"Biting is clearly harmful behavior, but when did it become the ultimate badge of poor parenting?" Readers defend Neal Pollack and his essay about his young son.

By Salon Staff
Published June 2, 2005 7:40PM (EDT)

[Read "When Toddlers Get Fired," by Neal Pollack, and the letters in response to it.]

I myself am the mother of three sociable, well-adjusted, jolly boys. We've never had a serious discipline problem with any of them. What's my secret? Can it be that I have beaten the problems out of them since they were toddlers? Nope. Did I quit my job and devote every single minute to their entertainment? Nope. Did I eschew daycare in favor of Mary Poppins? Nope again. My secret is that I'm lucky. I suspect that many of those piling criticism on Neal Pollack should be counting their blessings, rather than hurling stones. My heart goes out to him and his wife, as it does to the parents of the kid who was thrown out of daycare for biting my kid -- imperfect parents, as are we all.

-- Melanie Dexter

Dear Lord, what is going on here? It seems the author has violated the first rule of parenting: Thou shalt never whine or complain about parenting (or you will get one heck of a whoopin' from other parents). Guess what -- creative people deserve to have children, too. Lots of countries have better, more comprehensive daycare systems. And facing a summer of having a two-year-old underfoot while trying to work really can be harrowing. So the guy was whining a bit. Will all the self-styled superparents lay off him a bit?

That said, the boy was doing way too much biting. The trouble is, they can't do much to stop the biting unless he does it when they're around, and my guess is he doesn't do it until he's surrounded by lots of other kids.

He sounds like a handful. My advice: Take charge. Don't be so tolerant and democratic. Give him orders and directives. Get used to being "strong" parents. It'll make him feel better -- it really will, because he'll feel better if he knows that when he feels out of control, someone who loves him can and will control him. And don't be afraid to scare him and make him feel really, really bad when he bites -- if he sees that nice, laid-back Mommy and Daddy get scary mad at him when he bites, it will stick in his head that this is not something he wants to do, not one bit. I know it sounds mean, but honest to God, it won't traumatize him, or you, as much as his being labeled a behavior problem. And find a playgroup with politically similar, simpatico parents. When you have kids, you need more community.

Good luck. Think twice about having a second -- it's four times as much work. Chances are, he'll turn out just fine, and so will you.

-- Larry Letich

Oh, Jesus -- I should have known that there would be a flurry of letters over this article. It appears as though Salon gets slammed by everyone on the planet whenever it runs an article that deals with domestic issues in any way. "How dare you! You're selfish. Maybe you should just have your eye poked out and see if you like it!" And I love the self-righteous "You never should have had children, you selfish bastards" crowd, too. Must be fun hanging out with those people.

Everyone I know who has kids sometimes gets so angry that it scares them. Of course, they love their children. They're just normal parents. You're going to tell me that parents should never feel anger at their own child? It's a human emotion. Look, if I were another parent in Elijah's preschool, I would probably be furious at his parents. But I think he was just attempting to be honest. He and his wife work -- yes, work -- at home. You know, work? Make money to pay the bills, work? He's got the right to express some fear over spending the summer trying to work and doing childcare full time. Some of the letter writers are approaching it as if he's Paris Hilton being a little pissy that she can't hang out at the heated pool in the afternoon anymore. I guess the guy should apologize for making his living as a writer.

Maybe Salon should contract someone to write a piece where the parent angelically takes care of their paraplegic crack whore of a child with patience, fortitude and wisdom. Maybe that would stop the inevitable vitriol.

-- Keiran Murphy

Biting is clearly harmful behavior, but when did it become the ultimate badge of poor parenting? Suddenly kids who bite are branded with the big scarlet "B."

Not all of my kids went to full-time daycare, but all of them got bitten at one point or another -- sometimes at a park, sometimes at a playdate at a friend's house. Sometimes, they were deep bloody bites, too, so I cleaned them well and made sure the kids were all up-to-date on their shots. One of my sons was covered in bite scabs for a while. Another son was briefly a biter himself but got over it quickly when it didn't get him the attention he wanted.

I'm sure some of the same people heaping scorn and hatred on the Pollacks will call me a negligently abusive parent, but I don't think biting is any big deal. My mother tells me I bit my baby brother all the time when I was a toddler, but somehow we both survived to adulthood.

-- Lisa Sone

I read the first part of Neal Pollack's article with dread but finished the story feeling unexpected sympathy. It must be difficult to have a child that you are afraid of spending extended time with -- and I am heartfelt in saying that. No one wants to be the parents of the "mean kid."

That said, I had my own experience with an aggressive child. I continued to work full time after the birth of my daughter -- this was a personal choice as well as a financial necessity living in the New York area. While on maternity leave, I befriended another new mother in my building whose daughter was a few days younger than mine. We decided to share a nanny, as we returned to work at the same time; our nanny (who my husband and I had found) was highly experienced, no nonsense, firm yet loving, and wonderful with our babies, and sharing the nanny made the financial burden much more manageable. The situation worked very well, until...

