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Listen, Look for the Message, and Determine Your Child's Needs

Your child's misbehavior may be spurred by her need to achieve one of the “four mistaken goals of misbehavior.” She might have other reasons as well:

  • testing
  • saving face
  • seeking respect
  • needing more independence
  • avoiding unpleasant or scary tasks
  • experiencing a moment of thoughtlessness or being unclear on how her actions affect others
  • expressing a serious emotional problem

Whatever the reason, your job is to analyze the situation and try to deal with it in a positive, nonpunitive way. Remember, punishment is short term, and ultimately an ineffective way of dealing with misbehavior.

It's a Good Idea!

There's an old saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I've always said that so is the road to heaven.

Words to Parent By

Positive intent is the underlying positive meaning behind any action. It's a theory (developed by Don and Jeanne Elium) that assumes that people mean well and strive for the best.

Honor the Positive Intent

Parenting is truly tough; it calls on all your resources, and demands you to be the best, noblest, smartest person you can possibly be.

Your challenge is to try to understand your child and treat her as you would like to be treated at the same time as she's treating you worse than a hideous bug crawling on the floor. As she stomps and screams, your job is to model appropriate behavior. Part of your appropriate behavior may be to express how angry it makes you to be treated like an ugly bug, and to insist on better treatment.

How do you do this? If it were truly easy, you wouldn't be reading a book about it. One way to meet this steep challenge is to look for, and honor, the positive intent in your child.

Jane Nelson and Rudolf Dreikurs assume there is always a message of need behind a child's misbehavior. Jeanne Elium and Don Elium, authors of Raising a Son, Raising a Daughter, and Raising a Family, go even further. They teach parents that kids always have a positive intent—an underlying positive meaning—even when they are misbehaving. Finding the positive intent within negative behavior can help you with your own frustration level, and help you feel friendlier toward your child.

Here's an example of positive intent:

Maya was way too old to be throwing food on the floor. She was almost five. Yet, when she didn't like something, or when she was finished with her dinner, she grabbed handfuls of spaghetti, rice, or beef Wellington and flung it on the linoleum. That's not okay. What was the positive intent here? Actually, Maya was feeling more grown-up than her parents were giving her credit for. She wanted more control over her life—and her mealtimes. She also wanted more limits. (Strange as it may seem, wanting more independence and more limits often go together.) When Maya's parents realized her positive intent, insisted she clean up after her own mess, and taught her how to wash dishes, the misbehavior stopped immediately.

Here's another example of positive intent:

Jenny was caught scrawling graffiti on the school wall. Her parents were scandalized—defacing property! Hanging with the wrong crowd! Yet, when they stopped to honor her positive intent (she wanted to express herself creatively, and she wanted to be accepted), they were able to channel her energy into something far more productive: community service, art classes, and a school mural project. Jenny thrived.

Behave Yourself!

Tough! Enough of this “understanding” crap! Some behavior is simply unacceptable, you feel. Hey, you'll get no argument from me! Understanding misbehavior doesn't mean allowing it, condoning it, apologizing for it, or standing for it. When you've reached your limit, you've reached your limit. Some behavior is just not acceptable, and you can assert as much.

It's a Good Idea!

You set the rules, they test 'em. It's a natural and necessary part of establishing individuality and independence.

Determine Your Own Needs

Okay, with me so far? Your kid has misbehaved but you haven't flipped out yet. You've cooled down and decided she's not evil, she's just misbehaving. You've listened to and elicited your child's story, you've determined her needs and intent. Now what?

Well, where's the you in here? You're not perfect, you're not a saint, you're not selfless—you have needs, too. Yes, you do! The more you understand your own intents, needs, and values, the better you'll feel about your parenting—in times of good behavior and bad.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to a Well-Behaved Child © 1999 by Ericka Lutz. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit Amazon's web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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