Why Children Misbehave

Do you find yourself embarrassed sometimes by your children’s behavior? Have you managed, by dint of consequences and threats, to teach them what not to do, but find they do not know what to do or how to do it? Do they have the knowledge and the skills they need in order to behave appropriately?

We all know that children do well if they can. What child does not want to wake up to the love and approval of their parents? It is only the totally defeated child who has given up on winning their parents’ favor that “doesn’t care.” And, whether the feelings of defeat are the result of cluelessness or an underdeveloped skill set, the outcome is unfortunate. The child’s behavior often misses the mark and the child is labeled stubborn, oppositional, or difficult. In effect, the child is chastised, and often punished, for something that is out of their control.

Here’s what I mean. Have you ever gone someplace totally unfamiliar and fumbled with the etiquette? Can you remember how lost you felt, recall the shame at your faux-pas? Well, lots of times, our children simply do not know what to do, or say, in a particular situation. We assume that they do, but they very well may need us to teach them the skills to do it right.

Ten-year-old Mendy gets into lots of trouble in school because he has the habit of talking to teachers as if they are his friends. His “Yo, Rebbe, your jacket is missing a button” does not endear him to staff. His cracking [very slightly] off color jokes to the menahel at top volume is considered the height of chutzpah. Combined with the fact that he sometimes can’t find his homework, Mendy often gets lectures like, “Don’t you know that…?”

Now, here’s the thing. Maybe Mendy actually does not know whatever he is assumed to know, regardless of the fact that most other children can navigate this situation appropriately. Consequence and lectures can stop him from doing the wrong thing, but no amount of consequences can teach him what he is supposed to do.

Whether he is unable to see what he is supposed to see or simply unable to do it, Mendy cannot manage appropriate school decorum. What is needed here is some education to the tune of “Here is the correct way to address staff” and “Let’s get you some help in organizing your homework.”

Unfortunately, what happens all too often is that we get caught up in correcting the child’s behavior because we see symptom eradication as our job. We need the poor behavior to stop now. Sometimes we are scared that the bad behavior will persist into adulthood, and then where would the child be? Imagine if Mendy were to go to Eretz Yisroel and address the rosh yeshiva in his inappropriate way?

And, let’s face it: we are human. We are embarrassed by our children’s poor behavior. We think it reflects on us. Doesn’t it? After all, children are a parent’s report card. So, getting the child to stop becomes our priority.

When we focus on behavior that has to stop, we see our child as difficult, doing wrong. In our rush to do something, we may be overly harsh. However, it is quite a different picture if we decide that the ultimate goal is for for our child to learn. Just as we would not be angry or annoyed at a child for not knowing their times tables when they have yet to learn them, we should not be angry at child who has yet to learn appropriate behavior.

What I am talking about is shifting our point of view from discipline to giving the benefit of the doubt. There is nothing to lose by holding off a bit. Before jumping into judgment and feeling impelled to do something, simply look at misbehavior as a teaching moment. Sometimes, it’s that simple. The child does not have the skills yet.

So, whether it is the tot who grabs because he doesn’t know how to ask, the yeshiva bocher who leaves a total mess when he takes a snack, or your teenage daughter who fights with her friends instead of working things out, there is no harm in assuming that they don’t know any better. They may not see that there are other ways to do things. Or, they may not know how to do it. The simple and best solution is to help them learn the skills that they need to navigate their environment successfully.

In no way do I want to suggest that helping our children is a simple task. Though some children are merely flighty or on their own wave length, others may have some more serious learning differences that require professional intervention. For the most part, skills can be taught and, more importantly, our children deserve to be seen as needing our help, rather than our censure.

It is commonly acknowledged that when we adjust our lens, we see things differently.  So, for the sake of our children, let’s work on seeing them in a positive light and look at their poor behavior as our opportunity to reach out and help them.

Dr. Sara Teichman, formerly of Los Angeles, has relocated to Lakewood, NJ where she maintains a private practice. She can be reached at drsteichman@gmail.com.

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