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Is it on purpose?

Why do children behave the way they do? Is it on purpose? Because sometimes, it feels like it is…

Have you ever felt that your child behaves in an annoying way on purpose? I’m sure you have. We’ve all been there, and yes, children do behave in annoying ways on purpose but wait, it’s not exactly what you think it is. Allow me to explain.

Behavior is something learned. Children learn behaviors from other children, the media and from the adults that surround them. This includes us, their parents, caregivers and educators. They register what they see other children and adults do and they later test it at home, with friends and in the classroom. When applying these behaviors, they observe and analyze the results that they bring them. If these results are worth their investment (if they get what they were aiming for), they will keep on using those behaviours. If the results are valued as not effective, they will search for other ways to achieve their objectives.

Here is an example: Johnny sees Pete whining in aim to get a specific thing. Pete whines enough and gets what he wants. It is now highly probable that Johnny will try the whining strategy as a potentially effective tool to get what he needs/wants. When he does, if he achieves his objective, he will categorize this strategy as useful and he will adopt it for further use. If the whining strategy proves to be not efficient for Johnny, then he will stop using it and will try other strategies.

So yes, our children behave in annoying ways on purpose but they do not do it to annoy us. They do it because they’ve seen someone behaving that way, they’ve tested the strategy and it proved to be efficient for them too.

You are probably thinking know “What if I want to discourage my child to keep on using a certain strategy? How do I do this?”

The best way to discourage a child from using an annoying strategy (e.g.: whining or screaming) is by a) making sure he is not learning this from another member of the family and if so, that that member changes his/her behavior, and b) by making sure that his strategy does not get him what he is trying to achieve.

With a whining or screaming child for example, I like to say to him “Honey, I see that you want to tell me something, but when you talk to me in this way, I can’t understand what you say. I need you to take a deep breath and talk to me calmly in your regular tone of voice so that I can understand you. Can you do that?”

When I react in this way, I'm not allowing my child's annoying strategy to produce any benefit. At the same time I'm being very respectful of my child, I'm setting him a healthy boundary and I'm also giving him an acceptable alternative, and as long as I'm consistent with my request, my child will shift his behavior and change the annoying strategy for a positive one.

Bottom line, our children do behave in annoying ways on purpose. They do it because they believe (and have proved that) this will provide them with something they want. The good news is that we do have the power to shift annoying behaviors into positive ones. It just takes some patience and determination. A small investment for long term great results.


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