"Smart, audacious and often hilarious. Takes everything you thought you knew about parenting and turns it on its ear." - Jennifer Jason Leigh


Given the almost universal meaning of spitting at someone as a sign of disrespect, I can see how some parents take it personally and respond indignantly with some variation on “Don’t you dare spit at me…I’m your mother and no child of mine is going to …”

But do you really think your child is thinking “I spit on you! You low class…blah blah blah?”

Because they’re not. Their spitting is  NOT pre-meditated disrespect.

But it is a sign of anger.

Overwhelmed young people literally can’t self-regulate and don’t have the wear-with-all to say, “Excuse me Mom, I’m really angry right now. I feel like no one is caring about what’s going on for me. I don’t want to go to that party. I feel like I haven’t had enough time with you. You’ve been with the baby forever and now I’m supposed to just get in the car and I’m hungry and I want to play with you and I don’t give a shit about some friend turning four.”

Or whatever.

So they spit.

But they don’t consciously CHOOSE to spit.

They’re not thinking, Hmm, should I spit at Mom, or should I hit her?

Unfortunately, it seems that spitting is so offensive to some parents that they don’t focus on the cause (anger, confusion, hurt, panic, fear…)  and instead focus on the symptom (spitting). This, I believe, leads to more rage. And, ultimately, down the road will likely result in a kid having ZERO interest in sharing their true feelings with their adult loved ones because if they don’t do it “right” then they know they’ll just get in more trouble. Who needs that?

My thoughts about a spitting child would be, Wow, she’s spitting. She must really be in pain. How can I help?

My actual response to them might be something like, “You’re sooo angry. So angry you’re spitting at me. I don’t like to be spit on but you can you push my hands or hit the sofa or scream. We’ll work through this together. But yes…get the anger out first.” Likely I’d say it in fewer words!

What I wouldn’t say is, “Don’t you spit at me! No child of mine will be allowed to be a disrespectful…..” because…

Admonishing the spitter for spitting leads to more anger which leads to more spitting.

Understanding the pain beneath the spitting leads to more understanding and trust and closeness which ultimately eradicates the spitting.

(And is threatening, shaming or punishing really how one wants to earn respect? And while certainly your can scare or threaten your child into not spitting it doesn’t mean they are truly respecting you, they are just conforming to the way you want them to act so you can feel respected even if you aren’t. I mean, you can’t really teach respect by being disrespectful. Can you?)

Here’s a short, relevant selection from a book I HIGHLY recommend called Becoming the Parent You Want to Be by Laura Davis:

“Behind every behavior is an impulse or an attempt to communicate that can be supported. Even “hostile” gestures can come from a basic desire to communicate.

People hurt others only as much as they themselves are hurting. When they hurt others it is because they are often feeling hurt, mad or scared themselves. A child who pushes another child out of the toy car may be feeling crowded and scared.

When a child is hurting other children it may be hard to remember that he’s feeling vulnerable or scared himself. But if you merely punish him you load more hurt onto the existing hurt. If instead you take into account his circumstances and motivation, you can approach conflict resolution from a less punitive perspective than “let’s punish the wrongdoer.”

• People in conflict are best served by mutual solution. When conflicts are resolved in a way where somebody ‘wins’ and somebody ‘loses’ there are always scores to be settled later on. Mutual solutions are far more satisfying to everyone in the long run.

• Everyone deserves to be listened to. really being able to listen to another person’s point of view while being able to clearly state your own, is at the core of effective problem solving. Listening helps people grow. Even when people’s opposing desires and needs and wants make it impossible to come up with a mutual solution, people who feel their ideas have been heard and valued experience a lot less disappointment and anger when they don’t get what they want.

•Conflicts are resolved only when each person in the conflict is finished with the interaction.

If you think about it, spitting, if you delete the sign of disrespect adults have attached to it that young children would have no way of knowing,  is far less hurtful than hitting—physically speaking. It’s only saliva. Saliva may feel wet and unexpected but come on, there are plenty of times people welcome it on their bodies….like when they french kiss.

And really I’d say, “If you want to spit, let’s do it outside. Or over here where I can easily wipe it up.” If a child time and again is patiently offered helpful language like “I need space” or “Please listen to me” or I’m frustrated” they won’t need to be told not to spit, they’ll just go to something more effective.

