Friday, February 22, 2008

Pushing Younger Brother: Does Three-Year-Old Know Better?


Hello Jane

I have read your books positive discipline and positive discipline for preschoolers - I think it is a great approach.

My three year old son is constantly pushing my 19 month old - how can I use positive discipline to nip the behavior in the bud? Should I use positive time-outs? I think he is old enough to understand what he is doing is wrong but he does not seem to listen when I talk to him about it - I really do not want this behavior to carry over into the classroom - can you help me?



Hi Kristin,

Thanks for asking. I'm receiving so many emails with a similar theme, so hopefully others will find this helpful.

First I want to explain why your three-year-old doesn't understand that what he is doing wrong. I'm going to explain this in several different ways--first in a very back door way by asking a question.

Would you allow your son to go to the park by himself even though you think he understands that it is wrong to cross a busy street and that he should not play on the equipment on any way that isn't safe? Of course not. If you answer why, you'll know why your son doesn't know it is wrong to push the nineteen-month-old. He hasn't developed enough maturity and judgment to REALLY know right from wrong. His brain has not developed enough for this. Read the Piaget demonstrations in Positive Discipline for Preschoolers again to understand even more about this. I'll repeat it here from another book:

Piaget Excerpt for Positive Discipline for Child Care Providers by Jane Nelsen and Cheryl Erwin

Caregivers who have studied child development know that the intellectual capabilities of young children have not developed to the point where they can think like adults, yet many adults act as though they should. Forcing a young child to “Say you are sorry” is an excellent example. Thinking children understand “no” the way adults think they do, is another example.

The following Piaget demonstrations illustrate this in a way that verbal explanations fail.

Piaget Demonstrations

Jean Piaget was one of the pioneers in understanding the cognitive development of children. He devised these demonstrations to help adults understand how children’s thinking ability differs from their own:

• Take two balls of clay that are the same size. Ask a three-year-old whether they are the same. Make adjustments by taking clay from one ball and adding it to the other until the child agrees that they are the same size. Then, right in front of her, smash one ball of clay. Then ask her whether they are still the same. She will say no and will tell you which one she thinks is bigger. A five-year-old will tell you they are the same and can tell you why.

• Find four glasses: two glasses that are of the same size, one glass that is taller and thinner, and one glass that is shorter and fatter. Fill the two glasses that are the same size with water until a three-year-old agrees they are the same. Then, right in front of her, pour the water from one of these glasses into the short, fat glass and the other one into the tall, thin glass. Then ask her whether they still hold the same amount of water. Again, she will say no and will tell you which glass she thinks contains the most water. A five-year-old will tell you they contain the same amount and can tell you why.

Both of these examples demonstrate thinking abilities identified by Piaget. When we understand that perceiving, interpreting, and comprehending an event are so markedly different for young children, our expectations as adults alter. The meaning children attach to their experiences does not match the meaning adults attach to the same experiences.

The next thing to understand is that it is likely that your son something else is going on when he pushes. It could be that he is frustrated--if not about something that is going on at the time, it could be the fact that he has been dethroned. In either case, when "upset" none of us (even those of us who supposedly have developed maturity and judgment) act rationally. The following article, which is included in several Positive Discipline books, explains "dethronement." (You can also watch a video of my sharing the candle story by going to and click on videos.)

When a First Born Child is dethroned by a New Baby in the Family

Dealing with the Belief behind the Behavior

by Jane Nelsen

There is a belief behind every behavior, but when confronted with a “misbehaving child” adults usually deal only with the behavior. Dealing with the belief behind the behavior does not mean you don't deal with the behavior. However, you are most effective when you are aware of both the behavior and the belief behind it.

The following is a classic example of the belief behind a behavior. Suppose you have a two to four-year-old child whose mother goes off to the hospital and brings home a brand-new baby. What does the first born child see going on between Mom and the baby? -- Time and attention. What does the older child interpret this to mean? -- Mom loves the baby more than me. What does the first born child do in an attempt to get the love back? – He or she may act like a baby and cry a lot, ask for a bottle, and soil his or her pants.

