I suppose I will never forget, try as I may, the time he was walking down the hall in church. I was watching him from a distance to make sure he made it all the way to his Sunday School class. As Drew walked, he was engaged in a lively conversation with two elderly women. Because of his strong verbal skills and magnetic personality, he had captivated their attention. I continued to watch him, quite pleased with his friendliness and charm. “What a remarkable child,” I remember thinking to myself. About this time, I noticed he was approaching a water fountain that jutted out from the wall about eighteen inches. I didn’t bother to yell, because I knew he would see the water fountain. After all, he had been by the fountain probably a hundred times. So I just watched. My sweet son kept the conversation going, and when he was only about six inches from the fountain he swung his left hand (the hand out of sight from the women’s view) as hard as he could into the fountain, creating a bang that echoed all the way down the hall. Then this darling little three-year-old acted as though he had hit his head, not his hand, on the fountain. He stammered around for a few moments, acting as though he were dazed, and then collapsed to the floor, arms and legs spread, tongue hanging out, eyes closed—completely unconscious, it would seem. Needless to say, the two elderly ladies panicked. They were down on their knees, trying whatever they could to revive him. When this failed, they called for help. Of course, I was already headed down the hall. I reached my unconscious son and knelt down and said, “Drew, I saw you hit the fountain with your hand.” He opened one eye, smiled faintly, and jumped up and ran to his class just as fast as he could, never looking back.
Why do children, whether out of mischief or hostility, misbehave? This is an important question that perplexes most parents. Let me assure you, there are, sometimes unbeknownst to the child and many times unbeknownst to the parent, reasons children misbehave. Since all behavior is purposeful, it’s best to understand behavior as goal oriented. I believe there are four major goals of misbehavior. The first goal of misbehavior is to gain attention. All of us, child or adult, enjoy receiving attention. If we can’t get positive attention we would rather settle for negative attention than be ignored. If this is the reason your child is misbehaving, providing needed positive attention will serve to prevent most misbehavior from occurring in the first place. The second goal of misbehavior is due to a perceived power imbalance. Because all children are in the process of developing a separate and unique identity, children will misbehave in reaction to feeling powerless. Most children who continually misbehave for this reason are living in homes where there is too much unnecessary control. The third goal of misbehavior is revenge. Many times when children feel powerless to do anything directly to solve painful situations they will use revenge to strike back. This is often seen in divorce cases. Because the child is often angry about a divorce he has no power to change, revenge becomes a tool for expressing this anger. The fourth goal of misbehavior is to display feelings of inadequacy. Children who feel inadequate often vent their frustrations through misbehavior.
Unfortunately, many parents will punish a child for a misbehavior ignoring the underlying reasons. Attending to the four underlying goals will greatly reduce misbehavior. Make sure you are (1) providing as much positive attention as possible; (2) minimizing power struggles; (3) understanding the underlying anger when revenge is taken; and (4) attending to hidden feels of inadequacy with tender loving care.
Of course, the mischief of any curly-headed three-year-old will not be completely squelched even when all other needs are satisfied.