Establishing intent

When we’re short on patience and our children behave in ways we really wish they wouldn’t, it’s hard not to feel that they’re deliberately provoking us.  OK, sometimes they might be (for which there will of course be an underlying reason), but often I think we attribute worse motives to children’s behaviour than we should.

I find it helps to look at the intention behind the behaviour.  Did your child intend for this to happen?

What was their intention when they pushed the other child out of the way?  Was it for that child to fall and hurt themselves, or were they just intent on getting to that toy first?

Did they intend for something to get broken, or were they just getting over excited?

Did they intend for the milk to go sour, or did they just forget to put it back in the fridge (as kids do)?

Allowing that a child’s intentions may not have been bad does not mean letting them ‘get away with it’. In all these cases, some help or intervention from an adult is needed, and some lessons need to be learned, but we need to keep things in perspective when we choose how to respond.   Usually the child did not set out to break something or hurt someone, but they may have made a bad choice, and something needs to be said and maybe done about this. However, they’re far more likely to listen and learn if you don’t fly off the handle or assume the worst.

One important thing to remember when responding is to take care not to unwittingly attack a child’s character.

The other day I was at the swimming pool with my child.  He joined in with some older children who were having fun splashing each other and pouring water over each other’s heads.  Later, my child, still playing, deliberately splashed another child who was not part of this group and she started to cry.  Her father, understandably perhaps, not knowing about the game that had preceded this, said to my child “That’s not very nice”.

My child clearly did not intend to upset this girl, and so I didn’t feel it was appropriate to rebuke him.  This would be to send him the message that he is a bad person.  It was, however, desirable that he learn something from this situation.  But to say “That’s not very nice” is like saying to a child “You’re not very nice”.   To say “That was really clumsy/silly…” is like saying “You’re really clumsy/silly”.  Far more helpful to point out the result of their behaviour or the effect it has had on someone else.  “She didn’t like that”, then show them how they might make amends, “Let’s see if she’s OK”.  Or, “The milk goes sour when it’s left out.  Do you think you could pop next door and ask if we can borrow some until we’ve been to the shops”.  Another step is to problem solve together, “What could we do to help you remember to put the milk back in the fridge?”.

Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish sum these steps up really well in their book, “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk.”

“Express your feelings strongly – without attacking character.

State your expectations.

Show the child how to make amends.

Give the child a choice.

Take action.

Problem-solve.”

Attributing the worst motives to a child’s behaviour can make them feel misunderstood, unfairly treated, and worst of all – bad about themselves.  On the other hand, giving a child a break does not show weakness, it shows that you’re fair, reasonable and understanding, and as such are more able to build a relationship of mutual trust and respect, and so far more likely to succeed in changing behaviour for the better.

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