Anyone who knows me well knows I am not a big fan of absolute terms like “never” and “always;” however, there are times when these words need to be used in order to be definite about a situation, rule, truth or principle. So here is something I think parents should never say to their children (or even to themselves) about their children’s behaviors: “There is no good reason for behaving like that!”
Because there are reasons for every behavior
Over the years of studying children’s behaviors and the underlying reasons why they act in so many different ways, I have concluded there is always a legitimate reason for virtually all children’s behaviors.
We may not always know exactly what the reason might be: we as human beings— and especially human beings doing the hard work of moving from infancy to adulthood— are constantly responding and reacting to what is going on as a result of the processes of development.
A young friend of mine, who is working very hard to be an informed and prepared parent, is moving from the parenting stage of being primarily a nurturer to having to become an authority in her child’s life.
In the book The Six Stages of Parenthood, Ellen Galinsky shares the results of her research about the stages that parents move through as their children grow and change. She describes how children’s ages and stages require parents to shift in their abilities to parent effectively.
For example, she describes the second stage of parenting as the Nurturing Stage, in which the primary role of the parent of a child from birth to early toddlerhood (sometime after the first year) is to provide consistent and appropriate nurturing: holding, rocking, comforting, snuggling, feeding, embracing and in all other ways surrounding a child with a sense of physical and emotional safety, love and attention.
For most parents, this role as nurturer is one that is satisfying and gratifying, especially as a baby becomes highly responsive, giving back smiles and hugs and expressions of love that show how important the parent is in the child’s life.
Then there is the shift.
(This is what my young friend was struggling with, even though I had predicted it was coming.) Unexpectedly, her little one smacked her in the face and screeched when she was unhappy about something—and it doesn’t really matter what! It is more about the shock, confusion and feeling of betrayal after all that nurturing that this mom was feeling.
And if this mom was not open to learning about her child’s developmental need to begin to express feelings of frustration when she is thwarted from doing or having anything she wants, she might think and even say, “There’s no reason for you to behave like that! Haven’t I always taken care of you? How can you treat me like this after all these months of building up a relationship based on love and nurturing?”
Because of all our conversations, this mom knew there was a legitimate reason for her daughter’s unpleasant behavior that was neither her fault nor her daughter’s fault. Like it or not, her daughter was continuing on her path of growth and entering into a stage in which she would more and more express the need to explore and demand that there be no limits.
Like it or not, her parents were being forced to assume a new role.
They were becoming authorities in her life who would have to limit her behaviors, say no to her, stop her when something was dangerous or inappropriate, and in general, become like the police who have to enforce the law.
My young friend also was recognizing that part of her job now is going to be to make sense of some of these new behaviors her child will exhibit, behaviors that are expressions of her new stage of life in which she has developmental tasks to accomplish, behaviors that sometimes will be difficult to manage.
The big point is: when you can understand there are underlying reasons for even very difficult and challenging behaviors, you spend less time feeling aggravated, disappointed, betrayed or angry (while of course you may have some of these as first reactions!) you more put your energy into first understanding and appreciating the underlying reasons for the behaviors and then figuring out healthy ways to respond appropriately.
Another friend recently shared a link to a website and book that I think reflects what I am saying, entitled Why Children Fidget: and What We Can Do about It. The information is based on a book called Balanced and Barefoot, by Angela J. Hanscom.
In the post, the author describes observing a classroom of kindergarten students who were expected to sit quietly at the end of the day to listen to a long story and how virtually all of them were fidgeting and wiggling and unable to sit quietly as they were expected to do. (Five-year-olds at the end of the day expected to sit for long periods of time makes no sense!) It goes against their developmental needs; yet, this was what was expected of them.
As a result of their normal reaction to being so limited, the children were reprimanded for not meeting these unfair expectations. In other words: there is no good reason for behaving like that!
Except there really is a very legitimate reason for that behavior: children at this age are biologically unable to sit still for long periods of time. Everything inside of them pushes them to be moving, jumping, reaching, playing actively and not sitting passively. Those of you who are of a certain age might even remember an old commercial in which the key phrase was, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” We’re not talking about margarine here, were talking about children’s lives and futures!
I think parents have the responsibility of learning about the many aspects of child development and the underlying reasons for outward behaviors. Their job is to nurture their children’s growth and development, not to thwart or blame and shame children when they are moving through whatever age and stage they are experiencing.
There are literally hundreds of thousands of books on child development available, as well as many outstanding Websites and YouTube videos parents can easily access to provide this information.
Meanwhile, I hope parents will learn to eliminate the idea that, “There’s no good reason for that behavior” from their belief systems and change it to, “There is some legitimate reason for this behavior. I may not know exactly what it is until I do a little research, but meanwhile, I shouldn’t criticize, blame or shame my child for outwardly expressing a basic need related to growing up.”
Invitation to Reflect
- Do you recall being reprimanded or criticized for behaving in some way that felt like it was out of your control to behave that way? How did you cope with the confusion and resulting shame?
- Do you find yourself sometimes being angry and critical of your child’s behaviors and feeling like there is no good reason for them to behave that way? How does this information change how you might think about difficult and challenging behaviors?
Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network
Image sources: http://www.bigstock_Happy_Baby_Girl_5435655-1.jpg, and