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My daughter is almost five and she has started spitting at me when she gets mad.


My daughter is almost five, and she has started spitting at me when she gets mad. I thought telling her how I feel about it and that it was unacceptable would help, that we could find something else for her to express herself during those times would help, but she seems to enjoy doing it now that she knows I don't like it. I tried putting her in time out, and I've tried ignoring it, but she will only spit more, then she starts calling me names. I thought maybe she was trying to get attention, but I spend a good part of my day playing and reading and spending time with her.

Also she whines. Example: Yesterday we took a shower. When we got out everything was going fine. I started to brush my teeth and she started to whine. I ignored her and left the room to go make the beds. She followed me. Whining louder. I told her she sounded very sad and that when she calmed down she could tell me what was wrong because I can't hear her when she whines. When she calmed down she told me she was whining because she wanted to go downstairs. Does that make sense?

I e-mailed yesterday about a problem I was having with her behavior, but I forgot to put this in. I hope I'm not taking advantage. I have Positive Discipline for preschoolers and from A-Z, but I feel like I need advice specific to me sometimes. The books by the way have saved me from a lot of stress and questioning of my parenting abilities.

Thank you


It can be so difficult to avoid taking it personally when a child spits, but it is not personal. Four-year-olds (and almost five is still four) lack some skills, but are very good at others. My guess is that your daughter doesn't have the skills to communicate her disappointment or anger in acceptable ways, but she does have the skill to get you hooked. You have already learned that talking to her doesn't do any good. Time out (which doesn't sound like "Positive Time Out" that she chooses) only makes her madder and better and hooking you.

Dreikurs used to say, "Keep your mouth shut and act." It is also called, "decide what you will do instead of what you will make your child do." Deciding what you will do is the best way to model respectful behavior so long as what you decide to do is respectful. So, what would this look like? You might decide that whenever she spits, you will leave. Go to the bathroom and shut the door. (Good place to clean yourself up anyway). Keep a good book to read. Oh, I forgot to mention that you should let her know in advance what you are going to do. Kindly and firmly say, "Spitting is very disrespectful. I can't make you act respectfully, but I will respect myself by leaving. I will go to the bathroom and lock the door. I will come back out when I feel safe (from spitting) or when you let me know you are ready to treat me respectfully. Talk about this during a calm time when no one is upset. You might ask, "What is your understanding of what I will do when you spit?" If she can't tell you, give prompts until she can repeat what you will do. After that it is very important to "keep you mouth shut" when you follow through and do what you said you would do.

Children of this age (and, really, all ages) understand action better than words. Words just give them fuel to defeat you. If you are both kind and firm, chances are that she will have a temper tantrum for awhile (she won't like it that she can't "hook" you any more) until she realizes it won't work. (Children don't do things that don't work.) Then she may tell you she is ready for you to come out. When you come out, do some more follow through. Ask her if she would like to put the problem of spitting on the family meeting agenda, or if she would like you to. Then wait until your regularly scheduled, weekly family meeting and brainstorm about other things she could do when she feels frustrated or angry. (Four-year-olds are very good at problem-solving during a family meeting. Let me know if this works.

I have also included below, an excerpt from our book Positive Discipline: A Teacher's A-Z Guide . Even though this was written for teachers, I think you find some good information on spitting. Watch our website www.positivediscipline.com in the next week or so for an article on whining that will answer your other question.



When someone starts to yell angrily, responses vary: one child bristles; another cowers; a third yells back. But when someone spits, the instinctive response is to recoil. There is something more primitive about spitting. In many cultures, spitting at someone is a sign of mortal enmity. Given our strong feelings about spitting, dealing with it in the school setting is especially difficult.

It's important to keep in mind, however, that spitting was an acceptable habit in American society for a long time, especially during the period when gentlemen commonly chewed tobacco. Many homes and places of business provided a cuspidor or spittoon. The key here was that people who needed or wanted to spit had appropriate places to do so, making the situation respectful to the needs of all.