And all will be well with the world!



19 Responses to “WHEN YOUR KID SPITS AT YOU”

  1. deborah lewis says:

    Love this. My 5 year old recently spit on her aunt. They were playing and my daughter began to get really silly by doing silly faces then spit on her aunt. My daughter thought she was funny by spitting on her aunt.

  2. Dana says:

    Great piece, but I have a question. What if the spitting isn’t done out of anger, but because the child thinks it’s hysterically funny? Then what?

  3. CMBG says:

    This is a different sort of spitting … but maybe not, because it still has to do with adult interpretations of children’s actions.

    My son has Tourette’s. Sometimes you wouldn’t know it; other times it’s more obvious. At a playground when he was about seven, there was a two-year-old who loved to follow DS around. This was maybe the third time we’d seen that child (and his dad, over yonder, reading a book). During that particular season, DS had a spitty sort of tic, like he was blowing dust off his lips in a kind of exaggerated way. The toddler picked this up. After a long time, his dad came looking for him, and the tot made the spitty sound at the dad. The dad was mad!!! He wondered WHY his boy had SPIT at him! He was not to do that again! Tot was baffled. I was glad I saw this, so I could explain to the dad that my son had Tourette’s and was currently making that spitting sort of noise, and his son had picked it up by imitation, and he meant nothing at all by it — he was just imitating the big kid. Whew. Some people and their assumptions about their babies!!

  4. Thank you! So eloquent, and so true. I had a day full of “spitting” (though it wasn’t spitting, it was other things, like dumping milk, kicking, biting, pinching, etc) yesterday, and wrote about it on my blog. I can’t get enough language from other like-minded parents and early childhood professionals. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  5. Lynn says:

    Thanks for this piece. Everything I’ve read so far makes me the bad guy. Thank you for not doing that. I can look at how I am contributing to his level of frustration, but so many things I’ve read demand that you call your every parenting move into question.

    My son was never a biter, but he has been a spiter!!!

    Thanks, again!!

    • Jennifer says:

      hi lynn,

      thanks for writing in. i’m glad that i’m able to provide a new perspective. mainly i try to get adults to see the world from a child’s pov.

      and because a reward and punish approach to parenting is the dominant way people raise their kids in our culture, i do think we need to question our every parenting move to see if it is fostering connection between parents and child and helping children find developmentally appropriate ways to express themselves. etc.

      i appreciate your open mind!

      all the best,

  6. Ania says:


    This is a great piece, for a number of reasons… But above all, I appreciate that you are saying something very important, something that I think might be one of the roots of everything (well, a lot of things :) that is wrong with our world – we focus on the symptoms. We want to *deal* with the symptoms (headache? Here take the pill. Headache again? Here, take another one), we worry about *getting rid* of the symptoms (stop screaming, don’t be angry, get up…), but we don’t want to worry about something we should worry about: the cause. You nailed it, again. Thanks!

  7. [...] to my delight, while I´m working with the ¨You are stupid!¨ in my house, Jennifer recently wrote When Your Kid Spits at You which is exactly the same thing. If you need some parenting model and practical advice, go to her [...]

  8. Aliena says:

    Thank you!
    This could not be more timely. My 5 year old spat on me yesterday while hitting and kicking me.
    We do not spank and we practice AP but sometimes it is really hard not to get caught up in reacting rather than curing and listening.
    This keeps me focused on parenting with my whole heart and dismissing the years of teachings that did little to help raise loving, independent,children in ways that are respectful.
    I greatly appreciate the resource and the support!

    • Jennifer says:

      so glad the timing was right.

      all of that hitting and kicking is a child in pain trying to ask for help.

      hard to remember in the moment sometimes, but just so damn important.

      thanks for writing in.


  9. Kaitlin says:

    I love this because spitting can be replaced with just about anything, like flailing on the floor, hitting or screaming. Each time my daughter shows these signs of extreme frustration, sadness or anger, I try to remember what you’ve written in this blog post. Thank you for writing it and reinforcing the understanding that a child acting out is a child in need.

  10. Great piece. My kids saw somebody spit on the sidewalk recently and we had a discussion about it.

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