As a babysitter, sometimes you’ll tell children NOT to do something, and they’ll do it anyway. Sometimes you’ll tell children to do something, and they won’t do it.
Sometimes you’ll hear someone knocking at the front door who turns out to be the two-year-old who only moments ago was safely in the back yard, or so you thought, and then he will point to his four-year-old brother who has climbed the neighbor’s tree and won’t come down.
Sometimes it will get real quiet and you can’t find the children because they’ve hidden somewhere in the house – or at least you hope they’re still in the house – and you want to strangle the person who said babysitting was easy money.
These experiences (and others like them) made me want to do one of two things: either have nothing more to do with little kids – EVER, or, figure them out. I chose to figure them out. And I’m glad I did.
In this post I’m going to teach you what I learned, something that will change the way you discipline children forever – and make your life a whole lot easier.
Why Children Misbehave
If you know why children misbehave, then it’s easier to know what to do about it.
Children are always looking for ways to feel good. It’s wired into their brains. They can’t help it. It’s what they were born to do. It’s one thing you can always count on. Knowing that can be very helpful.
Let’s start with babies. What makes babies feel good? How about a diaper change, a bottle when they’re hungry, getting a burp out, or receiving attention from other people? The only way they know how to tell you they want to feel better is by crying. Soon they learn that crying leads to feeling good.
How about toddlers? What makes toddlers feel good? Some of the things are food, candy, attention from others, watching TV, and to feel a sense of power and control. Sometimes they learn they can get those rewards by hitting, teasing, throwing tantrums, whining, arguing, getting into mischief, and ignoring you. We call that “misbehavior”. They call it “how to get what makes me feel good”.
Same with older children – always looking for ways that lead to feeling good. So here is why children misbehave:
Children misbehave because it results in them feeling good
Children learn that when they hit or tease, it gives them a sense of power and control over another child, and gets your attention. (Even though it’s angry attention, it’s better than no attention). They learn that when they throw a tantrum, they get the candy; when they whine, they get out of having to go to bed; when they ignore you, they get out of having to clean up their mess. And that feels good.
But wait a minute. What about well-behaved children? What makes them want to behave? What makes them choose to be nice, or do what you ask them? What makes them different from misbehaved children?
Children are well-behaved because their behavior results in a good feeling. YES, that’s right. Well behaved children behave for the same reason that misbehaved children misbehave – because the result is a good feeling.
Isn’t that interesting? Children practice good behavior if that’s what leads to feeling good. They practice bad behavior if that’s what leads to feeling good. When you stop to think about it, it makes sense – the goal of children is to find out what makes them feel good and keep doing it, and find out what doesn’t make them feel good and stop doing it.
Kids are Little Scientists
Kids a are like little scientists, always experimenting. Next time you go babysitting, look at the children and say to yourself, “I know something about you little scientists – always experimenting, looking for ways to feel good. If you find something that works, you continue to do it. If you find something that doesn’t work, you avoid doing it. Well, I’m on to you. I know how you think, and I know how to use that to get what I want.”
Question: Now that we know why some kids behave while others misbehave (because it leads to a good feeling in both cases) what can we do to make kids want to behave and stop misbehaving?
This discussion is continued in my eBook in the chapter called “Why Children Misbehave”.