These days, as in years past, boys may try to outspit each other. They may spit on the ground as if it were a rite of passage into manhood or a way to mark their territory. Furthermore, spitting can be simply a bad habit that a child acquired by imitating someone he admires--a father, an older brother, a friend, or a hero.

The practice of spitting frequently, which annoys some teachers, usually starts off innocently and gradually becomes an irresistible impulse as the student is reminded a thousand times not to do it. Students don't plan bad habits to keep adults busy with them, but they are willing to play that game when an adult starts it. If a student likes the powerful feeling she gets from the adult's reaction, the student is more likely to continue her behavior. The more we remind, nag, and suggest, the worse the habit gets.

While spitting may be a habit, it can also be a way for a student to show that he is in control and doesn't have to follow rules. A student who feels hurt may use spitting as a way to show disrespect and thus hurt others. A student who wants to be left alone may use spitting to keep others away from her. Whatever the individual's purpose, the problem provides students and teachers with an opportunity to learn and seek solutions.


  1. Recognize your own deep-seated reaction to spitting, and make a conscious attempt to look at the situation from either a historical or a psychological perspective. When third-grader Mary spits at fifth-graders, she is probably just trying to make them pay attention to her. (It is unlikely that she is declaring them to be her tribe's most despised adversaries.) Remember that overreacting to spitting may only increase its incidence, while discovering the underlying problem creates opportunities to get students involved in problem solving and to teach important life skills.
  2. Spitting could be related to physical problems. Ask the student's parents whether there is a physical reason their child needs to spit.
  3. Don't get hooked by the repulsiveness of the behavior, and don't draw undue attention to it. Hand the student a tissue, and say kindly and firmly, "I would appreciate it if you would use this. If you need more they are on my desk."
  4. Respectfully ask a student who has spit on the playground blacktop or sidewalk to get a hose or bucket of water and rinse the spit from the area.
  5. Let students know that some behaviors are appropriate in certain settings and not in others. Spitting into a toilet is appropriate. Spitting on floors or grounds where people walk is not appropriate.
  6. Let the consequences of a student's behavior among his peers take effect. Often students will let a classmate know that spitting bothers them by saying, "That's gross!" and walking away or by avoiding the student who spits.

Planning Ahead to Prevent Future Problems

  1. 1. Young children have fairly primitive responses and behaviors. If they spit, try not to take it personally. Remember, you are the adult and have supposedly outgrown your need to engage in tribal warfare. Model self-control.
  2. Use the Mistaken Goal Chart to identify the student's reason for spitting. Encourage your student by helping him develop a plan that involves stopping himself when he wants to spit, thinking about what he could do instead to express his feelings, and then acting with respect.
  3. Talk about spitting in a class meeting. You might want to bring in a real spittoon for students to see or show a movie in which the characters use spittoons. Let the students have fun with the topic; invite them to talk about situations in which spitting is part of the scene. Have them discuss how spitting affects other people.
  4. Have your students brainstorm for solutions that are respectful to people and property. During the cold season, many children are coughing up phlegm and may need to spit into tissues. Suggestions for dealing with this might include providing a covered trash container for disposing of tissues, attaching a small plastic bag inside a child's desk to gather used tissues, or authorizing all students to get up and take a tissue from the box at any time without asking permission.

Class Meeting Solution

A group of third-grade girls put the subject of spitting on their class meeting agenda. They thought spitting was gross and wanted to let several boys in their class know how disgusted they were. Their teacher, Mrs. Sanchez, said that a first step in solving a problem might be to discuss people's thoughts and feelings about it. The girls agreed. Mrs. Sanchez guided the discussion by asking questions that helped draw out the students' attitudes about spitting.

After a general discussion and lots of laughter, it became clear that while the students thought that spitting might be appropriate in some situations, they did not think it was acceptable in the schoolyard. The students decided to check back with one another in a week to see whether simply discussing spitting had solved the problem.

During a class meeting the following week, the girls who had put the problem on the agenda admitted they had not witnessed any spitting

since their discussion. They decided they didn't need to brainstorm for solutions because spitting was no longer an issue in their class.

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