4 Year Old Spitting; Positive Discipline Suggestions?

Updated on June 02, 2009
C.B. asks from Astoria, NY
12 answers

Hi Moms,

I have a four year old boy who has picked up the horrible habit of spitting (on me, in the house, on the train etc.) He knows he's being an outlaw, and he gets intoxicated by it. I am working hard on using non punitive postive discipline methods (problem solving oriented), no time outs (cool down period ok), not to mention that when I have tried these more traditional methods in the past, they invariable back fire (I might as well ask him to redouble his efforts rather than stop). He gets more giddy than "obedient" or remorseful. I've talked about germs (we've seen them under a microscope), I've explained that it is rude, hurts peoples feelings, is dirty and so on. We have developed a list of places he can and can not spit, and when he spits in the house I cheerfully walk him to the bathroom where he can spit, and tell him he can come out when done. (sometimes effective, sometimes not). Please, I am not looking for any punitive or shameing methods. I am hoping for some creative solution oriented suggestions. I can't even think of logical consequences that fit, especially on the train.

Any suggestions are welcome!


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answers from New York on

I have had some experience in this department and in fact I just went through this with my 3 year old[ my 10th child]. I also beleive in the type of parenting you explained so I can agree that it is difficult to find ways to change behavior.
What worked for me was to say to my son, I see you need a kiss and I would go and give him a really big kiss on the cheek. This allowed him to have that giddy feeling that they seem to get form spitting after we have given them the rules. Since this is often a need for attention you are substituting negative attention with positive.
I then told him this was something special between him and I and that he could not share these "kisses" with anyone else. This stopped him from spitting on others.
To get him to stop spitting on things you may want to get a small spray bottle put a little water in it and have him have clean what he spits on. This also shows him he has to be responsible for cleaning up his "germs".
I hope these suggestions work for you. Just remember it is an attention getting behavior which soon shall pass.

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answers from New York on

He gets a kick out of spitting on you, because he knows he's "the outlaw"? And you're looking for non-punative measures and being cheerful with him? Think about how this sounds. You are permitting and encouraging your child to be disrespectful to you. He is choosing to be disobedient, if you are telling him that he's not allowed. That's called defiance, and punishment is the natural consequence if a parent wants to stop defiant behavior. If my child was spitting on me for fun (of course, my kids are way past that age), you can bet there'd be punative consequences, and the spitting issue would be over immediately rather than being on ongoing issue where you're not successful in breaking him of this disrespectful and gross habit. Sorry if that sounds harsh to you or not what you wanted to hear, but truth is truth.

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answers from New York on

ALL kids want and need boundaries. For some reason you do not want to give your son boundaries or consequences. You want to be his friend and cheerfully allow him to do whatever he pleases thinking you will raise a well adjusted adult. I ask you what will happen when he gets older and finds out that the consequences for his outlandish behavior is not cheerful, but rather quite harsh? I am assuming you plan to home school since he would not be allowed to spit in school. IMO your son is begging for discipline instead of a buddy. You dont need to hit him to correct him, but it needs to be something unpleasant or else its not a punishment. What would you do if he spit on an old lady on the train?

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answers from New York on

For the first time on this forum I am speechless. Nan and Mindy said it perfect for me. CHILDREN NEED DISCIPLINE!!! It is not punitive or shaming to teach your child rules, or how to show RESPECT and act RESPECTFUL.

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answers from New York on


I would suggest getting a book on manners.

teaching him manners at an early age will help him through out his entire life.

In addition I would teach him some virtues.


Above is a link for a great book with lots of family activities, for teaching kids Virtues.

Get him involved in a Childrens class

Its a great way to surround your kid, with like minded parents and children. Your creating opportunity for him to learn thru example, and providing a forum to teach him.

This is what works for my 3 rambunctious boys.

Good Luck!

