Again with the baby squashing.

Squishing, whatever.

Kate guessed right. It is about a just three year old squashing, elbowing, and upending the crap out of her baby sister. I’ve written about the problem and a move toward a solution before, but it’s kept up. The squishing, I mean.

The squishing comes in waves, as does my ability to deal with it calmly rather than giving in to the primal baby-protecting urge to scream like an offended mama baboon at my dear determined three year old daughter.

I had a revelation about it this week, though. Probably one of those flashes of insight that you can file under “this is news to no one but caro.” But bear with me:

We went to the almost-last of our early childhood classes on Tuesday, and not one but three kids—besides Ingrid—made Iris cry. Swiping toys from her, clonking her (with ambiguous intentionality) on the head, pushing her over. From this I learned two things:

1. Poor Iris. I was trying hard to be attentive and protect her from all the chaos, and she got tipped, squished and stolen from anyway. (Though I totally went to bat for her in a tussle with a really strong and energetic boy over a fake celery stalk that she had first. His mom had to pry us apart.)

And this is the big one:

2. It’s not just Ingrid. Three year olds do not know how to deal with nine month olds, no matter how earnestly their parents explain why we are gentle with babies.

Sibling rivalry and deep-seated resentment are probably part of what’s going on at our house, but they aren’t the whole story, and that’s both a relief (our child-spacing decisions have not made a sociopath of our daughter—phew!) and convenient explanation for my somewhat inconsistent reactions to the infractions.

See, I think this is more than one problem.

Sure, the expected sibling rivalry is part of the issue. Sometimes Ingrid tips Iris over on purpose, and it's clearly because she is mad or jealous or feeling something she doesn't know what to do with.

But those other kids on Tuesday were doing exactly the same stuff to my baby as her big sister does, and they are not mourning their lost place in their mother's heart. They have other reasons for squishing the little one. And so does Ingrid. Here's what I think some of those reasons are:

For one thing, they are figuring out what's acceptable. They know people get worked up about hitting and pinching. But what really counts as hitting and pinching, and what's a nudge or a tap? A lot of what Ingrid does to Iris, she does just to see what will happen. ("Does this hurt her? How about this?")

I also think there must be some question in the three-year-old mind as to what sort of creature a nine-month-old really is. She sidles around the house holding onto things, and she gets in the way, but she doesn't respond to "excuse me" the way a person should, nor does she scurry away from a little push the way a cat sometimes does. What's a three-year-old supposed to do with that? Do the same things hurt her as would hurt a big kid? Or is she more like a stuffed animal?

And the last thing may be unique to Ingrid: I think that sometimes Iris gets all up in her face and she is too overloaded by the sensation of being pulled or leaned on (or the drama of having her carefully arranged toys messed with) to react in an acceptable way. Even when she remembers that she shouldn't push, she's so blinded by sensory overload that she can't find a way to get the baby off her without breaking the rules.

None of this, of course, means that it's ok to squish the baby. But it means that I have, all of a sudden, a lot more—much needed—sympathy for Ingrid. I can now think about this problem without thinking of her (baby harmer!) or myself (awful second-child-having Mama!) as a monster.

And it means that, while I always let Ingrid know it's not ok to squish, bite, hit, jab, etc., I can't treat all of these incidents as though they are exactly the same problem. "Go and hit a pillow instead" doesn't help when what's needed is "Ask Mama for help when you feel that way" or "Iris needs her hands on the couch to be able to stand up" or "If someone touched you like that it would hurt, so it hurts Iris, too." Pushing the baby over in clear, intentional expression of anger gets you a four-minute time out, even if you are only just three. Pushing her out of your face when you're overstressed by having your face pulled on and don't know what to do just gets you a firm "no" and a few minutes of being ignored while I comfort the baby, and then, when everyone's calmer, a talk about better ways to get some space for yourself.

