My 2-year-old daughter bit me. She bit me so hard that four days later I still had a half-moon of tiny tooth imprints tattooed on my skin. She was playing a “Sesame Street” game on her computer (don’t get me started on my ambivalence about the computer, which she stares at with glazed intensity while sweeping her mouse around with slashing Jackson Pollock-like arm motions, oblivious to tidal waves and yammering mothers), and I could not get her attention. For this I blame her father and his geek genes. She’d been playing for half an hour, long enough. Her laser focus and complete obliviousness to my voice scared me. So I turned off the monitor. And she threw herself backward in her chair, screaming at the top of her lungs. When I picked her up to soothe her, she sank her teeth into my neck like the Vampire Lestat.
I am not entirely clear on what happened next. Apparently I screamed like a banshee, causing my husband to come bounding up the stairs two at a time. Josie continued to shriek. I essentially dumped her in her crib and grabbed my burning neck, gasping, “You bit me! You bit me!”
Josie thrashed in her crib, making a Linda Blair bellowing noise. Fat tears slipped down her cheeks. Sweaty hair stuck to her forehead. I left the room and stared at my neck in the bathroom mirror. There was a bright red splotch, with deep purple dashes — it looked like evil Morse code.
I stayed out of her room for a couple of minutes, taking deep breaths. When I came back in, she was calmer. Jonathan was telling her, “We don’t bite. Say you’re sorry to Mommy.” She stared at me. I asked her, “Do you know what happened?” She said nothing. “Do you know you bit Mommy?” I showed her my neck. She squinted at it. “I’m sorry, Mommy,” she said. But I don’t think she’d truly internalized that she’d bitten me — and I don’t think she was sorry.
It’s the first thing she’s done that really scared me. I know it won’t be the last. I can see glimmers of the teenager she will one day be (I don’t know whether to say “God willing” after that phrase or not). Now she sometimes ignores me or tries to outwit me. She’s started asserting herself sartorially. (The other day she insisted on wearing loud orange pants, a floppy pale-orange hat with a giant blue rhinestone pin and a glittery green fake-fur vest — another mother at the playground observed that she looked like a cross between Janice Joplin and a Muppet). Okay, so she hasn’t bitten anyone else with the ferocity with which she bit me, but she has had a little nosh on her pal Raphael.
A couple of weeks ago, her baby sitter Rita pushed Josie’s stroller back into the house after a playdate. One look at Rita’s face and I knew something was up. She said immediately, “Josie, tell Mommy what you did.” Josie smiled at me and said, “I pushed Raphael!” Rita immediately said, “No, you did something worse.” Josie thought for a moment and said, beaming, “I eated him!” Rita told me that they’d been playing and, apropos of nothing, Josie had sunk her teeth into Raphael’s hand. Josie stared up at Rita and me, head swiveling to follow our conversation.
I crouched to her level and stared deeply into her eyes. “Josie, biting is really, really bad. When you bite someone, you hurt him. You made Raphael cry. How would you feel if someone hurt you?”
Josie listened attentively. Then she smiled and said, “Mommy, I love your skirt!”
(I remember an acquaintance talking about a time when she was bawling out her 3-year-old. The daughter interrupted, “Wow, those pants make your butt look thin!” At the time, I laughed; now, not so funny.)
Was my daughter a sociopath? Was I a horrible mother? Why did I ever become a parent? I was doing so well with the cat.
I called my mom, who happens to be a professor of moral education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She talked me off the ledge. “The first rule Adam and Eve get is the one they break,” she said. “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Our whole species goes through the development of an individual. Just as a child has to learn what ‘no’ means, Adam and Eve had to undergo that same learning experience. So did the Jewish people at Sinai. Setting limits with a child is Jewish history all over again.”
I guess so. Just call me the fruit of the tree of knowledge, with bite marks in it. (Uh, I may have just ventured too far afield, metaphorically speaking.) And as the authority figure in this relationship, I’ve got to teach Josie to be a productive member of society, so that she doesn’t have to live in a box under the sink.
Mom says that the Hebrew word for “moral education,” musar , comes from the same root as the word “discipline.” Understanding that I personally lack the discipline for reading actual texts, mom sent me some notes. Then I Googled Piaget, Eisner, Peck and Havighurst. So I can see that Josie’s moving from a sensorimotor experience of the world to a pre-operational one. (Lookit me, kickin’ out the jargon, educatin’ style! Everybody say “ho!”) I can’t expect her to internalize all of society’s dictates just yet, but she’ll get there. She wants to please me. She wants to avoid getting a timeout or my patented narrow-eyed glare. Mom says, “Start with outside-in education, teaching her discipline, and soon her moral behavior will come from the inside-out.” Writ large, that’s the story of our people: Learn the mitzvot, the culture, the rules, and soon you’ve internalized them. Then you’ve got moral agency. Autonomy. Mentshiness. To quote mom again, “M’tokh shelo l’shma, ba l’shma.” Doing something for external reward can turn into something for internal reward.
To get back to my little Hannibal Lecter: I think when she bit Raphael she sort of understood the import, but not completely. I think she wanted a reaction from her friend, but not to cause him real pain. I’ll try to view the biting as a problem of impulse control, not possession by a dybbuk. These days, I see her teetering on the high wire between understanding that something’s wrong and being able to conform her conduct to the dictates of society (and her mother). I want her goodness to become intrinsic, but right now, if she’s good because she’s afraid of my anger or wants my praise, that’s okay. (As long as she’s not too afraid; my being an autocratic ogre won’t help her internalize long-term, real kindness and altruism.)
I can also see her empathy growing. She’s been dealing with her own separation anxiety by calling to her stuffed animals when we leave the house, “Don’t worry, Tinky and LaLa! Josie always comes back!” She cuddles her “guys,” gives them all Earl Grey tea and Band-Aids, asks them if they need jackets. When I told her Zayde wasn’t feeling well, she considered that for a few seconds, shook her head sadly and said, “Poor Zayde.”
She’s learning. I just have to be sure I make the rules clear (I know too many hippie parents who believe their children’s personhood will be crushed by “having the experience of ‘no,’” a phrase I actually heard someone use) while giving Josie room to explore — and fail. The other day, she was testing me as I changed her diaper. She began stroking my arm, saying, “I’m patting you.” (She knows to pat the cat, not push him or pull his tail.) She then started “patting” with a little more force, looking into my eyes and waiting to see what I’d do. She then kicked me, very gently. “Kick,” she said.
Unsure of what I was supposed to do, I said, “No hitting. No kicking.” She kicked me again, softly. She smiled. I scooped her up and said, “Timeout.” I put her in the crib and walked out of the room for a moment. Josie began to sob, genuinely. “I’m sorry, Mama! I’m sorry, Mama!” I could hear it in her voice; she was genuinely stricken, as opposed to angry or manipulative. I couldn’t wait two minutes (a timeout is supposed to last for as many minutes as the child’s age, except if you think timeouts are abhorrent, of course, as some experts do, which is why we moral adults have to decide which experts are full of it). I hustled back into the bedroom and picked her up. She put her head on my shoulder and clung to me. I felt awful.
I admit it. I don’t really know what I’m doing. To quote Aristotle (okay, and my Mom, again), “The palace of reason is entered through habit.” Through me, Josie’s learning to be a reasonable person. Through Josie, I’m learning to be a parent.
E-mail Marjorie at email@example.com.