Understanding and Responding to Preschooler Spitting

July 3rd, 2012 by Dionna | 9 Comments
Posted in Carnival and Special Series, Gentle Discipline Ideas, Successes, and Suggestions, Gentle/Positive Discipline, natural parenting

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You know what’s even sillier than seeing a four year old blowing a raspberry to express his displeasure? Seeing a parent become deeply offended by said raspberry. I mean – it’s a raspberry. From a preschooler.

I have a confession to make, though – I’ve been that deeply offended parent (and so has Tom). Kieran recently started spitting at us (blowing raspberries) to demonstrate his exasperated disapproval. In the scheme of things, a preschooler blowing raspberries can easily be seen as harmless – even amusing at times. But in the heat of many parenting moments, that behavior can seem like the epitome of disrespect.

I’d like to share how I changed the way that I experience and react to Kieran’s spitting. Hopefully it will help another parent!

I learned that it is normal for a four year old to spit.

When Kieran first started spitting at us, we were fairly outraged. Where did he pick up such behavior?! Was our child on the path to juvenile delinquency?! (Just kidding.) But then I read Your Four Year Old: Wild and Wonderful. You may recall how much better I felt after reading Your Three-Year-Old: Friend or Enemy last year. Why did it take me so long to pick up the next book? I have no good excuse.

Anyway. On page seven of Your Four Year Old, I discovered that this spitting thing is – wait for itnormal. That’s right. My child did not invent spitting just to piss us off. He is, in fact, simply one preschooler in a long, long line of preschoolers to display this particularly unappealing behavior. Who knew?!

So the first thing that helped me is figuring out that the behavior is normal. When Kieran was a toddler, knowing that tantrums were normal helped me respond to him compassionately. Now that he is older and his method of self-expression has started to feel more personal, realizing that it is normal and age-appropriate helps me shift the way I experience and respond to him.

I really recommend the Your ____ Year Old series. I’ve come to the conclusion that the half-year marks are difficult for me, since that is when I throw my hands up and conclude we are raising a heathen. Thankfully, Dr. Ames brings me back to reality with her very insightful books. Even though she does not offer magic solutions to every problem, it is comforting to know that our parenting methods are not producing these undesirable behaviors – they are hallmarks of the age.

We adjusted the way we interpret the behavior.

It is always helpful to remember that our experiences color how we interpret the behavior of others. When Kieran spit, we interpreted it to mean he was being disrespectful. But is Kieran truly intending to act in a disrespectful manner?

Dr. Ames says that four year olds often seem “out of bounds.” She writes that an intense motor drive, a developmentally appropriate energetic expressiveness, and a tendency to push boundaries can result in hitting and spitting. Spitting may just feel like a good physical release to a four year old.

In fact, I could choose to see this as a step up from the tantrums of a year or two ago – instead of melting down into a puddle of tears that last for ten to twenty minutes, he is blowing his frustration off quickly and efficiently. The spitting is usually not accompanied by arguing – instead, he blows a raspberry and then turns and stomps off.

When we interpreted spitting as disrespectful, we were making it about us. Now I try to see the spitting for what it might mean to Kieran – a simple expression of displeasure. He’s not making some grand statement about respect, he’s just making a really cool noise with his tongue that is simultaneously (bonus!) pushing against a boundary. Again – testing boundaries is normal. The question is how to respond to it.

We choose to respond out of love rather than anger.

So because spitting is developmentally appropriate, does that mean we should just accept it with a smile? No – we would rather Kieran find a different way to show his displeasure.

Rather than reacting in anger out of a sense of feeling disrespected, we can respond calmly after the moment has passed: “Kieran, it looked like you were frustrated because _____. It’s ok to be frustrated, but when you spit at people, it can feel like you are not respecting them. In our family, we value showing respect for others. Can we think of a way to show our frustration?”

And on days when it feels like all we are doing is asking Kieran to change his behavior, sometimes we go for something a little more unconventional and try one of the techniques I described in 3 Common Preschooler Behaviors and 3 Ways to Deal with Them (While Connecting with Your Child).