Once the girls became mobile, our nanny immediately noticed the aggressive tendencies of the other child. It started simply with taking toys from our daughter and escalated into slamming objects, with no warning, onto our daughter's head, hitting her, pulling her down, and sitting on her (biting, mercifully, never entered into the picture). The nanny did the best she could -- she separated the girls and comforted ours, and used verbal warnings and timeouts; everything that was considered acceptable discipline for a non-parent, though she realized that the child was getting no discipline from her parents. Our daughter, however, began to suffer. She was afraid of the other child, clung to our nanny, cried as the other child was dropped off at our apartment, and would plead "please, no hit me."

Though our nanny brought it up repeatedly, the other couple refused to address the problem (though they had to acknowledge it), choosing instead to reason with their 2-year old and reiterating how gifted she was. After a few weeks, however, my husband and I were disgusted with the situation, and our nanny fed up; she could not discipline the child as she would have liked and could not stand seeing our daughter intimidated. She told me she was going to quit.

We decided to hire the nanny to be our daughter's sole caretaker (and I recognize how fortunate we are to have been in a position to do so) as both we, and our daughter, loved her -- and cut the other child free.

But I will never forget the night we told the other couple. The mother immediately blasted into us, claimed that their child was simply more advanced in her play, and refused, flat-out refused, to acknowledge the core issue. Yes, their daughter may sometimes have been rough, she claimed, but why should they be punished by the removal of the nanny (who made it clear to us that she would no longer work for the other family)? She implied that we were remiss as parents because our daughter was not tough enough to deal with hers -- never once looking in the mirror and asking why her child was aggressive. Needless to say, this was the end of the business relationship, as well as the friendship.

Time passed, and without the other child in her life on a daily basis, our daughter blossomed, no longer intimidated; she is a healthy and social child. Their daughter, on the other hand, went through a string of daycare and nanny situations, all unsuccessful because none of the providers could stand dealing with the parents, who simply refused to deal with their child's aggressive behavior and social problems. Each nanny was blamed for her shortcomings instead. The child, in the meantime, was isolated in play situations -- none of the kids wanted to interact with her, and she grew more and more socially awkward.

So I am entreating the Pollacks -- don't let Elijah become this child. You are aware of the problem -- now deal with it. Many other writers have suggested good, workable advice for addressing the problem -- take it. Parenthood is tough, but you and your wife are bigger, smarter and savvier than your 2-year-old; you can overcome this.

-- Reg Costello

I read Neal Pollack's piece and the reader responses to it with great interest. I concur with many of the recurring themes among the letters: Elijah's parents need to impose self-discipline before it can be imparted to their son; parenting is inconceivably difficult work and adults should both anticipate and accept this fact to a reasonable degree before signing up for an admittedly emotionally and financially wrenching job -- or refrain from having children; and it is impossible to rationalize with a 2-year-old whose primary psychological tool is manipulation of authority, meaning that corporeal punishment for offenses such as serial biting is necessary.

Many readers have suggested that Elijah be spanked. I have serious doubts that a padded, light spanking preceded by an ostensibly stern warning will have any impact on Elijah. I will make the radical suggestion that, when Elijah bites, he gets bitten back. Hard enough to smart, but not hard enough to leave a mark or draw blood. Obviously no teacher or daycare provider would dare to do this for fear of being fired and sued, but his parents can and should bite him back, in my estimation.

Some readers may be thinking this is tantamount to child abuse. I disagree. In my view, it is not far afield of spanking and will likely have more impact due to the shock value alone. In my estimation, because Elijah has not been bitten, he cannot know how his bad behavior literally makes other children feel. Therefore, he needs to be scared straight, so to speak, by a taste of his own medicine. When my now 9-year-old nephew was approximately Elijah's age, he bit me. I looked square in his eyes, took his hand, and without a word, bit him back (again, not hard enough to cause injury, but hard enough to get his attention). I sternly told him that biting is not acceptable and that everytime he did it, I would bite him back. That was the last time we had to have that conversation, because my nephew never tried to bite me or anyone else again.

May I suggest that Elijah's parents recall the adage that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. It appears that their attempts at disciplining Elijah are not working, and that a parenting paradigm shift is definitely in order so that they, and the rest of society, can begin to enjoy Elijah again.

-- Jennifer Rexroat

When our child was born, I quit working (except for sporadic night work) while my wife continued, and we moved from a shared duplex house to a studio apartment to afford the loss of income. We called it our "baby-rearing laboratory." Our daughter shared our bed until she was nearly 3 years old.

Eventually I was working nights and my wife was working days. We had very little "fun" in our relationship for years. But our child was lavished with attention. It certainly wasn't a perfect toddlerhood, but we had nowhere near the behavioral problems Mr. and Ms. Pollack seem to have with their child. Our child, my wife, and I had (and have) an intensely close relationship. Which is the point that the Pollacks seem to have missed.

I do understand Mr. Pollack's intention of showing the dismal state of preschool childcare in the United States. It's appalling -- no argument. But he never drove that point home in his article or offered any ideas on how to address the problem.

Every parent of a toddler has at some point, however briefly, wished the little bugger had never been born -- believe me, I know. That's what the paternal/maternal instinct is for -- survival of the species. It keeps parents from strangling their children.

