Monday, May 11, 2015

Just A Wee Nibble!

        All creatures, both great and small, have natural defensive mechanisms by which they fend off aggression and prolong their survival. The skunk has its spray, the porcupine its quills, and the turtle its shell. For many creatures this entails, not a specialized body part, but, rather, an instinctive behavior. Fish school together, ground hogs burrow, cats arch their backs to make themselves look larger and more threatening. Sometimes these same defensive mechanisms are used for offensive purposes; instead of fending off aggression they are used to commit aggression. This type of behavior might entail scratching, or kicking, or stinging, depending on the particular creature in question. Apparently, when that creature is a small child, say twenty-one months old or so, with blond curly hair, chubby cheeks, and a rowdy attitude, the mechanism most natural and instinctive for both defensive and offensive purposes is that most primal of actions, that oldest, fiercest and most bestial of aggressions. That's right, you guessed it. Mackey bites.

         I first became aware of this development a couple of weeks back. Actually, at the time, it was more of a suspicion than anything else. Mackey and I were playing around and she was climbing up into my lap when her mouth came in contact with my bare knee (I was wearing shorts at the time). When this happened she paused for a moment and I felt a small bite, actually more like a small amount of pressure from her teeth, on my knee. I stopped her and gave her the standard warning about "no biting". Then we went on about our day and I didn't think anything more about it.

          Then a week ago Sunday, Uncle Tom and I dropped in at their house to pay a visit. Kiley and Mackey have recently moved into a new house that they are very proud of, and they had been eager to show Uncle Tom their new domicile, especially their new bedroom, where Kiley's "big girl bed" and Mackey's crib are quaintly situated with their names artistically rendered on the wall above each. During the grand tour their mother pointed out a small red mark on Kiley's face. It appears that during a recent altercation, Mackey bit Kiley on the cheek. Uh oh! This served as confirmation of what I had previously only suspected. Twice can't really be called a pattern, but it was pointing in that direction.

         Then this past week, Kiley and Mackey were watching the squirrels through the kitchen window and, as is their nature, were pushing and jostling for the most advantageous position, when Mackey, in frustration, grabbed Kiley and attempted to bite her on the arm. I stopped her by yelling and again warned her about biting. (Kiley overreacted and went into hysterics about how Mackey had bitten her when she actually had merely attempted to bite her. This was understandable, however, in view of the fact that she had recently been bitten on the face and was probably a little "bite shy"). I calmed them both down and gave Mackey a harsh reprimand that she took grudgingly. Then later in the week, while I was in the house and the girls were out back with Uncle Tom, an altercation over the use of the swings arose and, in the tussle, Mackey once again attempted to bite Kiley on the cheek.

        There can now be no doubt that Mackey has an inclination to use her teeth for both offensive and defensive purposes, which is somewhat alarming. When it comes to babies, a propensity to bite, once established, is hard to break. That's because biting, for those wee ones who indulge in it, is really an instinctive behavior that doesn't seem to have any real thought behind it. It's more of a reflexive action than a deliberate strategy so it doesn't lend itself to reason, or logic, (not that twenty-one-month-olds are all that responsive to reason or logic to begin with). On top of this, the teeth are very powerful weapons for those who are willing to use them. A good bite is a painful thing that can turn the tide of battle even when one's opponent is bigger and stronger as is the case with Kiley and Mackey. It can be hard to convince the otherwise defenseless to forgo their one effective weapon when doing so dooms them to perpetual defeat, especially in the thick of the fight when tempers are high and desperation sets in.

        I have faced this problem before. My youngest daughter, Sarah, was a biter. (Her favorite target was the soft spot on the shoulder right below the neck.) So maybe biting runs in our family. There might be a "biting gene" floating around out there that, though recessive, expresses itself every generation or so. So what do you do with a biter? In the past the rule of thumb was that biting could be cured by simply giving the offender a taste of her own medicine. In other words, by biting the biter. I was certainly given that advice a generation ago and even tried it once, but I found it to be an unsatisfactory means of curbing behavior. It is hard, for the unpracticed, to gauge the proper biting pressure to administer. With a bite there is no such thing as a little too much. Too much is always way too much. Besides, I immediately found the psychological effects of biting my little girl to be far greater on me than they apparently were on her. Once was too much.

        Like Mackey, Sarah also has a sister who was older, bigger, and stronger than she was when they were little. So maybe the biting habit isn't genetically hard wired into the offenders after all. Maybe it is merely the weapon of last resort employed by the weak when faced with otherwise unbeatable foes. Kiley and Mackey adore each other but, as sisters, they inevitably come into conflict with one another. Kiley has always had the upper hand in those conflicts until Mackey began using her teeth to level the playing field. The only way to stop that empowering behavior is to be watchful and vigilant, and discourage it whenever it occurs. She will eventually grow out of it.

        In the long run it is in Mackey's best interest that she stops using her teeth as a weapon. Not only because it's not a civilized thing to do but also because what goes around often comes around, and if Kiley ever decides to bite back she will undoubtedly, as the older sister, be far better at it than poor Mackey. Besides, dogs bite, sharks bite, even mosquitoes bite, but little girls don't bite, at least not each other. "People aren't food, don't bite!"



  1. My son was a biter and his mom bit him back. He stopped biting. I don't recommend this.

    1. Yes, biting the biter has always been the common cure for biting. Like I said in the post, I tried it with my youngest but found that I didn't have the heart for it. Still, if a few light bites will cure a biter of their habit then I think it is worth it. Biting can be a serious problem, especially if they go for the face.