Most of all, we try to remember to connect with him, because so often his “misbehavior” seems to come when he needs his cup filled with some dedicated attention from a parent.

Have you had a hard time with some of your preschooler’s behaviors?

How have you found ways to respond to them gently?

9 Responses to:
"Understanding and Responding to Preschooler Spitting"

  1. teresa   momgrooves

    So funny to me! We had the exact same thing this last year. And after finding such comfort in the 3 year old book, we didnt’ get the four year old one! I don’t know why.
    The raspberry thing in particular. I do think it felt really good to her. Sensation is so much more amazing to them, I think. They’re all so new and to be able to create one’s own sensation like that…
    We told her she could do it as much as she wanted to outside and had a bit of fun with that. And, like you, we tried to help her come up with alternate ways to show her displeasure.
    Even though we’re just past this, I’m so glad I saw this post.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Teresa – excellent suggestion to create a space for spitting where they can do it freely. I think I’ll add it to the previous post :)

  2. Crunchy Con Mommy   crunchyconmom

    My son is almost 3 and occasionally spits/blows raspberries, and so far we have handled it by showing him the funny fart-like noise it makes if you do it in your elbow, and anytime he does it I just say “Remember to do that in your elbow!”. So far it works, and it makes him forget his anger because he’s too busy giggling at the fart noise. Someday I may regret teaching him that trick though (like when he does it in church…)

  3. Stacie Robinson   WhompinWillow

    Thanks for the book recommendations, I’ve reserved a copy of the Two year old one, my daughter’s 2nd birthday is tomorrow ;) & she ALREADY spits, especially if you prevent her from hitting or kicking first, ugh! I don’t know where she picks this stuff up though I’m sure it’s normal toddler behavior, but when my cousins who spank have these timid kids in public and my child is the wild one running/hitting/kicking/spitting it’s hard to prove to anyone that peaceful parenting is effective. Luckily I don’t feel the need to prove it, if they don’t understand that’s their problem!

  4. It sounds like you guys are doing an excellent job of keeping perspective in the throes of toddlerhood. That picture is too funny!

    I love Teresa’s suggestion! That’s a wonderful way to give your kid the freedom to express himself while still teaching him to be respectful to others. We try to come up with solutions like this whenever we can, but it is sometimes hard in the moment.

    I used to belong to an online parenting group that was great for brainstorming positive solutions to issues like that. (It was a radical unschooling board.) I think that group alone made the biggest difference in both my son Max and myself surviving his toddler years in tact. So, I would say that having a supportive group of like-minded people who have been there, or are currently there, to talk to and bounce ideas off of is really helpful.

    It also helps to keep in mind that each phase they are going through, or behavior they are experimenting with will eventually come to an end. I always tell people that every time you reach a point where you feel like you can’t possibly take any more of whatever phase your kid is in, that’s how you know it’s about to change. It always comes to a crescendo, then it eases up, goes away, and they begin a new phase. And don’t forget to laugh! However disrespectful or frustrating it is, toddlers do look pretty comical and adorable when blowing raspberries angrily! =P

  5. Our problem was DS spitting for fun – big wads of saliva from the backs of couches, down stairs, etc. VERY annoying and gross, but he grew out of it. Finally.

  6. JW   TrueRealMommy

    Skimmed this when you first posted it. Remembered it when the same behavior came up for us! Both my husband and I feel better about it now!

  7. Simon   Simon_gordon

    What I want to know is when did the world decide that blowing raspberries was spitting ??? My wife accused me of being British and that all Americans say this. So I asked 3 of my American friends all over 40, 2 have kids under 10 and one has older kids. They all said spitting is spitting and blowing raspberries is blowing raspberries and may or may not even have any spit as a side effect (depends how good you are at doing it).

    Why do I care ? Simple as noted here blowing raspberries is age appropriate where as actual spitting is a simply disgusting habit. The degree on wrongness is a different scale.

    I suspect calling raspberries spitting is a subversive politically correct way of trying to be snobbish about a natural stage of development and to victimize or bully a child instead of helping them through it.

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