggerate."
Investing the time to observe the center is crucial, agrees Thelma Harms, who designs quality day-care programs in her work at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"It might not be that the child is always the victim, but also the aggressor," Dr. Harms says.
Next, talk to your child's teachers. "You have to think of the child's teacher as an ally," Dr. Harms says.
If the teacher is already tuned into the problem, she should explain what she's doing to control the hitting. If she's not, she should promise to monitor the situation and report back.
Parents are entitled to expect total support from the day-care staff, says Patricia Shimm, who runs the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development in New York City.
With 3- to 5-year-olds, a problem-solving meeting between the teacher and the children in the classroom often works wonders, says Ms. Shimm, author of "Parenting Your Toddler" (Addison-Wesley, $10, $12.95 Canada).
"The teacher says, 'I wonder why kids hit? What's a better way to handle our anger?' and then have them give solutions."
As for hitting back, both Ms. Shimm and Dr. Harms advise against it.
"The worst thing to do is tell the child to hit back," Dr. Harms says. "A 4-year-old does not [understand] the more subtle aspects of behavior."
A child may hit another child intentionally one day, then accidentally the next.
"The child will think, 'Aha. He hit me. I'll hit him back.' They do not have enough judgment yet to know that intent is important," Dr. Harms says.
Many parents who called Child Life, however, do suggest hitting back.
"I've always taught my children that if someone is trying to do you physical harm, you have a right to protect yourself," says Michael Thomas of Baltimore. "I also taught them never to hit first."
Other parents recommended having the child tell the teacher -- without sounding like a tattletale.
"What I told my daughter to do is say really loud, 'Don't hit me. Stop hitting me,' " explains Regina Gundbrud of Perry, N.Y. "She's very timid about raising her voice so we playacted it."
But a final word of caution from Ms. Shimm: "There will be aggressive kids wherever you go."