Keenan also cites evidence of how girl and boy children are treated differently. One study showed that mothers tended to discipline aggressive daughters by pointing out the consequences of their behavior on their peers, whereas mothers with aggressive boys tended to respond with punishment. In another study, "mothers of boys supported their own children in the context of peer conflicts three times as often as did the mothers of girls. Furthermore, mothers tended not to support their daughters when their rights of ownership had been violated." Both a comparative lack of affectionate touch and more confrontational disciplinary techniques used for boys can have a significant effect on how they learn to relate physically to other children in their early years.
The Difference between Aggression and Rough-and-Tumble Play
At this point, parents may well be asking how they can tell if their child is aggressive. Most definitions of aggression involve the traditional no-nos of kicking, hitting, and biting, but a widely accepted standard has not yet been established as to the frequency or intensity of such behavior. Keenan sums up this dilemma by noting that "many professionals are concerned about pathologizing (i.e., labeling as a disorder) behavior that is developmentally normal."
The good news for parents is that toddlers' occasional outbursts of anger and frustration don't necessarily indicate a behavioral problem. They do, however, represent the potential for one if parents fail to guide their children toward socially appropriate responses to their feelings. As psychiatrist James M. Herzog explains in Sesameworkshop.org, "By the second birthday, children (and parents) should be able to recognize that getting angry from time to time is perfectly normal, and that there are good and bad ways of expressing this emotion."
However, not all aggressive behavior in toddlers is the product of anger or frustration. In her book How to Get the Best from Your Children, Jo "Supernanny" Frost says that some of the violence that young children do is merely exploratory in nature. For example, often a young child "won't know that kicking someone will hurt. It just seemed like a good idea for the nanosecond it flashed through his head." Regardless of motive, however, if the behavior was bad, Frost stipulates that the child needs to be disciplined (her suggestion is the famous Naughty Step technique).
The difference between aggression and rough play in young children emerges in the fine and often-crossed line between play fighting and real fighting. Greg Uba, a former pre-kindergarten teacher and contributor to the website for the southern California childcare TV series A Place of Our Own, explains that the difference between the two types of fighting is something he can feel more than see: "Kids aren't always smiling during rough and tumble play–sometimes they're working hard to demonstrate their ability to be competent–but generally, it's in the spirit of play. Aggression has a spirit of dominating and intimidation."