(Previously published in the Eastern Daily Press, 22nd February, 2018)
Earlier this month parenting expert Andrea Rippon said there was no such thing as bad behaviour. A reader was not so sure.
A Nation of little Emperors?
Reader: “I also feel that there is no such thing as a ‘bad’ child. But what about the incidences of bad behaviour, which are on many occasions chosen actions and can’t be blamed on being tired, hungry, jealous, attention seeking, etc? If we don’t recognise that there IS such a thing as bad behaviour, we will, as parents, teachers and carers, always have to find a reason for why a child has hit his brother, wailed when he can’t stay up all night, refused to eat something. Children need to know that to get on in life, they sometimes have to toe the line and not strop, or we will have a nation of little emperors, with no boundaries and not a clue what is or is not acceptable.”
Andrea: “Your ‘bad’ behaviour is what I would call ‘behaviour that is unacceptable to you.’ I might find it acceptable, which means the behaviour itself is not bad; it’s our interpretation of it that makes it OK or not OK.
All behaviour is communication
Children use behaviour to communicate their needs; those that are acting up aren’t bad, they are needy. They are also dependent, often powerless, with clumsy communication skills. Part of our role as parents is to listen to the message behind their behaviour. That doesn’t mean I will find the behaviour acceptable, but I do recognise that underneath it is communication.
The issue then moves to changing behaviour so that it fits in with the people, situations and environments that children find themselves in. Although I would never describe it as ‘bad’ behaviour, I do understand that children benefit from learning to ‘toe-the-line’. The question is, how best to achieve this, within a psychologically healthy relationship.
How to change behaviour
I believe that effective, long-lasting and psychologically healthy change comes from within. Ordering children to obey can bring quick results, but also long-term problems. It forces children to dismiss their own experience in favour of instruction from outside. If this is all they do, they are inclined to always look for direction from external sources. They lose the ability to make judgements for themselves and might eventually struggle to know how to feel or what to do about something that is troubling them.
A child wailing because he can’t stay up all night is unacceptable behaviour for me, you and others (but probably not everyone). I tell him it’s unacceptable to me and give a specific reason why. This allows him to see himself through my eyes and gives him an opportunity to change his behaviour out of consideration for me.
Influence is better than control
Rather than blaming his behaviour, I give him the information he needs to change it. I use influence, rather than control. He maintains his self-esteem and learns that I have boundaries, which he chooses to respect. He learns to listen to others and choose to adapt his behaviour to fit in.
If he doesn’t want to change, then there’s another strategy. It still maintains that he is trying to meet a need by wanting to stay up all night – and that I’m trying to meet my need of, say, having down-time with adults. We can figure out how to come up with a solution that meets both our needs. He understands himself and the boundaries around him better and learns to respect himself (attend to his own needs) and to respect others (attend to my needs).
Be patient – it’s worth it
This is the theory. The practice requires patience but it’s worth it. As children grow and develop, we get a chance to build brains and neural networks that can handle all sorts of complex social situations.
Andrea Rippon is a Certified Parent Educator and a mum of two teenagers. She helps parents build strong, long-term relationships with their children (toddlers to teenagers) by using evidence-based communication skills. Her next Open Programme starts in April, 2018. She can also offer Parent Coaching by Skype. If you’ve got a question for her, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org