The first time it happened, I actually laughed. I was contentedly nursing Lily, my 10-month-old baby, when a sharp bite on my nipple jolted me out of my reverie. I gasped and looked down at my daughter in shock. She seemed surprised at first, then quite pleased with herself as she giggled out loud.
Her delight was so infectious that I started laughing too, even as my nipple throbbed. But when I looked back on that day two years later, I wasn't laughing anymore. Instead I was wondering whether my reaction might have been the very thing that started it all. I was even appalled to find myself wishing I had taken my baby's plump little arm in my mouth and firmly bitten her right back.
Back then, though, I had no inkling of the journey we were about to undertake. Over the next few months, Lily's nipple chomping continued. I tried to stop it by following the conventional advice: I'd sternly say, "No biting!" and abruptly end the feeding. The only problem was that Lily thought my reprimands and yelps of pain were hilarious, and she didn't seem to mind having her meal curtailed in exchange for getting to watch all of Mommy's silly antics. At that point, weaning became an act of self-defense.
Since Lily was slow to reach some physical milestones -- at 1, she wasn't crawling yet -- I didn't worry initially about her biting other children. I should have: One day, she wiggled across the room on her tummy like a baby boa constrictor and started sinking her teeth into one of her playmates. And that was just the beginning.
Now, we all know that children sometimes bite out of anger or frustration. But before long Lily's problem reached an entirely different level. A squabble over a toy? Lily would bite to defend her turf. A little boy at preschool who caught her fancy? She'd chase him into a corner and bite him with a sense of glee. A group of kids on the playground? She'd size up the crowd, choose a victim based on criteria that we could only guess at, and then -- cue up the Jaws theme song, please -- stealthily move in and bite the unsuspecting child with no provocation.
My husband and I didn't stand idly by. We used time-outs. We tried rewards for not biting. We offered teething toys as an alternative. We read her storybooks about biting children who learn the error of their ways. We had gentle, reasoned discussions about how much biting hurts and why we can't do it. We screamed and yelled inarticulately. And once, when Lily's victim was our days-old newborn and I was out of my head from sleep deprivation, I spanked her. None of it worked.
Everyone had advice for us. We were often told, "The first time she bit you, you should've bitten her right back." I knew that was a terrible idea, but in my darker hours I was so desperate that I actually wondered if, instead of laughing at that first bite, I could've "nipped" the problem in the bud.
Eventually, we turned to our preschool's child psychologist, who came up with a plan. Rather than having Lily apologize and help tend to the victim with ice or a Band-Aid, all of which gave her lots of attention, her teachers were instead to whisk her from the room without any discussion at all.
At the same time, we also curtailed Lily's opportunities for biting. As much as I wanted to make new friends, I resigned myself to the fact that playdates and Gymboree would just have to wait.
Little by little, over the next few months, Lily's biting began to taper off and finally ceased altogether about two and a half years after it began. I'd like to say that I helped reform her, but I really think that Lily just outgrew the behavior on her own mysterious little timetable.
Looking back, there's no question those years were a miserable period for me. But they also taught me some valuable lessons about being a mom. For one thing, I learned that kids don't always live up to your expectations. When a young child suddenly demonstrates his or her autonomy in unexpected and negative ways, it can be a rude shock: Surely no child of mine can be doing this! But Lily's biting showed me that, as a parent, you have no choice but to accept the whole package that is your child, the good and the bad. This was my first real-life illustration of some advice I had once heard: Raising kids is like planting seeds from a packet with no picture on it. You have to throw out any ideas about what is going to grow and just tend to the garden the best you can.
The biting problem also taught me that your child's behavior is not necessarily a reflection on you. Whether you're a stay-at-home or working mom, it's all too easy to view your son's or daughter's accomplishments as your own proud achievement -- and their less-than-stellar antics as something that can be blamed on you. But Lily's biting forced me to put a healthier distance between my kids and my ego. Of course, I still work hard every day to bring out the best in my children and to curb the worst, but I also try to remember that there are limits to what a parent can do.
Finally, I think the most valuable lesson I learned is to be much more empathetic to other parents. Before the Biting Era, if I saw a child behaving aggressively, I pompously assumed that such behavior could only be the result of negligent child-rearing. Lily's habit quickly humbled me. No matter how hard I tried to stop her and how sincerely I apologized, there were some parents who obviously blamed me for her antics. But there were lots of others who were very kind and understanding. One was an elderly woman whose grandson Lily bit one afternoon. Reaching the very end of my rope, I teared up in embarrassment and frustration when I realized what had happened. The grandmother looked at me tenderly, folded me into her arms, and said, "Honey, I have six kids, and one was a biter. It's just a stage." From women like her, I learned to be more compassionate toward my fellow soldiers in the trenches of parenthood.
Fortunately, my darkest fears from those days have not been realized: Lily, now 6, shows no signs of being a violent criminal. She is, in fact, a great kid -- bright, cooperative, and a loving big sister. Not long ago, my son got into a scuffle with Lily over a toy and bit her on the arm. Lily was utterly shocked and outraged. She came running to me in tears and showed me her injury. After chastising my son and calming Lily down, I explained to her that sometimes toddlers bite and that it's something they have to be taught not to do.
Then, in a true masterpiece of understatement, I said gently, "Sometimes when you were a little girl, honey, you bit other children too."
"Really?" Lily asked, her eyes wide. "I don't remember that." She smiled, shrugged, and jumped off the couch to play.