My baby just struck another child.

Besides being mortified at what the other kid’s mom must be thinking, my heart is breaking. I’m angry at my son. And shocked. What happened to my sweet angel? Who is this demon child that is standing in front of me, ready to strike again despite my best Dr. Sears parenting skills of gently taking his hands and telling him “No hitting?”

As parents, we will inevitably witness bullying. I just didn’t think it would happen so early, at 15 months old. I was thinking sometime closer to 3rd grade. But like so many other aspects of parenting, I thought wrong.

And now I’m left staring down the dark hole of what my son’s life will look like with no friends, and eventually my life with no Mommy friends. Blacklisted from playgroups. Because the only thing worse than a bully is the bully’s mother, right? The whispers from other moms, clustered together, judgement written all over their faces. “Can you believe her horrible parenting skills?” they’re probably sneering.

I worry and stress about my son’s violent behavior for days. I’m afraid to bring him anywhere where he’ll interact with other children.

Fast-forward another week. I’ve brought my son to a local playgroup, determined to put him in a social setting where he might learn some manners. I watch him like a hawk while he plays, swooping in when I see him ball up a tiny fist at a sweet little boy who is trying to ‘borrow’ his toy.

“No hitting,” I say for the billionth time. I remove him from the situation and set him up across the room with some other toys. Alone.

And then I look over across the room at that other seemingly well-mannered boy who I just saved from my son’s wrath. He was biting another innocent little girl for encroaching on his space in the tunnel. I freeze. Uh oh, this could get awkward.

But neither parent freaked out. The biter’s mom quickly stepped in and had a calm but stern conversation with her son. It was obvious this was not his first offense. “What did you just do?” she asked. “I bite,” he admitted. “We don’t bite our friends,” his mom lectured. “I’m sorry,” he said, sweetly patting the girl’s head. And all was forgiven. The play date continued on.

As I kept observing, I noted that almost every kid in the room both hit and shoved and received hits and shoves. I felt relieved.

My sweet baby boy is not a  monster. He is a toddler. Toddlers hit, scratch and bite. They also kiss, cuddle and hug. At this age, they’re still trying to figure out what’s right and wrong. They’re still navigating the complexity of social etiquette that I have yet to fully understand.

This is when our job of parenting requires greater responsibility and self-awareness. We need to repeatedly (and repeatedly and repeatedly) teach our little ones how to be good people. Even more challenging is our responsibility to teach through our actions. My son is incredibly observant and sometimes shocks and amuses me with the little habits he picks up from me – like the one time I burped loudly at the dinner table. He did it for a week after that.

So of course he’s observing the more important examples I’m setting – like saying “Hello” to my neighbors, smiling at the cashier at the grocery store, and saying “please” and “thank you” to our waiter. At a young age, I could tell he picked up on my anger towards other drivers who cut me off – so I’ve learned to calm down behind the wheel. He even watched curiously at the aforementioned interaction of Biter Boy’s mom and the little girl. Those moms could have yelled at each other or at least cast the evil eye. But no, they stayed calm and smiled at each other, as if to say “I totally understand your embarrassment but it’s OK

These are the lessons our babies will take with them on that first day of school when they should say “Hello” to their classmates, smile at their teacher, and say “please” and “thank you” when it’s time to share a toy. It’s the lesson they’ll take to high school when they remember how we treated our neighbors and servers – despite their socioeconomic status or appearance – with respect and friendliness.

So here’s my challenge to you, Reader. This week, really be self-aware. What examples are you setting for your child? Take note on areas you can improve in (for me, I noticed I tend to use an irritated tone with my husband when I’m exhausted at the end of the day. Dear Husband, I’m working on that!) Think about how you’d want your child to treat others. And then show them how.

Jessica Mautone

Jessica is a first-time, Stay-At-Home mom who loves to write as an outlet for the stress that comes along with raising a strong-minded little boy and two yappy dogs. Credit for her creative inspiration goes to good wine and frequent travel.