Q. I'm a stay-at-home mom with two sons--2 1/2 and 9 months--and I feel frustrated and helpless.
For the past six months my older son has been picking on the younger one and hurting him. He kicks him, hits him, makes him fall when he's trying to stand, and throws things at him.
I can't find a punishment that is effective and that also fits the crime. I've tried time-outs, spanking him, yelling at him and scolding him without raising my voice. Nothing works.
Could we be doing something to encourage this behavior? I try to give the children the same kind of attention and in equal amounts. I try not to give them many sweets or foods with artificial coloring. I also take them to places where the older child can use up his energy. He seems to want to bully anything smaller than himself--even animals.
Are we doomed to having an aggressive boy with tendencies toward violence for the rest of his life or is this a normal phase?
A. It's a firm no to both questions. No, this isn't a normal phase and no, you're not doomed either.
You're just looking at a little boy who's hurting too much and he's hurting because he and his brother are getting equal attention. He doesn't want half of you, he wants all of you, or at least most of you, and he'll do whatever it takes to get what he wants. Negative attention is better than no attention when a fellow feels left out.
Your son was bound to feel displaced when the baby arrived, but he didn't have a real reason to be angry at first. You may have spent a lot of time caring for the baby, but he still got most of your playtime.
Six months ago, the baby began to coo and goo and act adorable and you can bet that your 2-year-old has been jealous ever since.
Yelling at him won't help and neither will time-outs or quiet explanations. If you want to change the situation, change your ways.
Don't give equal time to your sons when they're both awake. You can cuddle and play with the baby while the older boy is asleep--he'll never know--and you can give extra attention to the older one even if the baby is awake. A second child accepts just about anything.
It will be easier to concentrate on the older boy if you can get the children to nap at different times. If they won't, hire a 12-year-old to walk the little one around the neighborhood for a half-hour while you play with his big brother. The more positive attention he gets, the better he'll feel about himself and the kinder he'll be to the baby.
Compliment him when he's being gentle; ignore him--if you can--when he's mean and watch him carefully to see exactly what sets him off. Once you have analyzed the pattern, you can probably distract him before he explodes.
But if you don't get there in time, take that boy in your arms, hold him tight, give him a kiss and tell him that you know it's hard for him to share his mom and dad, but you can't let him hurt his little brother, any more than you could ever let anyone hurt him. A child learns to empathize much better if people empathize with him.
For more insights on boys and how to shape them best, read "The Men They Will Become" (Perseus, $25), by Eli H. Newberger, and "Raising Cain" (Ballantine, $24.95), by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson. To learn about boys and girls, read "Building Healthy Minds" (Perseus, $25), by Stanley Greenspan. These three books will give you clear, concise advice on child development.
Please send your questions to Box 15310, Washington D.C. 20003 or to firstname.lastname@example.org.