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Lesson 4
Why Children Misbehave

If parents understand why their children misbehave, they will be more likely to choose a discipline tool that will reduce misbehavior. If a pot is boiling over, clamping on a lid is not the best solution. To solve that problem, someone has to reduce or eliminate the heat under the pot. In a similar way, if parents can find and eliminate the source of a child's misbehavior--the heat under the pot--they will have more success with reducing behavior problems.

[reflection]Your Misbehavior

Children misbehave for a reason. Being a parent can sometimes seem like being a detective. Why did my child do that? What is he trying to accomplish? If the behavior is accidental or if the child did not know it was unacceptable, then the behavior is not really misbehavior. Misbehavior involves deliberate disobedience to a reasonable limit.

Assuming that they are neither sick nor physically exhausted, children misbehave for six reasons.

1. They have been rewarded for their misbehavior
2. They have copied what their parents do
3. They are testing whether their parents will enforce rules
4. They are asserting themselves and their independence
5. They are protecting themselves
6. They feel bad about themselves

[up] [bullet]1. They have been rewarded for their misbehavior

Children may misbehave because they have been rewarded for the behavior. Every child needs to be noticed. Sometimes the only way children can get their busy parents' attention is to disobey. If their parents give them attention for misbehaving then that misbehavior will increase. Children who feel overlooked will misbehave to get any kind of parent attention, even if it means being yelled at, ridiculed, or even spanked. Punishment is a reward for attention starved children. Five-year-old Cindy, for example, frequently hits and pinches her baby brother. When she does, her mother becomes angry, picks Cindy up and places her in a kitchen chair for a time out. Unfortunately, this exhausted parent has little time to spend with her daughter. She rarely plays with her, or reads to her, or takes time to sit and talk. Parents who accidentally reward their children's misbehavior teach them there is a payoff for disobedience. Prevention and guidance are preferable to punishment for children who misbehave for attention.

[up] [bullet]2. They have copied what their parents do

Children sometimes misbehave by copying the actions of their parents. For example, an aggressive preschooler had a father who used frequent physical punishment. He would spank his son for everything from leaving a toy in the living room to refusing to move when ordered. Rarely, if ever, did this young boy experience any tenderness and encouragement from his father. When he came to school, he simply copied his father's response to conflict: If you do not like what someone is doing to you then hit him. By setting an example of violence, the father taught his son to hurt others. Children are likely to become confused and angry if they are punished for copying something their parents have done to them. They need parents to show them what to do. Changing behavior to serve as a better example for children is an important discipline strategy.

[up] [bullet]3. They are testing whether their parents will enforce rules

Sometimes misbehavior is a test of a parent's commitment to enforcing rules. Children may disobey to test their parents' reactions and probe the boundaries of their limits. How important is the limit for the parent? Will parents stand behind what they say? Children respect parents who provide reasonable but firm limits, backed by firm and fair responses. Parents who are indifferent to setting limits or bully their children to force obedience undermine this respect.

[up] [bullet]4. They are asserting themselves and their independence

Children may misbehave because they want to assert themselves and their growing independence. The toddler who is asked to go to bed loudly proclaims, NO! NO BED, DADDY! The tiny person stands with jaw jutted out, feet firmly planted on the floor as her giant of a father towers over her. Her resistance is significant for two reasons. First, this spirited child is telling the parent that she believes she is important. By her actions she says, Daddy, I am somebody; I have ideas and values of my own. This is what I want. Second, the child's statement implies that she feels secure in her relationship with her father. She is not afraid to speak up.

Sometimes the quiet, submissive child who never breaks the rules is more of a concern than the outgoing, spirited child. Passivity can be an inborn, temperamental trait, but some passive children may have lost the desire to stand up for themselves or may be too frightened of adult authority to do so. Unfortunately, some parents incorrectly believe that children who are submissive and obedient are good and those who are defiant and demanding are bad.

Parents can set firm limits while admiring their children's growing sense of self-confidence. When their children resist those limits parents should reconsider their expectations. They may decide to stand firm. On the other hand, they may realize that a limit is no longer needed and should be changed or eliminated.

[up] [bullet]5. They are protecting themselves

Children sometimes misbehave to protect themselves. Unless they are too frightened to act, children will defend themselves when they feel threatened. A preschooler hits a playmate who grabs his truck. An 8-year-old scuffles with a classmate who calls her stupid. A teenager takes a swing at someone who tries to steal his expensive leather jacket. Guidance tools can be effective in teaching children the skills they need to solve problems and keep themselves safe.

[up] [bullet]6. They feel bad about themselves

Children sometimes misbehave because they feel bad about themselves. Children act consistently with what they think is true about themselves. They make self-fulfilling prophesies. So if they think they are stupid, they may not try to do well at school. If they believe they are unpopular and cruel, they may mistreat their peers. Children will act bad if they think they are bad. Parents who nurture self-respect, hope, courage, and compassion in their children will have fewer problems with misbehavior than those who undermine a child's self-worth.

[reflection]Considering Misbehavior

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