Wayne Freiden and Marie Hartwell Walker 1[1] have created songs that help adults get into the world of children and understand the beliefs they could be developing based on their birth order. Their songs include seven different birth order positions.

Following is one verse from the song, Number One:
Oh it’s hard to be number one.
And lately it’s just no fun at all.
Life was so nice, when there were three,
Mommy and Daddy and Me.
And now there’s another.
And I don’t like it one bit.
Send it back to the hospital
And let’s just forget about it.

Four-year-old Becky, could identify with this song. She was feeling dethroned by the birth of a baby brother, and was experiencing confusion about her feelings for the baby. Sometimes she loved him, and other times she wished he had never been born because Mom and Dad spend so much time with him. She didn’t know how to get attention for herself, except to act like the baby.

One evening, when the baby was asleep, Becky’s mom sat down at the kitchen table with her daughter and said, "Honey, I would like to tell you a story about our family.” She had found four candles of varying lengths. “These candles represent our family." She picked up one long candle and said, "This is the mommy candle. This one is for me." She lit the candle as she said, "This flame represents my love." She picked up another long candle and said, "This candle is the daddy candle." She used the flame from the mommy candle to light the daddy candle and said, "When I married your daddy, I gave him all my love -- and I still have all my love left." Mom placed the daddy candle in a candle holder. She then picked up a smaller candle and said, "This candle is for you." She lit the smaller candle with the flame from her candle and said, "When you were born, I gave you all my love. And look. Daddy still has all my love and I still have all my love left." Mom put that candle in a candle holder next to the daddy candle. Then she picked up the smallest candle and, while lighting it from the mommy candle, said, "This is a candle for your baby brother. When he was born I gave him all my love. And look -- you still have all my love. Daddy has all my love and I still have all my love left because that is the way love Is. You can give your love to everyone in our family and still have all your love left. Now look at all the light we have in our family with all this love."

Mom then asked Becky if she would like to use her candle to light the other candles, so she could see how she could give all her love away and still have all her love. Becky was excited to try this. Mom snuffed the flame on all the candles except Becky’s, and then helped her pick up each candle and hold it over the flame of her candle until it was lit. Becky’s eyes were shining almost as brightly as the flame of the candles.

Mom gave Becky a hug and said, “Does this help you understand that I love you just as much as I love your baby brother?”

Becky said, Yes, and I can love lots of people just the same.

What happens to us is never as important as the beliefs we create about what happens to us. Our behavior is based on those beliefs, and the behavior and beliefs are directly related to the primary goal of all people -- to feel that we belong and are important.

Mom had learned to deal with the belief behind Becky’s misbehavior. Becky stopped acting like a baby, and was more consistently loving to her baby brother.

Now for what to do:
1. Supervise, supervise, supervise. Just as you can't allow a child to go to the park by himself, don't expect him to control his emotions and his frustrations.

2. Don't scold him and comfort the younger child. (If you do, you are training the younger to become a victim who will soon learn how to get special attention.) Instead, take the pusher on your lap and validate his feelings. "You must be feeling upset, sad, mad, or whatever." It is likely that he will then be willing to help you help the younger child feel better too by having him or her join you on your lab.

3. Another possibility is to just take them both on your lap and ignore the pushing. I know this sounds like rewarding the misbehavior, but not when you understand human behavior and that a misbehaving child is a discouraged child. Encouragement eliminates the misbehavior.

4. Or, separate them before the frustration escalates--treating them the same.

5. Use your sense of humor and playfully wrestle them both to the ground.

I hope one of these ideas helps.



Bytme82 said...

You're retarded. You wasted a lot of time justifying a childs behavior with Piaget's theory, and your own suggestions did not even correlate with his. Please do not quote a well-known psychologist if you are not going to follow up with proper solutions to the problem addressed.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your suggestions and this helped me a lot to understand my three year old and treat him better.

Anonymous said...

thankyou so much - i am a grandmother struggling with a 2yr old pushing a 1yr old - the 2yr old had a lot of change to deal with at the same time as her mother dissappeared and then brought home a new baby - your explanation about understanding the behaviour is very clear and i can see how it fits with her situation - i am worried about rewarding the behaviour but i will try your suggestions.