Acknowledge kids’ motives and realize they aren’t always trying to drive us crazy. They’re exploring and discovering their world in ways they know how.
My husband, toddler and I were cuddling in bed when our son stood up. We don’t encourage this 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 (affiliate link). It encourages parents not to jump to conclusions or dole out discipline immediately.
Instead, honoring the impulse means we should first determine and acknowledge the motivation behind their kids’ actions.
And so my husband and I paused to see what it was that my toddler was trying to do when he stood up. We learned he wasn’t disobeying on purpose, but was curious about a book on a bedside table. He just wanted to get a better look.
If I were to re-do that scene, I would’ve 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’re not allowing him to stand on the table, but we should’ve acknowledged what he was trying to do. We had disregarded his intentions completely.
Acknowledge kids’ motives
When a toddler misbehaves or does something we don’t want him to do, usually he’s acting out of curiosity or because he doesn’t even know he’s doing anything wrong. To us, a child is misbehaving when she’s coloring on the walls, but to her she wants to know what happens when you rub a red stick on the wall.
While a child’s misbehavior still shouldn’t be encouraged (my kids aren’t allowed to write on walls or stand on beds), we still need to acknowledge their intent and honor the impulse.
Most kids misbehave without intending to do so. They rarely defy us to elicit a response, express anger or assert their control. They just don’t know that some behaviors aren’t okay, or forgot the rules because they felt excited or curious.
I honor the impulse because it reminds me the reason behind my toddler’s actions. I can see his true motivation instead of assuming he’s just acting out.
And in doing so, I’m better able to address the issue—he just wanted to look at a book. Addressing that issue could avoid a flare up (thankfully one that didn’t happen).
Acknowledging their intentions also helps kids feel less attacked. If we tell kids “no” all the time, their patience is bound to wear thin. And in most cases, they don’t even think they’re doing anything wrong.
A child who decides to color on the table could’ve just wanted to see if the table would be any different than paper. No wonder kids have blow ups and tantrums. They’re tired of hearing “no” when they don’t even feel like they’re doing wrong.
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And lastly, honoring their impulses helps them feel more respected. When we we acknowledge kids’ motives, we’re not just out to get them in trouble. We respect their curiosity—we just don’t want them to express them in certain ways, like standing in bed.
Some misdeeds are more serious and will elicit a strong “no” from us. And kids do things that make it difficult for adults to pause and acknowledge their motives.
I caught my then-little 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 so shocked 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 a good idea to realize that kids aren’t always trying to drive us mad. They’re exploring the world and discovering their surroundings in ways they know how.
So when it’s apparent that a child isn’t misbehaving out of rebellion and instead is curious, we’re better off honoring their impulse and acknowledging the effort before telling them what to do or not do. Sometimes I get so caught up with making sure my toddler knows right from wrong (don’t hit or throw things at people) that I forget he’s probably not intending to do wrong in the first place.
Get more tips on children’s behavior and acknowledging their motives:
- Becoming the Parent You Want To Be by Laura Davis
- 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)