Thursday, February 10, 2011

Training the Toddlers

Recently, a colleague and I were talking about her almost-four-year-old son and the challenges he's been facing at daycare. As is fairly normal for toddlers in the States, he's been having physical aggression problems with a slightly younger girl in his play group, and particularly has been pulling her hair, taking her toys, and chasing her around the room. When my colleague described this to me and to several other coworkers in the room, all of us- yes, ALL of us- had the same reaction: "it sounds like he LIKES her!" I wouldn't be surprised if current readers are nodding their heads in agreement with our assessment.

As soon as I'd said it, though, I realized that this was a really strange reaction for us to be having. It's a collective reaction, too, not confined to my office. My parents used to tell me this when the boys in my elementary school would chase me around the playground or tease me to tears. Parents in TV shows and movies often offer the same "sage" advice: ignore him, and he'll go away. He's just looking for a reaction because he likes you. He'll grow out of it eventually.

It always sounded a little stupid to me, but it worked. Eventually, the boys stopped showing their affections in obnoxiously physical ways, and started showing their affections wait. They still get obnoxiously physical, but instead of pulling our hair and taking our toys, they're surrounding us on the dance floor or presuming that it's okay to touch us without asking permission first.

Here's the thing. In a heterocentric and cis-oriented society, we're socializing young girls to believe that aggressive behaviours from boys is a sign of attraction- and that more attraction is a good thing. Many parents, like my colleague, attempt to correct the boys' behaviour when they find out about it because aggression is, in theory, socially unacceptable. But it doesn't change the initial reaction of the teachers or caregivers or the parents of little girls all over the country who immediately tell the girls, "He LIKES you!" That knee-jerk reaction that so many of us have sets an example for the kids who hear it: while we might outwardly condemn this behaviour, we'll inwardly accept it as a natural expression of amorous feelings. Aggressive behaviours, we tell the girls, are the bedrock of male heterosexual desire. Later on down the road, we wonder why so many women return to male partners who emotionally, sexually, and physically abuse them. "He really does love me," they say, "he just has anger/jealousy/PTSD/alcohol/drug issues." Outsiders to the relationship shake their heads and wonder at how deluded these women are, and never make the connection to the fact that these women- like the rest of us- have been taught from early ages to accept a certain amount of aggression as normal from romantic partners. Strangulation- literal and metaphorical- becomes the adult equivalent of pigtail-pulling. The victim then says "He must really love me, because he gets so possessive when I go out with anyone, including my girl friends" because this is the logical extension of "He pulls your pigtails? He LIKES you!"

Increasingly, we're becoming aware of abuse dynamics that fall outside the standard narrative of male abuser/female victim. Statistically speaking, abuse occurs in same-sex relationships at the same rate as it does in heterosexual relationships, and genderqueer and trans folk are reporting more abuse as well. Male victims and survivors are coming forward with greater frequency too, indicating that we still have a lot to learn about how broader social narratives- including gender narratives- impact relationship behaviours and expectations. Increased rates of bullying by cis girls indicate that narratives of aggression are also undergoing a change (whether in reporting or in enacting remains to be seen). But it's important to ask ourselves how we, in the tiny things we say, contribute to a culture of socialization that normalizes aggression in sexuality as a positive thing.

*Image used from


  1. I think that young boys do show affection by being aggressive, at first.
    I think the best way to handle explaining that to a girl, is to do it in much the same way my mom explained it to me.
    She told me the boy probably liked me, but that he still shouldn't be behaving as he was. She told me to tell the boy that I didn't like him to pull my hair, chase me, etc.
    If he didn't stop, that meant he didn't like me, and that I should tell the teacher.
    It's worked since I was a little girl. Boys just show affection the way they know how, or how they think they can attract our attention. If we don't like it, we need to tell them. If they don't change their behavior, then we know that we should avoid them, and seek out someone else.

  2. Emily, I really like your mom's solution - she basically asked you to first try to resolve the issue with the boy and if that didn't work, to take the issue to an authority figure.

  3. I wonder if this is a factor of being in an environment like a day care or kindergarten. I feel certain that for every boy that shows affection by aggression there is the other boy who shows affection by sharing or simply ignores the girl. I also wonder if there are girls in similar situations that show affection through aggression simply because the verbal and social skills are still in development; same for boys. Whatever it may be I find it defeatist and hurtful that we often accept behavior like this off hand with little instruction. I work at a residential treatment center for boys where most of the boys are trying to deal with social awkwardness and anxiety. These boys could really have used some one on one time early on with situations like how to properly show caring and affection.

  4. Oh boy, my english could also use some good one on one time!