Over the last two years, my husband and I have watched Koukla develop in countless memorable, miraculous, remarkable ways. The first word, the first step, the first meal, the first tooth. And then another tooth and another tooth and another, until finally she had a big, full mouth full of big, strong teeth. Which brought her to the most momentous milestone of all: last week, my daughter made the move from bitee to biter.
I got the news – nearly caught her in the act – last Friday afternoon when I surprised her with an early pickup. She ran up to me as usual and told me that Johnnie had an owie. To which her teacher responded, “Johnnie has an owie because Koukla bit him.”
My first reaction was massive, mortified embarrassment. After all of my complaining, after my lack of tolerance for bad kids and my lack of trust in the teachers that I have come to know well, after all of this, now my child was the one causing trouble. And serious trouble, I should point out, because this wasn’t a mild, harmless nip. This was a big, bruising, keep ice on it the rest of the day kind of bite, worse than any of the bites Koukla had been on the receiving end of – even her unshakable favorite classroom aide seemed on the verge of tears.
Goodbye moral high ground, or so I thought. But by the time we got home I had gotten my feet right back onto that high ground view property I so love to claim sole ownership of. Why do I love my high ground so much? Because it makes throwing down excuses that much easier. Excuses like these: the lead teacher had been out sick for two weeks with no prior notice given to the parents, leaving a vacuum of leadership and order in the class; it had been raining for two days straight, which meant the children had been cooped up inside the tiny classroom for hours on end with no alternate activities (which, this being LA, they’re not at all used to); and most importantly, Koukla had been bitten at least three times in the past six months alone (and that I know of), so of course all she was doing was modeling the behavior that was witnessed and condoned in other kids.
This week my husband and I also happened to finish touring our local Montessori schools and putting in toddler transfer applications for the upcoming school year. We witnessed two-year-olds playing quietly, cleaning up after themselves, setting the lunch table for their classmates, whispering to the teacher when they needed help. We were assured by multiple headmistresses that any act of aggression leads to exclusion for the day, or longer if necessary. Couching the biting episode in this context left even more room for excuses, even more room for that comfy it’s not my fault smugness.
But then came the weekend. I went to sleep Friday night with a sagging sense of self-certainty, and woke up with a sadness so immense I could barely even put it into words. Surely Koukla’s big bite was a sign that I had failed as a parent, that those maternal instincts I pride myself on have been dead wrong since day one. I began to go back through every minute of every day, began to examine every interaction with a fine tooth comb. Because this is not just normal toddler behavior (surely the toddlers in Montessori didn’t go around biting each other!), this is a sign of my failure as a model and guide.
All weekend I kept it to myself, stewing in my soup of mixed emotions, some old, some new, starting with that tired loop of wishing I could be a stay at home mom so I could teach her proper behavior and habits, all the way to new questions about whether this isn’t just a new, nasty phase in her development as a human being, whether we aren’t all just psychopaths at our core, whether Koukla could ever survive in a no tolerance environment. What if this meant that now I would be the parent of the bad kid who bites? What if this meant that her future choices would be constant suspensions from strictly supervised schools or hectic and overcrowded classrooms where anything goes?
I vowed to apologize to the little boy’s parents, vowed to find a solution so this would never happen again, vowed to give other biters the benefit of the doubt. And then I talked to another mom from class whose son has been the victim of biting as often as my daughter.
Her reaction? Way to go Koukla!
Turns out, the poor little boy who Koukla scarred for life is quite the playground bully. This mother and her husband have regularly witnessed him pushing his little classmates around, so my mommy friend – who I worried would never let Koukla and her son play together again – was relieved that someone had finally given him his come-uppance.
Which of course added a whole new layer of confusion to the story that kept weaving itself thicker and knottier in my head. Koukla the avenger?
It’s been nearly a week since my understanding of my daughter as the strong but sweet most perfect child in the class was shattered, and I’m still no closer to understanding. But what I am closer to is acceptance. Not acceptance of destructive or harmful behavior, but acceptance of the fact that I can no more understand the motivations of a two-year-old than I can understand what makes her love bread and love cheese but hate cheese sandwiches. All I can do is respond with discipline when needed, with encouragement when in order, and with love in every moment.