Mom to 3 boys ages 13, 4, and 3

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answers from New York on

I like a system of discipline called Concious Discipline or Loving Guidance. Anyway from the way I understand it, I would give the child a choice. Once you are convinced (as it seems you are) that you have explained the where's and why's of spitting and that he understands them. I would explain that he has a choice. When he wants/needs to spit he must go into the bathroom, "you may not spit where other people are, it is not safe for us and we do not like it" If you choose to spit outside of the bathroom you are choosing to spend some time by yourself in the bathroom or your bedroom (your choice). You may join us again when you are ready to keep the spit inside your mouth.
I don't think of this as a time out because he is in complete control as to how much time he spends there or if he goes at all. Also it directly correlates to the undesired behavior, "spitting is not safe for others so you may not be around others if you choose to spit" I think your calm manner is great, just keep it up and stick to your guns. Your child knows you are there to keep him and others safe and if you stick to your decisions he will feel confident that you will also keep him safe whenever needed. Children need to know there are limits on behavior to feel loved and cared for. These limits are put on behavior for everyone's safety not to punish anyone and presented in this way he will begin to understand this. Good Luck

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answers from New York on

I am dealing with far less sophisticated behavioral problems since my son is only 2, but he is testing us none the less. He refuses to pick up his toys, fights us changing his diaper, takes his fork at dinner time and puts dents in the wood table while he is looking at us because he knows its not allowed and running away from us and the nanny in the park (dangerous!!). So my husband and I are diving headlong into discipline styles...
I think there are a couple things going on here...Your son's behavior is completely disrespectful and out of line. I understand where you are coming from on the positive reinforcement, even though I am an advocate of
traditional punisments. I think you have to tailor your style to your shild, not everyting works for every child. A couple pointers that come to mind after reading all the responses.
I don't think it matters if you call it a cool down period or a time out, if he is temporarily losing the access to you or his toys, it is the same thing. I don't think time outs are as much about shaming as they are about cooling down and allowing the child to gain perspective on his actions. I have tried waiting until my son stops crying in a time out to "begin" the time out (he doesn't ever stop) I have tried to make the time out the punishment by completely moving on once the time out is over (he won't move on, he always wants to talk about what he has done afterwards and only then will he get it) I have heard advice about not putting him in the crib during time out so that he doesn't associate negativity with his bed, but he won't stay anywhere that he isn't confined. So we have all (me, hubby, nanny and baby) come to an agreement about what works for him. He gets a short time out (less than 5 minutes), it is in his crib, and when we are done we talk about what he has done and then we apologize and move on. It works for us, because I feel like I paid attention to what got the positive results in the first place.
I also think that perhaps a perspective shift for you is in order. it is at least something that I would be open to thinking about. Negative consequences do not necessarily have to be shaming. you can limit activities, take toys away for specified periods of time (he is old enough to understand that something he does now is going to affect the future in simple ways), you can have him clean up his spit, and if he does it on the train, you get off the train and go home. I understand that may not be possible if you are going to day care, or work or other necessary places, but if you are going somewhere fun though, that's what I would suggest. And in explaining the consequences I would explain the cause and effect simply, "when you spit on the train, we turn around and go home", in much the same way that you would say "when you turn on the faucet, water comes out". You don't have to yell or shame him to teach him what happens when he misbehaves.
Although I would describe myself as having very definite views of what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior and what I will and won't tolerate in my house, I do believe in second chances for little guys. When my son throws his fork on the floor during mealtime, I tell him I won't give it back. When he cries for it I tell him, "okay, Mommy wants you to eat with a fork, but if you drop it again she is not giving it back". and then he ALWAYS does it again, and I ALWAYS take it away for good. the consistency helps. And he needs to see that the CHOICE (and I do believe it is a choice) to misbehave is all his and thus the consequences are too. I am big on encouraging independence and autonomy. So the focus in my house is getting my son to make positive behavior choices, rather than to make his behavior conform to my specifications. However, I make sure that he knows that there are negative consequences to certain actions and that tey are always the same. And some things are more dire than others, hitting other kids is never tolerated, neither is stealing toys, and some things like throwing down your fork at dinner is naughty but isn't going to provoke a seriously negative response like other behavior would.
And lastly, we never tell Johnny that he is bad. I think that word has too many meanings for most kids to really get it, food goes bad, cheating spouses are bad, a really great song is bad (or used to be hahaha!), but my 2 year old's behavior is 'naughty'. Naughty is a behavior specific word that has nothing to do with who my son is. Even good people can behave in a naughty way.
Hope this helps.

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answers from New York on

Disclaimer: my little guy hasn't turned 4 yet. But boy has his behavior changed -- he knows far more about negotiating and persisting. Sigh.

