Much of what looks like “bad” behavior is really just exploration and experimentation. Kids are naturally curious and it is their job to figure out how things work and how to get what they want or need. Like scientists, they do “experiments.”
These “experiments” are in two primary domains: the natural world and the social world.
The natural world includes what adults generally think of as “physics” (yes, the water will spill if you invert an open cup), “chemistry” (when you pour milk into Dad’s beer it makes a multi-colored mixture), “civil engineering” (when you flush Mom’s ring down the toilet it disappears and does not return), and so on.
Think of the world from your child’s perspective: if you weren’t yet familiar with gravity, you might also keep dropping or pouring things to see if they really do go down every time.
The most important experiments that children do, however, are in the social world. This is where you come into the picture.
Experiments in the social world include the important people in kids’ lives: parents, siblings, other family members, caregivers, and teachers. Kids want—and, in fact, need to know—how each of these people work and how to get what they need or want from them (e.g. attention, five more minutes at the playground, ice cream, screen time, privacy).
The answer to these critical questions (How do you work? How do I get “X” from you?) varies from person to person and can only be discovered through exploration and experimentation. This has important implications for us as parents.
If what we want kids to know about us is that we mean what we say, that we can be relied on to do what we say, that we are fair and reasonable, and so on, then we need to teach them this through our daily interactions with them. We need to give them a consistent “result” to their “experiment.”
Seeing our children’s behavior through this lens—as an exploration or experiment aimed at getting useful information about how people and the world work—also helps us not to take it personally when they challenge us.
TRY THIS: Next time you find yourself dealing with your kid’s challenging behavior, change your lens to see it as an experiment intended to get useful information about how things work (in the world or in your family) and respond accordingly. For example, if you want your kids to know that you are fair and reasonable, then choose your response to fit those characteristics.
What do you want your kids to know about who you are and how you work, and how will you convey that to them?
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