Acknowledge Kids’ Motives When They Misbehave

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?”

becomingI’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 understand their motives, kids are 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. Usually they’re exploring the world and discovering their surroundings in ways they know how.

Have you acknowledged your kids’ motives when they misbehave? Did you notice a difference in their reaction?

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Nina is a working mom to three boys—a five-year-old and toddler twins. She blogs about parenting at Sleeping Should Be Easy, where she writes everything she's learning about being mom and all its joys and challenges. She also covers topics like how kids learn and play, family life, being a working mom and life with twins. Download her free ebook, "Time Management Strategies for the Overwhelmed Mom" for more tips.


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  1. Anne says

    Just before reading your post I watched my mother-in-law loudly overreact to my 17-month-old standing on the bed, followed by hubby quietly explaining why she shouldn’t react that way!
    Thanks for reminding us to think from our LOs’ viewpoints and not jump to the conclusion they’re purposefully misbehaving.

  2. Steph says

    I like how you say we don’t have to give in to unacceptable behavior but that it’s helpful to acknowledge why they’re doing it. I’ve done the same thing with my daughter standing up in the bathtub. “I know you’re trying to reach that toy, but standing up in the bathtub might make you slip and get an owie. Let Mommy get it.”
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  3. says

    So true, and so hard to remember! I had a very low moment last month when my toddler bit me 4 times in an afternoon. I was getting increasingly frustrated and time-outs were not working. I had a total melt-down. Afterwards it gave me a chance to reflect and realized he was almost exclusively biting me when I held the baby. My negative reaction was just what my son was hoping for because it changed my focus to him. Realizing where the behavior is coming from has helped me curve it and help me find ways to redirect. The biting hasn’t really been a problem since.
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    • says

      Sarah, I’m glad you were able to reflect on your son’s motives and easily redirect it in another way. That’s true too—their misbehavior can also be a way to try and draw attention to themselves, because to them, any attention, even negative ones, is what they want.

      Four times, wow I can’t imagine; I would’ve gone bonkers too! :)
      Nina recently posted..Acknowledge kids’ motives when they misbehaveMy Profile

  4. Teresa Cleveland Wendel says

    Every time I read one of your posts, I think, “Maybe we should treat adults the same way.” We all have reasons for acting or reacting in certain ways. I’m going to try to remember that. Thanks.

    • says

      It’s so true, Teresa—I wonder sometimes if I would do certain things to adults, and if it’s no, it makes me wonder if I should re-think what I’m doing. For instance, I sometimes talk about my toddler as if he’s not there to my husband, and I think, “Would I do that to my mom and just talk about her to my husband with her in the room as if she wasn’t there?” We can do funny things with kids sometimes!
      Nina recently posted..Acknowledge kids’ motives when they misbehaveMy Profile

  5. says

    My parents can never get over the fact that I JUST TALK to my kids ALL the TIME! Everything is explained, II acknowledge everything and treat them like little adults. Because I have three and my eyes are not always on them 100 percent of the time, things happen! I take a deep breath and talk to them about acceptable and unacceptable behavior and the reasons behind it all. Thanks for the great post once again.
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  6. says

    This is a wonderful piece. I applaud your ability to think this through with such deep understanding and become the mother you hope to be. SO many times we act in the heat of the moment, but careful thought as you have shown here is certainly the best way to avoid this. Often, over tired and over stressed, we parents can (with the best will in the world) think of our own motives and ignore our children’s. This is real wisdom.
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