Two ideas I had when reading your post:
--negative discipline: take a toy away each time he spits. Have a top shelf in the closet and he can have the toys that have been hidden (from his spitting germs, maybe?) once he has had one whole day without inappropriate spitting. It may grow to two or three shelves by the time he gets it! You could have a day where you greet him in the morning with, "Today is the day you're going to earn those toys back!" and compliment him for each 10 minutes that go by without incident.
--positive discipline: this is my new cure-all for irritating behaviors. Three cans, two rolls of pennies; all pennies go in the middle "neutral" can. When he's good, 1-5 pennies go into the "good choices" can, depending on just how delightful the good choices are; when he makes bad decisions, into the "bad choices" can. The next time you go to the grocery store, he gets to spend his good pennies on something (though maybe 50 cents won't go so far nowadays!) OR you could play a game: don't spit for one minute, you get a penny, now let's try two minutes, now four, and one penny for completing a block of time without spitting.

Good luck!

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answers from New York on

Dear C., I know that you are looking for "creative" ways to stop your child from spitting, but from reading your request, it sounds like you gave up too soon on the timeouts. He is giddy when you try to put him in timeout because he can read you like a book. Try the timeout again and be consistent. I think today the kids have the power and so they test the limits of the parents. If you do not discipline your child (not necessarily with shame or spankings) you will not be able to go anywhere where you won't be embarrassed by him. Learn to be firm without being cruel and you will be helping your child, not hurting him. When you go somewhere and he behaves well, praise him alot. I hope this is helpful. At his age, showing him germs in a microscope is not going to help him stop spitting.

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answers from Syracuse on

I would make him clean it up when he spits somewhere innappropriate, I don't consider this punitive because you are not yelling at him or punishing him, just explain to him that if he spits in a place that he is not supposed to he must clean it himself, even if you are on a train, keep a purse pack of tissues with you so there is always something to make him clean it up with.

As for spitting on you, I can't think of a non-punitive, response to that, I think I would lose it if my daughter started spitting on me on a regular basis.

It sounds like he loves the attention he gets for spitting and that may be why he doesn't stop. Maybe you could set up a deal with him if you want to work on positive reinforcement where if he is good all day he gets a sticker on a chart that he can trade in for treats such as playing a game with you, or something else that would give him your undivided attention. Don't give attention for being bad, only for being good.

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answers from New York on

Well C., reasoning with a 4 year old doesn't always work. If you don't want to punish him... make him clean up the spit when he does it in the house. on the train, if it's not to busy make him wipe it up too. other than that taking away a privilege is a possibility.. sometimes a 4 year old needs a time out.
good luck, boys can be challenging.



answers from New York on

Dear C.,

First of all, I don't think you're doing something wrong by taking a positive-discipline-oriented approach. I think there's some truth to what some of the other moms are saying about boundaries, but I DO think it's possible to raise happy, functioning adults without a heavy-handed "I'm the boss" approach to parenting. My own mom was a very laid-back, 70s-style, don't-crush-their-spirits type, and I haven't held up any convenience stores yet.

What I strongly believe is that in these cases, kids don't need to *just* hear "no." And whether that "no" is delivered strongly or gently isn't the point. What kids need instead is an *alternative.* Okay, your son wants to be an outlaw. There are wonderful ways of being an outlaw, and there are a whole lot of very un-wonderful ways. Spitting is just the beginning of the latter. Instead of focusing so much attention on the spitting, do you think it would work to buy him a bandit costume? or a dracula costume? What about something that's in equal measures gross and educational, like a science kit involving worms? Whatever you go with, your son may need a certain amount of "eeew, eeek, get those fangs [or whatever] away from me! I cannot possibly cook dinner with bloodsucking vampires in the kitchen!" from you.

In other words, behind many, many "bad" behaviors there is a perfectly legitimate need. The challenge is finding a reasonable, constructive expression of that need. In your son's case, emphasizing how bad spitting is, even if you really ratchet up the punishment, probably won't work, because he *wants* to be bad. There may even be a risk that if he keeps hearing about how badly he's behaving, he'll take the "bad kid" label as a fundamental part of his identity.

Having a subversive spirit can be wonderful; I already like your son, just thinking about him. But it really, really needs to be channeled. And you actually sound like perfect mom for the job.

Best wishes, and sorry that was so long and rambly,


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