A helpful question to ask yourself when your child has just done something you find unacceptable or inappropriate is: "What was my child is trying to accomplish with this behavior?"
Why does this matter? Because children use immature strategies to get their needs met or accomplish their "goals". Their social skills are not developed enough to ask nicely, so they grab. They weren't born knowing that we use"excuse me" to ask others to step out of our way, so they just push their way through. What adult onlookers might interpret as manipulation, opposition, or cruelty is often simply evidence that kids don't know a better way to do things yet.
When we pause for a moment to consider what our children are trying to accomplish, it may become obvious to us which of their strategies need some updating. Kids need our compassionate guidance and assistance so they can learn a more effective and prosocial way to accomplish their goals.
When parents realize this, it's easier to stop taking misbehavior personally, and instead see it as a sign that their child needs help generating other strategies that will work better for him and those around him.
An example: Sam hits Joey on the head with a truck in the sandbox.
Rewinding to just a moment before the incident, we see Joey reaching for the truck that Sam was playing with. These little guys don't need time out, they need help.
What was Joey trying to accomplish? He wanted to play with that truck. His immature strategy: grab it. Joey needs to learn how to ask for something that is already in use, or to wait until it is available.
What was Sam trying to accomplish? He wanted to keep his truck. His immature strategy: wallop the intruder until he backs off. Sam needs to learn some refusal skills - he needs to know how to move away or use his words to convey that his toy is not currently available.
If we simply take the truck away or put the boys into time out, we miss the opportunity to update their strategies. Time out doesn't teach alternatives.
Luckily, our children's brains and nervous systems come pre-wired for observation and imitation. Their brains also need lots of repetition to hardwire in a new habit, so the alternative isn't likely to anchor permanently until we've shown them a new way multiple times.
We can speed the learning process up a bit by not only teaching our children alternatives, but also being a shining example of the changes we want them to make. Children are far more likely to do what they see us doing than what we've told them to do. We help them learn when we make sure our words and actions are congruent.
For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit www.karenalonge.com
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