The hits keep on coming: Part two.

While Jack’s headbutts and tackles come from sorrow, anger, or mischievous joy, Emmeline’s violence is about testing her boundaries. Petulance and jealousy are part of it, such as when she thinks Jack is getting a little too much attention. And certainly the mean streak that appears when she doesn’t feel well plays a role. But most of the time, Emme is acting under another impulse.

It’s easy to tell when this secret agenda comes into play. First, Emmeline doesn’t scream or cry; she is almost preternaturally calm and collected. Second, after she hits someone, Emme looks directly at Lara or me to gauge our reactions. If Jack becomes some nameless thug in a pub cheering on Manchester United, Emme becomes B.F. Skinner.

Emmeline uses Jack for most of her experiments. I’ll be, say, sitting on the couch in the living room. Jack will wander over to talk or play or complain about something when Emme will suddenly appear behind him. She’s like a ninja. She can be in the far corner of the room, surrounded by the world’s most sensitive musical toys, any one of which is set off if I even look at it. The creaking, plastic playroom gate between us can be mostly closed, hiding the small bump where the apartment’s floor transitions from tile to wood, a bump that the pair of them trip over constantly. Yet within seconds of interacting with my son, Emme will simply, silently be there.

Her arm will shoot out like she’s at Nuremberg and deliver two quick smacks to the top of Jack’s head. Then, she’ll turn to me, smiling and expectant. But I don’t know what to do.

We’ve tried just telling her “no” in a stern, authoritarian tone. Well, we all know how she reacts to that. Then we tried holding the offending hand immobile for 20 seconds or so. That just annoyed her and made her more likely to hit us instead of Jack.

So we moved on to that modern parenting favorite, the time out. Lara explained that we couldn’t use her crib for time outs because we didn’t want her to associate sleep with punishment. We tried putting her in the playroom and locking the gate so that she was cut off from the rest of the living room and her potential victims. This worked for a while because she can’t stand not being able to roam free. But she soon realized that she was being imprisoned in the space where 97% of all the toys and children’s books are kept. Her time out became playtime, with the added bonus that she didn’t have to fight with that other kid for her favorite baubles. Jack would peer over the gate at her as she happily milled around. He would then shout at us accusingly, wondering why his sister got to have all the fun.

Our latest tool for putting Emme on the straight and narrow is her high chair. It’s not actually high — it’s one of those models that’s meant to be attached to a regular chair, which we never do — but it does have a three-point harness. It’s been months and months since we felt the need to use the harness with Jack. It’s so unnecessary that when we last washed the nylon straps for his chair, we never put them back on. Emmeline, however, is the consummate wiggle-worm; she has come close to toppling over and breaking her neck on several occasions. So the harness is her constant companion at every meal.

Until recently, that is. Emme’s hatred of the harness is what gave us the idea to use it to discourage her clinical violence. After she’s ignored a warning or two, she is now plopped in her chair, strapped in, and turned to face the corner. This deprives her of the two things that she likes most (that aren’t sweet potato fries): mobility and social interaction. Given the volume of her protests, you would think it was a good deterrent.

But there are a few problems.

First, it’s meant that we have to stop strapping her in at meal times. Otherwise, she’ll be confused about whether she’s being fed food or justice. But she still tends to vibrate out of the chair when eating, so it’s been harder to keep her contained. We’re approaching a Catch-22 where I’m going to have to strap her in the chair to teach her how to eat in the chair unstrapped.

Second, Jack won’t leave her alone when she’s in her chair. Emme’s immobility makes her an easy target for reprisals over past wrongs. Jesus Christ, Santa Claus, and Elmo could materialize in the room at the same time, and it still wouldn’t be enough to wrench Jack from the allure of Emme in a helpless position. As a result, we’ve had to put her chair in the playroom and lock the gate so that Jack can’t reach her. Not only is Emme even more isolated, but she’s also surrounded by toys that are just out of reach. While it’s the best plan we have, it seems a bit cruel. Next thing you know we’ll be using eyelid clamps and saline solution to force her to stare at her favorite monkey puppet while listening to Ludwig Van.

Third, it doesn’t seem very effective. It delays the violence cycle for maybe five minutes. When released, she sometimes walks immediately over to Jack and smacks him on the head. Her apparent disbelief at going right back into the chair makes me wonder if she’s understanding any of this at all.

Which leads to our other recent course of action: ignoring the behavior. The idea is that if she’s thriving on the attention, even if it’s disciplinary, then she’ll lose interest if we deny her that attention. But it’s not easy. Just yesterday, I must have pretended that I didn’t see her hit Jack at least ten times. It doesn’t seem to bother Jack in the slightest, but I still feel like I’m sending the wrong message.

Emme also refuses to be ignored. Once she’s tried and failed several times to get my attention by hitting her brother, she’ll wait for situations in which I can’t possibly miss it. I’ll be playing and laughing with the two of them in close quarters when she’ll quickly turn and strike Jack without warning. To act as if I didn’t see it would strain even a one year-old’s credulity. Can Emme truly be that cunning?

Perhaps. Perhaps not. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that she recently added something to her repertoire. Now when she smacks Jack and I give her the stink-eye, she’s started hitting her own head. Hard. Repeatedly. While laughing.

Is she trying to tell me that the hitting is a game and that I shouldn’t take it so seriously? Is she trying to show me that she knows she’s doing wrong by punishing herself? Is this just a random act of a very young child?

Or…is this a new experimental trial? Is Dr. Skinner watching to see how I’ll react to her bashing her skull over and over again? Because Daddy doesn’t like it one bit.

If this is all a phase, I sure hope it’s waning.

Marsha - February 24, 2012 - 11:53 am

Wow, this is complicated! Does Super Nanny answer e-mails?

Katie - February 24, 2012 - 12:37 pm

Have you tried giving tons and tons of extra attention to Jack when Emme hits him? Like a reward for being the one getting beat up on, and just ignored for being the beater… or get a 3rd booster seat with a strap and put it in the hall or something so it’s not the eating seat and it’s the old boring hallway 🙂

Justin - February 24, 2012 - 4:21 pm

Actually, yes, Katie, I have tried lavishing attention on Jack while Emme looks on from her prison, screaming. Lara thinks it’s mean for some reason. Maybe it’s because I shower him with kisses, lift him above my head while laughing with joy, and say things like “I love you SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO MUCH!” and “You’re just a DELIGHT!” and “Are you the BEST baby in the ENTIRE WORLD?”

Lara Jo - February 24, 2012 - 7:48 pm

Yes, that’s not mean at all.

Actually, Katie’s right, we really need to get a separate seat for this. Preferably something hard and uncomfortable because, frankly, she doesn’t seem to mind being in time out that much.

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