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“Children Don’t Really Misbehave”

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Wednesday, February 26, 2014

This great article was brought to my attention by Alyson Schafer’s email update (Alyson, if you don’t know, is a parenting expert regularly featured on CTV News, the Ask An Expert columnist for Today’s Parent magazine, and bestselling parenting author – you can see a list of some of her books on my Resources page).  She didn’t write it – it was written by Thomas Gordon, Ph.D. of the Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T) program - but she made the great point in her email that sometimes it helps to hear the same concepts stated by more than one person, in more than one way, and I agree.  So I thought I would share it with you here, too. 

Dr. Gordon  talks about how children don’t really misbehave, it’s all a matter of perspective on the parts of the adults in their lives.  I talk a lot about perceptions with my clients, since just because we perceive something a certain way, it doesn’t make it fact, or true, or the only way of looking at it. 

Read the article for yourself and see what you think: (You can read a slightly longer version than this excerpt on Dr Gordon’s web page.)

Children Don't Really Misbehave by Thomas Gordon, Ph.D.
Most parents and teachers think of children as either "behaving'' or “misbehaving.'' This labeling of behavior as "good" and "bad" begins when the child is quite young. In our [P.E.T. and T.E.T.] training programs we try to help parents see that children don't really misbehave.
Interestingly enough, the term is almost exclusively applied to children -
seldom to adults. We never hear people say:
* ''My husband misbehaved yesterday."
* "One of our guests misbehaved at the party last night."
* "I got so angry when my friend misbehaved during lunch."
* "My employees have been misbehaving lately.''
Apparently, it's only children who are seen as misbehaving - no one else. Misbehavior is exclusively parent and teacher language, tied up somehow with how adults have traditionally viewed children. It is also used in almost every book on parenting I've read, and I've read quite a few.
I think adults say a child misbehaves whenever some specific action is judged as contrary to how the adult thinks the child should behave. The verdict of misbehavior, then, is clearly a value judgment made by the adult - a label placed on some particular behavior, a negative judgment of what the child is doing. Misbehavior thus is actually a specific action of the child that is seen by the adult as producing an undesirable consequence for the adult . What makes a child's behavior misbehavior (bad behavior) is the perception that the behavior is, or might be, bad behavior for the adult . The "badness'' of the behavior actually resides in the adult's mind, not the child's; the child in fact is doing what he or she chooses or needs to do to satisfy some need.
Put another way, the adult experiences the badness, not the child. Even more accurately, it is the consequences of the child's behavior for the adult that are felt to be bad (or potentially bad), not the behavior itself.
When parents and teachers grasp this critical distinction, they experience a marked shift in attitude toward their children or students. They begin to see all actions of youngsters simply as behaviors, engaged in solely for the purpose of getting needs met. When adults begin to see children as persons like themselves, engaging in various behaviors to satisfy normal human needs, they are much less inclined to evaluate the behaviors as good or bad.
Accepting that children don't really misbehave doesn't mean, however, that adults will always feel accepting of what they do. Nor should they be expected to, for children are bound to do things that adults don't like, things that interfere with their own "pursuit of happiness.'' But even then, the child is not a misbehaving or bad child, not trying to do something to the adult, but rather is only trying to do something for himself . Only when parents and teachers make this important shift - changing the locus of the problem from the child to the adult - can they begin to appreciate the logic of non-power alternatives for dealing with behaviors they don't accept.

Just imagine if we as adults and parents always remembered to view our children’s behaviour through this lens?  Increased communication, improved relationships with our kids, improved self esteem on their parts…and a complete and total elimination of misbehaviour (LOL)!  Try it today with your kids, and see what you learn.  I’d love for you to share any thoughts or observations with everyone here, if you feel so inclined.

(Also, Dr. Gordon has many free resources for parents on his web page, if you’re looking for information that is of the same approach that I use.)

Effort Versus Result

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, February 18, 2014

With report cards comes a whole host of anxiety. For both parents and kids. I’ve seen parents in my office wield their children’s grades as though they are daring me to not be impressed: “She got all A’s”, “He has the highest grade in his class”, “The teacher took his diagram and put it on the overhead because it was the best one she’d seen”. Then the kids start: “My goal is to get a perfect 100% in calculus”, “I spent all weekend at the library working on this paper that’s worth 2% of my overall final grade”, “If I don’t start thinking about my grades now, I might not get in to my university of choice three years from now”.

Report cards are designed to measure success. They aren’t the final word in success, though, as any teacher will tell you. The point is not to achieve a perfect grade, the point is to learn, to develop, to grow. But what do we teach kids when we focus so much on the number?

We know that attaining perfection is an impossibility. And yet it’s a trap we fall into when we encourage and reward higher and higher marks.  We don’t really believe that perfection is the only acceptable result, but our kids might hear that message by accident.  And that can carry over to the kids, too, when they start putting such enormous pressure on themselves to do well at school.  The pressure and anxiety kids feel, teenagers particularly, can be needlessly high.  We all want what’s best for our kids, but at what cost?  Sometimes we need to take a step back and ask ourselves what they’re really learning.

In our competitive society, this pressure to succeed can easily overshadow the desire to learn. But we don’t want kids to think that they haven’t measured up – in their own minds or in ours - if their grades don’t reach a certain benchmark. We want them to feel good about what they’ve accomplished, even if it isn’t an A+.

So this report card season, I’d like to propose a move away from the number on the report and move toward personal accountability in our kids by having them assess their own success or failure based on their efforts. Isn’t a C a good mark if it represents a full-court press by the student? It’s very discouraging to try to live up to perfection, but when we as parents reward the effort more than the result, it opens up the door for our kids to relax and focus on giving their best without any pressure to meet a specific standard.

Ask your kids how they feel they did on their reports. What did they learn about themselves or their study habits? What might they do differently next time? These are the questions that lead to greater learning and self-awareness. And that’s the true measure of success.

Sass, Back Talk, and Smart Mouths

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, February 11, 2014

When your child says something spiteful and hurtful to you, how do you handle it?  Our response is key to determining whether or not your child will use that behaviour again, so we want to make sure that what we do is designed to eliminate this kind of talk (even if it does take a while), particularly by using modeling -- or watching our behaviour -- as an example.

When your child yells, "I hate you!" or worse, it can be hard to keep your cool.  But first of all, start by taking a deep breath and assessing honestly whether or not you're in the best frame of mind to address the situation.  If you're not, then take a "time out" to cool down and get back in control of your emotions.

We often send messages that aren't received because of the manner in which they're sent.  So consider, is that what's happening here?  Try to determine what message your child is really trying to send, and then mirror that back to her in a calm voice.  So, in response to the "I hate you" comment above, you might say, "You are upset/angry/hurt/embarrassed/etc. because..."  This uses the basics of an "I" Messages that I teach my clients, the reverse of which is a "You Feel" message, seen here.  Once your child knows that you've really heard her, it's much easier for her to calm down and behave more respectfully and rationally toward you, than if she sees you as a controlling parent who doesn't care how she feels.

Now's the time to use an "I" Message of your own.  Let her know how you feel about the situation, and about her behaviour.  You might say, "I feel hurt when I'm spoken to that way, because I don't feel respected or as though my feelings matter, either."  Or whatever is true for you in the situation.

As with so many other things, sass, back talk, and smart mouths usually come down to some form of communication breakdown.  By taking a deep breath and starting at the beginning, you have a chance to show your child a better way to express displeasure, anger, hurt, or whatever else she may be feeling.

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Andrea Ramsay Speers • Psychotherapist & Parent Coach • Oakville Family Institute • 175 Glenashton Dr., Oakville ON • Tel.: 905-491-6949

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