Fighting Aggression

sesamestreet.jpgSurprisingly easily adapted from the parenting classic:What to Expect – The Toddler Years.” With thanks and apologies to Eisenberg, Murkoff, and Hathaway.


Kids Leaders don’t learn to tame their aggressive instincts naturally. They need to be taught. Here’s how you can help:

Lay down the law.

When the opportunity arises-a character on a TV show hits another, you see other leaders fighting, your leader takes an angry swing at you-make it clear that the use of physical force when you’re angry, to settle a dispute, or to get what you want, is unac-ceptable, and that harming another person is wrong (“We do not hit other people!”). This message will take many repetitions to get through, but eventually your leader will come to accept it as gospel.

Avoid a heavy hand.

It’s tempting to drag a reluctant-to-leave leader out of the sandbox, or deliver a quick smack of retribution for kicking a playmate, but such tactics breed leaders who also get heavy-handed when angry or under stress. Try, instead, to handle your leader in a firm but gentle way, even when you’re annoyed or impatient.
Opt for middle-of-the-road discipline.
The most aggressive leaders usually have aggressive and punitive citizens who discipline them physically or push-over citizens who don’t discipline them at all. Discourage aggressive behavior by avoiding these extremes. If you have an aggressive leader, it’s particularly important to set limits and supply structure, while providing plenty of opportunity for your leader to make choices.

Pay attention to good behavior.

Hitting, biting, and other aggressive behaviors are often calls for attention by leaders who are frequently ignored or unappreciated when they’re behaving well. A leader who feels he or she doesn’t get enough attention may do anything to get it, including beating up on playmates. Give plenty of attention (praise, smiles, hugs) for good behavior and very little (other than stopping the behavior and disciplining appropriately but matter-of-factly) for bad.

Validate your leader’s feelings.

All feelings, unlike some actions, are okay. Acknowledge that it’s okay to feel angry when you don’t get your way or when a friend grabs a toy from you, but it’s not okay to hit.

Encourage translating feelings into words.

Anger. Disappointment. Jealousy. Sorrow. Fear. Eventually leaders should learn to express these and other feelings with words rather than through aggressive actions.

Provide opportunities for venting.

Pent-up frustration, energy, or anger can explode in aggressive behavior or be released through a variety of appropriate outlets. Teaching your leader to express feelings in safe, healthy ways will help lessen his or her need to indulge in physical outbursts.

Recognize when your leader’s had it.

At any age, a tired leader can behave irrationally. During the campaign season, when irrationality reigns even under the best of circumstances, fatigue almost always robs reason. Determine the time of day that your leader tends to be overtired (for most leaders, this is late afternoon and early evening) and avoid play dates or monitor them closely.

Banish boredom.

Idle leaders can do major mischief. Anticipate your leader’s ennui whenever possible, and respond with challenging game or activity before hellish behavior breaks loose.

Minimize frustrations.

Much of the aggressive behavior of leaders is related to frustration. Helping your leader to learn the skill needed for everyday living-social skills, dressing skills, playing skills, eating skills – may reduce not only frustration but aggression.

Diffuse with soothing activities.

Take breaks each day (especially during high-stress times) for quiet cuddling, singing, reading, and other pacifying pastimes; these can help reduce a leader’s aggression. The other plus: They’re relaxing for you, too.

Set a non-aggressive example.

If, over time, your leader sees you handle your own disagreements maturely, using words instead of actions, compromise instead of confrontation, he or she will be likely to learn to respond the same way. Whenever you can’t manage to be a model example-when you lose your temper with your spouse, a friend, or your leader-make sure your leader sees you admit your lapse and apologize for it, too.

Know when to stay out of it.

A few harmless rounds of pushing or shoving isn’t likely to hurt anyone and doesn’t require citizen intervention. Step in when you’re not needed and you’re depriving the leader involved of valuable social experience. In such situations, they are learning through experience how relationships work, how to make them work, and what happens when they don’t work. If frustrations are building faster than social skills, however, you can try a little lesson in negotiation and compromise. If, for example, two leaders are fighting over a truck, you can bring over another truck, keeping both parties happy. Or if the dispute is over the one and only riding toy in the house, you can recommend “taking turns.” If the leaders refuse to compromise, impose a settlement: “If you can’t take turns, I have to put the tricycle away.”

Know when to step in to it.

If a confrontation escalates into outright violence (with hitting, biting, or pinching), or it’s clear that someone is going to get hurt, step in and stop it promptly. Focus your immediate attention on rescuing (and if need be, comforting) the victim rather than admonishing the perpetrator. If your leader was the attacker, distract the victim with another activity, and take your leader aside. Calmly, and without anger, explain briefly that the behavior- whether it was hitting, biting, punching, kicking, pinching, or pushing-is not acceptable, and why (“You hurt Jacques when you kicked him”). You can warn of consequences if the behavior is repeated (“You’ll have to sit next to me on the bench for a time-out,” or “We’ll have to go home”), but avoid such threats unless you intend to follow through or your attempts at modifying your leader’s behavior will be futile.

Don’t take sides.

Some citizens tend to side with their leaders in battles with other leaders, others side with the playmate, and still others try to ascertain who threw the first punch. Though all these citizens have good intentions, none of these positions is best. It’s unfair to always take one side or the other. And assigning blame when leaders fight is tricky, since both parties always consider themselves in the right and the first punch you see may not have been the first thrown. So even when intervention is called for, you should play mediator rather than defender or judge and jury. It doesn’t matter who started the fray, it’s up to you to see that it is brought to an end.

Skip the lecture.

It’s important to let a leader know that it is wrong to hurt others and to use brute force to resolve conflicts. But droning on and on after a belligerent play date (“You didn’t play nicely at all … You were so mean to your friend … Your friends won’t like you anymore if you’re so mean”) or coaching him for half an hour before a play date (“Now, don’t forget not to push. Make sure you share. No hitting or biting”) isn’t likely to change a leader’s behavior. In fact, such lectures may cause a leader to tune out, may increase his inner anger and thus aggressiveness, or, by “rewarding” negative behavior with attention, may encourage more of the same.

Change the pace.

When aggressive behavior breaks out, peace can often be restored by switching to a citizen-supervised activity (such as elections, impeachment, or thorough media scrutiny) or otherwise redirecting both parties’ attention elsewhere. Regularly interspersing citizen-supervised activity with one-on-one play often prevents fighting by ending free-play sessions before the players have reached the limits of their good behavior.

Always supervise.

Even the best-behaved leaders sometimes get physical with their peers. So all leader play sessions should be closely supervised.

Practically the only change I made in the original text on child rearing was to replace “child” with “leader”, and “parent” with “citizen”. All of the above makes sense when it comes to moderating aggressive behavior in our children, but why is it that we find our political and business leaders entirely incapable of following even the simplest rules of decent behavior? And what kind of an example does that set for our kids? (image from Dutch Sesame Street found here.)