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Looking Past the Behavior

In a recent essay on a family website, a mother related an incident that she felt she had not handled well. She had been hugging her husband in the living room, and their toddler son came over to them and bit her on the leg. She picked him up, but worried that she was reinforcing the biting. She then told him "in a soft-spoken but firm voice", that "you cannot bite people. It hurts them. You hurt my leg when you bit me. Please do not bite again." Three days later she saw it this way:

"I can finally see what I should have done. I should have been firm and consistent from the outset, not letting guilt or anger warp my direction. I should have gotten down face-to-face with him - not picking him up - and told him firmly never to bite again. Then I should have left him alone, not in anger or abandonment, but in gravity, to let the message sink in. I can see it clearly now - but in the whirl of split-second decision making and the error of guilt I bungled."

Yet both of her responses - the one she employed and the one she wished she had used - left me with some troubling questions: How can a parent ignore her own feelings of guilt and anger? Could she have honestly expressed the anger she felt from being physically hurt? Does refusal to pick up a child who is obviously upset give him the message that he will be loved only when he is "good"? Will he learn to have compassion and understanding for others who are having "bad" feelings? How can one "leave alone" a child without "abandoning" him? Is she rationalizing her actions by doublespeak? And, most important, what has she learned from this incident? And what has he learned? The next time her son bites her, will she be able to talk with him about the angry, jealous feelings which led to the biting? Will he know how to communicate those feelings in a way that will help him to have his needs met? I agree that parents should be consistent and try to avoid giving confusing messages to our children. But what should we be consistent about? What are the most helpful messages we should give?

One of the most important principles of parenting is that the feelings behind a child's behavior must be recognized, accepted, understood, and openly dealt with, before the behavior can change. Until that happens, the unwanted behavior - or behavior even less welcome to the parent - will only continue. How could it be otherwise? It is the same with adults, after all. If we "misbehave" toward our partner, but he or she makes no effort to understand and accept the feelings which brought about that behavior, and doesn't hear the message we are trying to send, we will continue to try to express those feelings in the same, or even less effective and less welcome ways.

The mother's first reaction, to pick up her son and tell him gently not to bite, and her second reaction, to leave him alone, may have been well-intended, but they are both incomplete and ineffective. Discipline, whose Latin root means "to teach", is not about rewarding or punishing; it is about helping the child to learn new skills. Appropriate, loving, and effective messages to a "misbehaving" child have three elements:

With all three elements in mind, the mother in our story may have picked up her son and said "Ouch! No biting - that hurts! I can see that you're upset, but I want you to use words, not teeth: "Mommy, I want a hug too." Even if the child is too young to repeat the words or to remember to use them next time, repeated reminders like this will eventually give him new and better tools to use in having critical needs met.

When we are careful to respond with all three elements in place, we give these underlying messages: "All human beings have feelings. Feelings are not "good" or "bad"; they are normal, valid, and important. I love you enough to stop and really pay attention to what it is you're trying to tell me, in the only way you can tell me in this moment, at this age, and in these circumstances. I do not like being bitten any more than you would like it. At the same time, I understand that you would not have done this unless you were feeling angry / sad / upset / worried / disturbed about something. I take your needs and feelings seriously, and I'll help you to find better ways to express your feelings so that everyone's needs are met."

Such an approach is the most effective, and indeed the only way to ensure that unwanted behavior will change for the better, long-term. In the story we began with, biting was clearly the only means this child had at his disposal at that moment, with all of his previous experience and his current feelings and needs, to try to communicate something important to his mother. Reacting solely to the behavior, while ignoring the feelings behind it, is a common response by parents who were treated this way in their own childhood. It's time to make changes.

One of our Natural Child Project Parenting Cards™ sums it up this way: "Look past the behavior... what is your child feeling?" When we focus on a child's needs and feelings, rather than the specific behavior we wish to change, we can then truly communicate our love for our child. That the behavior will then improve is almost a side issue. As Mozart wrote, "Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius." It is also the soul of parenting.

Jan Hunt, M.Sc., offers counseling worldwide, with a focus on parenting and unschooling. She is the Director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.