WATCHING THEIR son and ours cavort through the house, our friends noted, only half jokingly, "They're at a disadvantage, you know. They're not used to getting pushed and shoved around like most kids."
It's true. These boys, ages 3 and 4, share the good fortune of spending their days in a setting where pushing, shoving and hitting are not accepted as "normal childhood behaviors." Like anyone else in a civilized setting, they are expected to respect their peers and to settle disagreements without getting physical about it.
The message is consistent and, if need be, relentless. In most cases, peer pressure soon becomes the best enforcer of the rules.
Generally, the children live up to these expectations, and to the constant encouragement to "use words" when they're upset. When they don't, their teacher explains in a firm but loving voice why it's important that they try, reinforcing the lesson with a brief "time out."
A world where people hit
"Do you want to live in a world where people hit you? Then why do you want to hit somebody else?
"If it's OK for you to take Anna's toy, is it OK for me to take your toy?"
Invariably, a small face with two wide eyes goes back and forth, signaling "no." The words may not be there yet for the younger toddlers, but the concept is clearly within their grasp.
We adults take these rules for granted. How many of us would put up with a co-worker grabbing a pen from our hands or shoving us away from the water fountain? If an employer allowed that kind of behavior, we'd have a nice lawsuit on our hands.
So why do many people -- even many child-care workers -- consider it "normal behavior" for a toddler to grab a toy or knock another child to the floor?
For one thing, they probably underestimate toddlers, who are as capable of empathy and good manners as the rest of us. For another, many parents seem to think their children will be at a disadvantage if they aren't "tough enough" to stand up to the physical rough-housing of ill-mannered playmates.
Yet what we observe as rough-and-tumble, or "normal childhood behavior," probably feels quite different to a young, vulnerable child whose parents are away at work all day. A rowdy 3-year-old might strike adults as "a handful." But imagine how that same child appears to a smaller 2-year-old.
And who says words aren't a good defense? I still feel sorry for the boy who decided to point a toy rifle at my son in a discount store. Distracted by the prospect of a bargain, I momentarily panicked when I turned around and didn't see him. But within seconds, I heard a familiar, high-decibel voice echoing through the racks of clothing:
"Don't point that gun at me! We don't play guns! Guns hurt people! You're gonna get a TIME OUT!"
Repeating his message like a mantra, he practically chased the errant child back to his mother's skirts. Whaddya know: Words worked!
Is my son at a disadvantage? Thinking about all this, I'm ashamed I ever wondered. My feisty son and his equally feisty friend are as mischievous as any boys. They're also living proof that rough-and-tumble childhood play doesn't preclude learning to respect each other's rights.
It's only shoving
In recent years, the need for all-day child care for pre-school children has grown more rapidly than our ability to determine what high-quality care should look like. Shoving, hitting or grabbing a toy from another child seem all too routine in many programs, across the economic spectrum.
Parents are paying for this care, right? Then why don't they insist that their children be treated with the respect they would expect for themselves, and that they learn to respect others (a trait essential for success in school)?
It seems more than a little perverse that parents today are terrified about sexual abuse in child-care settings -- which, pray God, is relatively rare -- while they pay little heed to the routine indignities so many young children face each day.
Parents aside, what does all this say about a licensing system that pays a lot of attention to the physical safety of a child-care setting, but virtually none to how young children are treated -- and how they learn to treat others?
In a society wringing its hands about the level of violence in schools, shouldn't we be civilizing our toddlers, as opposed to socializing them to a culture that considers violence routine?
Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.