In mainstream parenting, ‘misbehaviour’ is lamented as the reason why children need punishment, control and manipulation. The focus is on the behaviour, what the child is doing.
In respectful parenting, we are more intentional. We look deeper. All behaviour is communication. It’s not about the behaviour, but what prompted the behaviour?
The term ‘misbehaviour’ in itself is such an otherising concept. It really feeds that you vs your children mentality, which is so unhelpful. Do you ever hear adults saying other adults are misbehaving? I don’t often. Not unless someone is being condescending.
Children deserve to be able to make mistakes too. They should be able to behave in less than ideal ways. Surely, I mean they’re learning how to cope with big emotions, deal with conflict and assert their needs in a world that doesn’t value them like they should.
Children are not their behaviour
Most people can distinguish between say their partners behaviours and them themselves. However, due to the systematic dehumanisation of children, many can’t segregate the two if a child is displaying behaviours we feel are ‘wrong’.
Too often they subconsciously think ‘the child = the behaviour’ so disliking the behaviour means disliking the child and consequently disrespecting them.
Children may behave in a way that feels unacceptable to you but the feelings that influenced their behaviour ARE acceptable. You can dislike and feel uncomfortable with your child’s reaction to struggle without dismissing their feelings or belittling their experience.
Not to mention that we as parents are responsible for our reaction to their behaviour and it is your choice to meet their difficulty with compassion and empathy or resort to blaming/shaming/punishing/threatening. Meeting our children with compassion and empathy means validating their emotions and helping them find solutions to what is causing them struggle.
‘Misbehaviour’ – is it okay?
Let’s banish the term misbehaviour and recognise that it’s all behaviour – positive or negative. Children have the right to react to things that they find difficult, regardless of how comfortable that is for us.
People often say well children need to be taught that ‘misbehaviour’ isn’t okay. Generally they mean that children need to be punished. But no human (and children are people too!) meaningfully does better by being made to feel worse.
The ironic thing about compliance is that a child who feels consistently loved/respected/heard/valued is more likely to trust and comply with their parents. Obedience isn’t the goal with respectful parents but this still rings true.
The more the parent is demanding/controlling/forceful, the less the child will be compliant because the love and respect of their parents feels conditional. Parents consequently end up making it harder for themselves and more and more force is needed then they lose sight of the child, the child then acts out more and the disconnection continues.
Behaviour should be a signal, not an offence
A child’s behaviour is often seen as an offence. How dare they act in this way!
Ultimately all these behaviours should be treated as a signal – what needs of the child are not being met?
When the focus becomes what is driving the behaviour, rather than the behaviour itself, that’s where connection begins.
Are they hungry?
Are they tired?
Are they overwhelmed?
Are they feeling uncomfortable?
Do they feel connected to you?
Are you expecting too much of them?
Do they feel heard?
Are they feeling judged?
Do they feel belittled?
Are they feeling controlled?
Do they feel disrespected?
Does something feel unfair to them?
I typically start with a question or statement that shows I understand the above, then in some instances I ask how I can help.
For example, “Are you feeling tired? Would you like help resting?” “It’s been a long day, you must feel overwhelmed, how can I help?” “You really want a turn, it’s hard to wait” “You feel like she isn’t listening and it’s really frustrating” “That didn’t work out how you expected, that must be upsetting.”
Sometimes I won’t even mention the behaviour – unless it is for example hurting someone. I always keep it simple if I do and help block any physical harm if necessary – “I won’t let you hit your brother, that hurts” “You’re yelling so loud because you feel so frustrated” “You’re saying some really hurtful things because you’re feeling hurt”.
It’s so powerful to place the focus on what needs are not being met and starting there. Let’s see all behaviour as an indicator of what your child is internally processing and support them unconditionally.