My husband, toddler and I were cuddling in our bed one day when our son stood up—something we don’t encourage as he can easily fall over the bed. “No, no… sit back down. We don’t stand on the bed,” I immediately reprimanded him. To which my husband reminded me, “‘Honor the impulse,’ remember?”
I’ve long since been a fan of “honoring the impulse,” a term coined by Laura Davis in her book, Becoming the Parent You Want To Be. Rather than simply jumping to conclusions or doling out discipline, honoring the impulse encourages parents to first determine and acknowledge the motivation behind their kids’ actions.
In my case, when we paused to see what it was that my toddler was trying to do, we learned that he wasn’t standing up to be a butt or to rebel, but that he was curious about a book on a bedside table and wanted to get a better look. If I were to re-do that scene, I would have first pulled him down to safety and said, “Are you trying to see the book on daddy’s bedside table? We don’t stand on the bed though because you could fall. Maybe we could bring the book closer so you can see it.”
We don’t have to back down and say standing on the bed is allowed, but we should have acknowledged what he was trying to do instead of disregarding his intentions completely. I would bet that most kids misbehave without intending to do so—fewer are the cases when they blatantly defy us to elicit a response, express anger or assert their control. More often than not, they just don’t know that some behaviors aren’t okay, or they may have forgotten the rules amidst their excitement and curiosity.
I honor the impulse because doing so reminds me the reason behind my toddler’s actions and misbehavior. I’m better able to see his true motivation instead of assuming he’s just acting out; and in doing so, I’m better able to address the issue. In my example, he just wanted to look at a book. Addressing that issue first could easily avoid a flare up (thankfully one that didn’t ensue that day).
Acknowledging their intentions also helps kids feel less attacked. If we’re constantly told not to do something, that we’re not obeying or that we’re acting improperly, patience is bound to wear thin. And in most cases, they don’t even think they’re doing anything wrong. A kid who decides to color on the table could have just wanted to see if the table would be any different than paper, not that he was purposefully disobeying mom. No wonder kids have blow ups and tantrums—they’re probably exhausted from being told not to do something when they don’t even feel like they’re doing anything wrong.
And lastly, honoring their impulses helps them feel more respected. When we empathize and let them know that we acknowledge kids’ motives, they’re likely to feel like we’re not just out to get them and that we truly do respect their curiosity and excitement. We just don’t want them to express them in certain ways, such as standing up on a bed.
Clearly some misdeeds are more serious and will elicit a strong “no” from us, and sometimes kids just do strange things that make it difficult for adults to pause and acknowledge their motives first. I remember when I caught my then-18-month-old nephew swirling his arm around the (clean) water in a toilet bowl; my first reaction was to screech, “No!” You can imagine his reaction to that:he cried hysterically. But I was just so shocked and grossed out to see his arm in a toilet bowl that I couldn’t stay calm (plus I was also only 15 years old!).
Otherwise, it’s often a good idea to honor the impulse and realize that kids aren’t always trying to drive us bonkers. They’re exploring the world and discovering their surroundings in ways they know how.
Get more tips on children’s behavior and acknowledging their motives:
- The 4-Step Solution to Tantrums
- Why Time Outs Don’t Work (And What to Do Instead)
- Kids’ Complaints Aren’t Petty… At Least to Them
- How to Stop Kids from Talking Back to You
- The Difference between Distraction and Redirection (and Why I Prefer One Over the Other)
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