If I Had a Hammer

How do children learn to solve problems without violence?

a toy hammer

Kaïs has a hammer in his hand. He’s not quite three, so it’s a toy hammer.

A boy Kaïs’ age grabs for the hammer. Kaïs struggles with him. After a while, none claim victory, and Kaïs shouts for help.

“Wilfried!” He is the sociologist watching this daycare affair. He pretends not to hear.

“Mirna!” She is the daycare assistant. She is busy with something else, and does not come.

And so, Kaïs hits the boy, firmly, several times.

He keeps the hammer.

When a parent drops their toddler off at daycare, they hope that the child will be safe and learn new things.  

They learn, but safety is not guaranteed.  Parents and the daycare assistants know intimately that children, without supervision, may use physical force to get what they want. They fear that, if left unchecked, toddlers will grow into violence-wielding adults in a society where disputes are meant to be solved through talking and mediation.  

Wilfried Lignier spent over 80 hours, over a period of months, at a public daycare center in Paris. He observed the daily activities of nearly 30 toddlers and several daycare assistants. He wondered how toddlers grow into adulthood.

He wondered how children learn to solve problems without violence.


The Hit Parade

Children do good when they can, as child psychologist Ross Greene often says, but they struggle to contain all of their ideas, desires, and emotions.

Everywhere toddlers go – home, shops, playgrounds, daycare – they learn how to get what they want by talking and playing with people who are also trying to get what they want.   

Dr. Lignier offers an insight into how toddlers learn by telling the story of Aaron and Pablo.

One day, Aaron held Pablo up against a wall and put a plastic toy in Pablo’s ear. Pablo, frightened, did not move. He said, “Aaron, you’re not fighting!” The words had no obvious effect.

Dr. Lignier decided to intervene. He went closer to Aaron and Pablo. Aaron let Pablo go and put the toy in the ear of the sociologist, who complained a bit. Aaron then repeatedly hit the sociologist on the head.

“I’m chicotting you!” Aaron exclaimed.

Daycare assistants, unless they want to get fired, prohibit toddlers from using physical violence to solve problems. When Aaron “chicots” or otherwise violently aggresses his fellow toddlers, the daycare assistants intervene.

In doing so, the assistants teach the children a new means to control others, to resist, and, maybe, to win.

They teach them the language of authority.


Cry Havoc

One December day, little Ibtissam managed to get to the mezzanine floor. There she found her colleague Maurice. She pushed him. He fell down. The assistant saw it and said, “I am not sure he likes it…”

Ibtissam was not deterred for long. She found Lola and did the same. This time, the assistant was more insistent and exclaimed, “She doesn’t feel like it, leave her alone!”

The toddlers fought, but they also listened.

Eventually, they learned.

Next year, in early June, Andy and some of his colleagues played the same game as Ibtissam. Andy pushed down Pablo. Andy is, generally, a gentle boy. He is certainly not as strong as Pablo. When Pablo attempted to push Andy down, tit-for-tat, Andy exclaimed, “No, no!! I don’t feel like it, I don’t feel like it!”

Fights can happen because there is not enough to go around, sociologists of war often say. Daycare has only so many toy hammers or puzzles or even daycare assistants and some of these become scarce favorites.

With violence eschewed, daycare toddlers have learned to brandish another kind of force.

They use words.

They use words to call for the help of adults. They use words to admonish their abrasive colleagues. To stop Aaron’s force, Pablo was using the words that he had learned. To stop Pablo’s force, Andy was using the words that he had learned.

Toddlers prepare for adulthood by using the same words that adults use to control the toddlers.

But their control is less than total. Kaïs had called for help, and when he was ignored, he reverted to physical violence.

Old habits die hard.

And Kaïs kept the hammer.



This was written by Josh Dubrow based on Wilfried LignierThe discovery of symbolic violence: How toddlers learn to prevail with words,” published in Ethnography 22, no. 2 (2021): 246-266.

The story of Kaïs, the hammer, and the boy, p. 257

“Children do good when they can” is from The Explosive Child (1998) by Ross W. Greene.

The story of Aaron and Pablo, p. 254. Aaron is of West African parentage, and chicotting is slang for hitting or whipping someone with a long stick.

The story of Ibtissam and Maurice, p. 260.

The story of Andy and Pablo, p. 261.

Copyright Occam’s Press 2021: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND

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