Proactive Parenting: Why Children Misbehave
Sara Teichman, Psy D.
Dear Dr. T.,
I am a teacher, so discipline is second nature to me. I have a good understanding of positive reinforcement and how to use consequences. I am pretty successful, if I say so myself, probably because I am consistent in my dealing with my children.
So, why am I writing you? Well, it’s about my nine year old daughter. Honestly, I just can’t understand her. She somehow makes trouble at home and in school – even though we have a strong, yet fair, system of discipline.
I don’t get it. She knows what the consequences will be, but she still doesn’t stop. This makes no sense to me at all. I am not saying she does terrible things, but, I never know what she will do next.
What you are saying is that your child knows about consequences and knows what not to do. But, does she know what to do? And, does she know how to do it? Does she have both the knowledge and the skills she needs in order to tow the line?
I want to start by reminding my readers that children do well if they can. What child does not want to wake up to the love and approval of his parents? It is only the totally defeated child who has given up on winning his 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 his 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 – like their friends and siblings – 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 staff as if they were his friends. His “Yo, Rebbe, your jacket is missing a button!” does not endear him to his teachers. 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 (often?) 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 – and that other children do know. Consequences and lectures may stop him from doing the wrong thing, but no amount of consequences can teach him what to do. Whether he is unable to see what he is supposed to see, or simply unable to do it – he cannot manage appropriate school decorum. What is needed here is some education to the tune of, “Here is the correct way to address staff.” Or “Let’s get you some help in organizing your homework.”
Unfortunately, what too often happens 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 our child be? Imagine if Mendy were to go off 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 our child to do the right thing becomes our priority.
When we focus on behavior that is unacceptable, we see our child as difficult, doing wrong. In our rush to do something, we may be overly harsh. But, if we decide that all that is needed is for our child to learn, it’s quite a different picture. And, just as we would not be angry or annoyed at a child who hasn’t learned his times tables, in the same way 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 the situation 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 bochur 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 them. And, the simple and best solution is to help them learn the skills that they need to navigate their environment successfully and do the right thing.
In no way do I want to suggest that helping your daughter is a simple task. Though some children are merely flighty or on their own wave length, others may have some more serious learning differences or emotional issues that require professional intervention. But know, skills can – and must – be taught. More importantly, your child deserves to be seen as needing your help, rather than your censure.
We all know that when we adjust our lens, we see things differently. So, for the sake of our children, let’s adjust our thinking so we can see our children in a positive light. A positive approach, coupled with our determination to model and teach, is sure to make a difference.
The Book Nook: Positive Parenting: Developing Your Child’s Potential is written by Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski and edited by Ursula Schwartz. In this practical book, these two mental health practitioners teach parents to concentrate on how to do things right according to our Torah and traditions.
Sara Teichman, Psy D. is a psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles and Clinical Director of ETTA, L.A.’s largest Jewish agency for adults with special needs. To submit a question or comment, email DrT@jewishhomela.com