The hard-core behaviorists out there will tell me this is wrong, wrong, wrong. But in this case—these cases, really—I don't think blind consistency is fair. Or—based on several weeks' really, really consistent time outs on the stairs—very effective. I think that all I can do is react as appropriately as I can to each squishing incident, and—more important—be really on top of the preemptive separation and redirection.

I see glimmers that Ingrid is learning what needs to be learned, but it's slow, and it's hard to imagine when it's going to end. I find myself looking forward to the day when Iris learns to squish back and I can let them duke it out on their own without worrying so much about the uneven match. Hopefully, by that time, they'll have both learned a lot of good words to use instead.


  1. You know, I think I'm coming to the same conclusion about consistency. I've always parented in fear of producing a child like my little brother turned out to be and I've always blamed my parents for being so inconsistent with consequences for him. But as my four-year-old son's behavior got to be more and more challenging, I started realizing that consistency alone wasn't making things better. So I've been trying more of a "let the punishment (or response) fit the crime" approach with some success. Sometimes, he does need comforting or help rather than a time out.

  2. I completely agree that 2 and 3 year olds just do this, and I've had the same issues with my boys doing that stuff even though it's not a sibling. And actually, they're squashing each other constantly right now, not fighting per se, and they almost never hit or kick, but squashing. I think they like the sensory input of squeezing and being squeezed, and I find myself unconsciously doing a lot of "compression" stuff with them when they're wound op or crabby. We are also constantly pulling the boys off of the dog and cat -they even poke at them with they're feet, which drives me insane. I cannot abide cruelty to animals, even if they aren't trying to hurt them. It's hard to remember that they're normal, and not just little brutes. I also totally get you on the consistency thing, except that with us, it's with tantrums, not squashing. N has two rather distinct kinds of tantrums, both of which involve screaming and crying. I can usually tell which is which pretty easily, because the "meltdown" kind are over entirely inconsequential things. The other kind is the garden variety "but I waaaaant that" tantrum, where he's really trying to get his way. The first kind of tantrum gets my sympathy and my loving support as he works through it. He can't really help it, and ignoring or being unsympathetic makes it much worse. The second kind, well, he can scream all he wants in his room, and when he calms down, he's welcome to come out and join us. Now try explaining that to the MIL, or even the spouse (who now does finally get it). Tough stuff. I think your perspective on it is right on, though.

  3. Jamie actually vocalizes part of your theory with us. He'll hit, we'll tell him it's not gentle, and he'll pat, asking if that's ok. Then he'll pat harder, or pinch or whatever, continually escalating until he's reached the "no" point.

    I think consistency of intent is what is important. How you arrive can and should be flexible at this age.

    Do you read the "your one/two/three year old" series by ames and ilg? the three year old volume cracks me up. Basically, it tells you that your child will push you (the mother's) buttons the most, on purpose of course, and that if you're not using a babysitter, get the kid in nursery school, and otherwise, just get through each day intact, whatever that may require. And those are the "experts!"

  4. I feel your pain! we tried all the things you've tried too. We have a collection of battered dolls and stuffed animals. (And believe me, Lucy wasn't the only one doing the battering! Many a stuffed kitty has been thrown against the wall by this harried mama!)

    The first day she said "I like him," I nearly died. I couldn't believe it!

    Two days later she was back at it: hitting,scratching, pinching--I think it may go on forever.

    Here's some humor for ya. Once, in an ill-fated attempt to teach her to start feeling compassion and empathy, I tried the ol' "Don't scratch his face honey, that hurts the baby." (thinking that of course she would think, oh, well, then in that case, I'll stop right now!) her response? "But I waaaant to hurt him"

    For about a week every time she got near her baby brother she said, "I want to hurt him", which, in a way, I guess, is actually a good thing. She recognized the impulse and (even better) gave me warning enough to get some distance between the two of them-fast.

    I feel your pain, though, this sibling rivalry--it is exhausting in its own kind of way.

  5. That is so interesting--the mind of a three-year-old.

    Not eager to navigate this myself.