Q. You wrote recently about divorce and how it affected a 4-year-old.
My husband and I have been separated since my son was 8 months old, so he has been with a sitter for as long as he can remember. It was only for a half-day until he was 16 months old, and then he started in a Montessori school in the mornings and the sitter in the afternoon--an arrangement we still have.
His father lives in Baltimore and only can see him one Saturday a month. My son enjoys these occasions, but he never mentions them between visits. I don't know what thoughts are going through his little mind, but I'm sure the wheels are turning. I've never explained any details to him about our divorce and yet he must see that most of his friends have two parents rather than one.
Could this be why he has been aggressive lately? He will hit, kick or throw sand at children for no apparent reason.
I've tried using an authoritative tone of voice and pulling him aside, and I've tried a light paddling, but nothing seems to affect this behavior. In fact, he even seems to like the spanking. I feel guilty because I feel that spanking isn't the way to teach a child not to hit someone.
This aggressive behavior only happens with children he doesn't see very often, not with those at school. I'm wondering if he has feelings he can't express or is angry because he doesn't have two parents like "normal" children.
A. You may think it's normal for a family to have two parents, but to your son it's normal to live with his mother and see his dad once a month. A 4-year-old is the center of the universe; whatever he does is right.
He sounds very comfortable with that idea, except when he plays with children he doesn't know well and each of them is foolish enough to think that he is the one in the center.
So what's a fellow to do except throw sand at them?
This is how a 4-year-old often settles disputes and divides territory with newcomers, for this is a real king-of-the-mountain age.
It isn't necessary to do this at school because he knows his place--and everyone else knows what it is. His sitter also knows where he stands, as do you and his dad. It's those strangers he wants to impress. One way or another, he's going to create an image.
Unfortunately, he's picked the Mr. Tough Guy image, and of course you can't permit it.
As usual, however, spanking doesn't work. You don't want to hit him hard, yet a light paddle lets him smile about it and look that much tougher.
He needs to be led away, quietly and firmly, out of the eyeshot of others, and given a stern lecture about what you will and will not permit. And then you sit him on a stool or a park bench or stand him in a corner--with your hands on his shoulders, if you think he might run--and you stay there, in silence, until he stops yelling, looks contrite and is willing to walk back with you and apologize to the other children. It isn't the lecture but the dish of humble pie (or perhaps quite a few dishes) that will teach your little boy how hard it is to look tough when he's going to look silly right afterward.
The monthly visits are in another category. Your child probably doesn't talk about his father and the visits because he doesn't see him that often, and therefore doesn't think that much about him, and also because he feels the conversation might make you uncomfortable. And he's probably right. Otherwise, you would have talked with him about the divorce already.
It's a good idea to do it, but skip the details; he's not ready for them for years and years. Instead, he wants you to satisfy the guilt and hope and trepidation he feels with the three classic questions asked by the children of divorced parents: "Did I make you get divorced?" "Will you ever marry Daddy again?" and "Will you ever marry anyone again?"
Every child of divorced parents has one more question, borne of fear and seldom asked: "Will you ever divorce me?"
All these questions need to be answered, whether they're asked or not, but it's the last one that really matters.