I remember so clearly the first minutes I spent alone with my newborn baby. I was wheeled into the maternity room from delivery, exhausted and in pain, and he started to cry. My initial thought was, “How am I supposed to know what he wants? We just met!”
And even now that he’s older, when I’m finding his behavior hard to deal with, I still have moments of self-doubt. Like many parents, I’ve asked myself: “What is wrong with my child? Why is he like this? Why is he misbehaving? Why won’t he listen? Why is he being so difficult?” Basically, why do children do the things they do?
There is one simple answer: They do it because it works.
Let me give you an example. As adults, when we walk into a grocery store and buy a carton of milk, are we considered manipulative or demanding? Is it “spoiling” us for the cashier to let us take it? Or is it understood that that’s how we get our need for a gallon of milk met? Well, our kids have needs, too. And while they may not be as clear-cut as the need for a gallon of milk, they will act on their environment to get those needs met, just as adults do.
We all want many of the same things, regardless of age. We want attention sometimes, a break other times. To be able to get the things we want and need. To do the things that make us feel good. To get relief from pain or discomfort. And children sincerely want to please adults. They want happy homes as much as we do. But children still are learning; they are trying, sometimes desperately, to figure out how to get their needs met, including the need to please their parents.
Think of it this way. Children are not manipulating; they are learning. They aren’t “bad,” “difficult,” or “manipulative” kids. They are children who are finding it difficult to figure out what we want them to do.
Decades of research on the science of behavior has made clear that when someone (including a child) engages in a particular behavior, it is because of what they can gain or avoid. No matter how problematic the behavior, there is something that compels it—a “payoff.” So, there are no “bad,” “difficult,” or “manipulative” children. There are only children who find it difficult to get what they need in other, more “positive” ways: children who find it difficult to please us.
It can help to look at your child’s behavior like a scientist would. Scientists do not make random, stab-in-the-dark guesses; they do not try to read minds; they do not judge—they observe. They do not blame, panic, or torture themselves; they simply observe. So when your child is being “bad,” “difficult,” or “manipulative,” look at what is really going on. What is driving their behavior? What need are they trying to get met? Have they had the chance to learn another (more positive) way to get the “payoff” they are seeking?
After those first few moments with my son, a glimmer of common sense quickly took hold: he had just met everyone. I was still the one who knew him, and his needs, best. And over the next few months, we figured it out, both of us together. We are still figuring it out today. It is still not perfect. We are still learning. But what has helped me so tremendously, and what I believe can help you too, is that “scientific” approach. I don’t guess randomly or automatically think that my child is “bad” when his behavior is “bad”; instead, I observe. Every day.