What If Your Child Chooses to Do Wrong?
What if your child DOES know right from wrong and chooses to do wrong?
Posted Mar 09, 2017
“Dr. Laura....How will they know right from wrong when they are never taught something will happen when they do wrong? What should we do if one of the kids destroys property? What should we do if we tell them to do something and they don't listen? What if they hit another kid?"- Kristin
Traditional parenting responds to the child's misbehavior by imposing a "consequence" that causes emotional or physical pain, so that the child will choose to avoid that consequence in the future by choosing different behavior. But that assumes the child has the ability to regulate her emotions, and therefore her behavior. In fact, experts increasingly agree that kids who exhibit "tough" behaviors actually don't have the skills yet to self-regulate.
Loving guidance helps children develop those skills by:
- Setting limits on the child's behavior and giving the child whatever support is necessary to obey those limits.
- Emotion-coaching and preventive maintenance to help the child with challenging emotions, so they don't drive her behavior in the future.
- Helping the child repair damage to relationships or property, rather than punishing.
- Managing the environment to help the child be successful.
So is it possible to use loving guidance instead of punishment to keep problem behavior from happening again? Let's take Kristin's examples.
If you tell your child to do something and she doesn't listen, she may not have actually heard your request. It's completely normal for young humans to be fully absorbed in what they're doing, and not really take in what we're telling them. And I've yet to meet a child who thinks that taking a bath "this minute" is more important than whatever she's doing.
So the first rule is to connect BEFORE you start speaking. That means you can't bark orders from across the room and expect to get through. Instead, move in close. Get down on your child's level and touch her lightly. Observe what she's doing and connect with her by making a comment about it: "Wow, look at that house you built for your animals!" You aren't manipulating, you're acknowledging respect for her activities, too. Then, empathize: "I know it's hard to stop playing now, Honey. And right now, I need you to....."
If you've asked once and not gotten a response, don't just repeat yourself. You don't have your child's attention. Go back to Step One, above. (For more tips on this, see How to Get Your Child to LISTEN!)
I don't consider "Not listening" to be a big deal. To me, that's just normal child-like behavior, best handled with a sense of humor. But maybe what Kristin meant isn't so much listening, but obeying. What if you tell your child to do something and she willfully disobeys? That's defiance. More on that in a moment.
If he hits another child, that's a strong signal that he needs help with fear, since fear is what drives aggression. Is something at home scaring him, such as mom and dad fighting? Is TV showing him images that scare him, so he needs to act them out at school to process those feelings? Is he feeling scared because all the other kids seem to understand the math and he just feels dumb? Is he being taunted on the playground, or by his big brother? Is he worried about dad, who's deployed? Is he rebelling against our punishment or yelling at home? Does he worry that you love his little sibling more?
Notice that if we punish, we don't learn any of this, so we can't address the root cause of the child's aggression. Of course we set a clear limit: It's never okay to hurt another person's body. But your child already knew that. So we need to dig deeper and give him skills to manage the emotions driving him to lash out. Loving guidance begins with empathy. What made him so upset that he did this? We listen, we connect. We express understanding of his perspective. (Note: That's not the same as agreement.)
"It sounds like you got really angry when your brother called you names. You're right, our house rule is no name calling. It sounds like you couldn't get him to stop and you tried everything you could think of, huh? No wonder you were so furious."
Connect to help him feel safe enough to tell you all those feelings and get them out of his system. Once he feels better, ask him what he thinks about how things worked out. Point out the natural consequence of the hitting, which is that he hurt his brother's body, and also their relationship. Ask what he can do now to make things better with his brother.
Brainstorm with him how else he could have handled the situation. Teach him skills, like wrapping his arms around his own body when he wants to hit. Act out alternatives with him to create a subconscious blueprint so he's able to handle things differently in the future.
And then start doing daily preventive maintenance to help your child work through those fears that make him feel so threatened he lashes out.
If she purposely destroys property, and she's in the middle of a "tantrum" (even if she's a teenager), it's understandable. Most of us have done stupid things when we're in the grip of "fight or flight" that we're sorry about later. (I still remember hurling my favorite mug at the wall when I was in college.) The "cure" for that kind of outburst is to heal the feelings that drove it, and daily preventive maintenance will usually clear out the emotional backpack.
Of course, she needs to replace the item, either out of her allowance or by doing chores. That's not a "consequence" in the sense of punishment; that's just cleaning up her own mess, like cleaning up the milk when she spills it. When she calms down, she'll be open to that suggestion, as long as she feels connected and understood. (What if she isn't? That's defiance. More on that in a minute!)
But if the destruction of property is premeditated? That's a red flag that something is very wrong inside her. You won't learn what it is if you punish her. Of course, she needs to replace the item, but that's the least of your worries. That won't teach her how to work through the tangled up feelings that made her destroy the property. And it won't connect her with you enough that she WANTS to control her impulses. Punishment will cause this already extreme behavior to get worse, and to spill out in other areas of her life. A child who destroys property is yelling loud and clear that she desperately needs help from you. If all you do is punish her, you're reneging on your responsibility as a parent to give her the help she needs.
Notice the thread here? Of course kids need to make repairs when they act out. But punishment just drives the feelings underground and makes the bad behavior worse. Healing the feelings that are driving the behavior is what prevents a repeat of the misbehavior. You're never ignoring it. You're healing it at the source.
Kids choose Right over Wrong when:
1. They feel connected to you, so they have a reason to choose "right" even when it costs them. Kids get disconnected from us constantly, because life gets in the way, and because big emotions get in the way. So connection isn't something you do once. You have to make a point of reconnecting with your child daily, just as you do with a romantic partner. (Here's a whole section of articles about Connection.)
2. They can control their emotions, which allows them to control their behavior. Most of the time when kids mess up, it's because they couldn't manage themselves. (Just like with us. Remember the last time you said something you were sorry for later?) Punishment doesn't help kids manage their emotions; it makes it harder. Here's a post on how kids learn to manage their emotions, which lets them manage their behavior.
3. They want to. If your child simply doesn't care whether he "does right," that's defiance. It's normal for a toddler, who's still figuring out that she can be herself without saying No to everything you ask. But older kids who are connected to their parents don't want to disappoint them. So you can't solve defiance with discipline, that just makes it worse. You solve defiance with connection. Here's a whole post on Defiance.
Does this seem like a lot of work? It is.
But when children "choose wrong" they're letting you know they need your help. Punishment looks like an easy answer, but it's just an easy out. If we're serious about helping our children to do better, we need to start by doing better ourselves.