But complaints about a 2-year-old being annoying and not having enough "me" time are better suited for shouting down a well or screaming into a pillow than publishing in a national magazine.

Our daughter is now 10, our finances are better, we live in a larger apartment where she has her own room, she's a straight-A student, a red belt in tae kwon do, and won first place in her school's science fair last spring. I think the few years in a one-room apartment with no privacy and living on ramen noodles was worth it.

-- Joe Max

I was shocked to see how many of Salon's readers think that spanking a 2-year-old is an effective and appropriate way to address his biting. Certainly, spanking a child may stop the biting in the short term, but until the reasons for the biting are identified and addressed, then the biting -- or other antisocial behavior -- will occur again. Small children bite, or otherwise misbehave aggressively, often out of fear. Being hit, especially by an adult, adds to their fear. And it teaches children that aggressive physical expressions of feelings are acceptable, which is exactly what Elijah is doing when he bites. How is a 2-year-old supposed to understand that biting is not acceptable but that an adult hitting a 2-year-old is? Does anyone else think this is wrong, unfair, futile or (dare I say it?) cruel?

Why is everyone so quick to judge Neal Pollack? Perhaps the tone of his piece was whiny, but as the working parent of an active 3-year-old, who both bit and was bitten at his former daycare program, I understand the frustration of trying to change a small child's behavior constructively. I can also understand his concerns about trying to support his family without having proper childcare. Being a parent is difficult and frightening at times, and it sounds like Neal Pollack and his wife did not get the support and information they could have reasonably expected from a licensed, high-quality preschool program. The mistake that they made was not to try to enlist the preschool in trying to solve the problem. There was a lot that could have been done (and perhaps it was -- it was not a long article) before Elijah had to be expelled.

Why are so many of Salon's readers so hostile to the idea of parents having jobs? The generation that raised children in the '50s and '60s was lucky -- and anomalous historically -- in the sense that the mothers often didn't have to work to help support the family, and these issues of childcare did not arise for many of these families. In fact, many of the mothers were denied the opportunity to develop meaningful and satisfying careers, which resulted in financial pressures later on or, worse, lifelong depression, with tremendously bad effects on their children.

To support our families properly (and I am not talking about "two SUVs in the McMansion garage" kind of support), most families require two incomes. We are not living in the 1950s, with job security, employer loyalty, and automatic employee and dependent benefits. This country needs more high-quality, affordable daycare, like other industrialized countries, to promote the stability and security of average families. Those daycare centers need to help the families raise their children to be productive members of society. And the parents need to step in and learn how to raise their children properly at home.

-- Anne Wolfson

I am amazed at the shrill condemnation heaped upon the writer Neal Pollack and his wife. Let me let America in on a secret -- kids are annoying. Not always, not everyday, but some of the time -- (and with 2-year-olds upgrade "some" to "much" of the time).

When kids are annoying, parents have feelings that need to be vented. This need is even more urgent when embarrassment is part of the equation. How did Neal deal with his frustration? Did he down two martinis like my grandfathers' generation did? No. Did he spark a doobie, like my parents' generation did? No. Did he down a handful of Oxy or Paxil like so many of his generation do? No.

He wrote about it. Instead of kicking the dog, screaming at his wife, or abandoning his kid, he picked up a laptop and wrote about his frustration. Instead of parroting the mindless "family perfection" myth, he spoke honestly and openly about the fact that real families are not like the Brady Bunch and sometimes things are messy. No one will make that mistake again. Message received.

-- Colleen Mahaney

Mr. Pollack's story was very, very sad. I feel deeply for both parents and child. As a former freelance writer and single dad myself, I can appreciate how difficult it is to even try to work with a toddler dashing about the house. Yet, my nascent Republican urges raise their head. The author and his wife are having trouble making ends meet? They can't afford, financially or emotionally, to give this child the care he requires or deserves? Then why have a child if you're going to farm it out? When my own writing career sputtered to a halt, and the income dried up, I got a job. With benefits and, sadly, obligations that crimp my creative aspirations quite a bit.

It is incumbent upon us, the adults, to take the hit. We should not make our children pay for our mistakes. My son is now 11. I've shifted my work hours around so that most days I can pick him up right at the end of school; thus his time incarcerated in a daycare type of setting is minimized. I haven't given up on my dreams, but I have had to realign them in service to this small person that I helped bring into the world. He deserves no less.

-- Roy Griffis

I want to thank my fellow readers of Salon for reinforcing what I thought of Neal Pollack's essay, "When Toddlers Get Fired." When I read it yesterday morning, I thought I must have been on crazy pills. I thought, "Am I the only one who thinks these parents are entirely selfish and unprepared to be raising a child?"

I have an already rambunctious 1-year-old who has been known to nibble my shoulder while being held. My wife and I have discussed the possibility that he may be a biter. The last thing we've decided to do is risk other children's safety and question the motives of his daycare facility. We plan on taking responsibility for his actions because it is our job as his parents to do so.

Neal, be a parent first and an essayist second. Your child and daycare facility will thank you.

-- Mark Bayhylle

Salon Staff

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