Flinging open my bathroom door, I stare in disbelief at my one year old son who is perched on my bathroom counter with black streaks all over his body. Emotions of shock, frustration and anger rush through me. Looking closer I see my mascara bottle clinched in one little hand, and the applicator in the other: "What on earth are you doing?!" I question.
I grab the bottle and applicator away, and then pause to absorb what is going on. It dawns on me... he is trying to be like me, he is mimicking what he sees me do (although you will be happy to know I do not put mascara on my body).
This realization defuses my anger like taking the lid off a boiling pan.
I quickly clean him up and remain calm through the situation, because I realized the motivation behind his actions instead of just thinking he was being naughty and trying to make me angry.
As a parent it is easy, almost automatic, to jump to the conclusion that our children are behaving in naughty ways. (I have done it many times.) However, when we take the time to understand the motivation behind their behavior we can see more clearly what is going on and handle the situation in a calm, respectful, responsible manner.
There are at least three underlying reasons, or motives, why children behave in ways that we might initially consider "naughty:"
1. Children eagerly follow our example or the example of others
As shown in my story with my son and the mascara, our children mimic us and those they see. That is not because they are trying to be naughty, they are simply learning. Children are like sponges that absorb everything going on around them. Our actions and behaviors are watched and mirrored by our children every day.
When your children copy what you do, stop and recognize it. That does not mean it is okay to get in your mascara and play with whenever they want, as there are boundaries. However, take the time to calmly show and teach them those boundaries instead of reacting to the situation out of anger.
2. Children are naturally curious
Children are naturally curious about the world around them. Curiosity fuels learning. Young children want to test and understand everything around them. They drop food, pound blocks, and throw balls to see what happens. This is how they learn. We as parents need to see their actions for what they are - sheer curiosity.
Psychology researchers Bonawitz, Schijndel, Friel, and Schulz discovered that children's spontaneous curiosity caused them to explore their environment even more, especially the parts that were unfamiliar. They insightfully said, "Curiosity paved the way for learning."
A few months back I found my youngest son taking everything off our piano. "What are you doing?" I asked. (I was trying to maintain composure and not get too bent out of shape.)
"I want to see how the piano works," he calmly responds.
"Oh you mean you are curious about it?" He nods. "Next time you need to ask me first if you want to start moving my things. Now let's take a look inside and see how the sound is made." (He was not moving anything breakable, or we would have had a longer discussion.)
Being aware that curiosity fuels my kids helps me be more patient and understanding.
Nonetheless, we can't let children run wild and wreak havoc in our home or in public all in the name of curiosity. Instead we can set up child friendly areas in our homes, so they can explore and be curious.
Sadly, if all we do is stop our children and correct them or take things away, their curiosity slowly dies. Gradually the desire to learn fades with it (which causes other problems in school, but that is another topic for another article).
3. Children do not know how to verbally communicate their physical or emotional needs
Children have basic physical and emotional needs. They need to feel safe, fed, rested, loved and connected. When a basic need is missing, fear and uncertainty take over. They act out in ways we might label as "naughty" when in fact they are simply trying to get their needs met and do not know how to properly express it.
Instead of viewing our kids as "naughty" we need to teach them about their physical and emotional needs and help them build a vocabulary to express them. This takes time and practice. When they are small and still learning to talk, we help meet those needs for them. As they grow and mature, we teach them how to meet those needs on their own.
Let's stop thinking of our children as "naughty." Let's see them for who they are and look deeper to discover "why" they behave a certain way. Then our hearts will open with understanding and patience will be our guide as our special parent/child relationship is fortified with love and trust.
If some of this information is new to you take heart, continue learning, and steadily improve every day; that is what life and parenting is all about.
This article was originally published on Parenting Brilliantly. It has been republished here with permission.