When your child misbehaves, is your first reaction to get mad? Learn what to ask before disciplining your child with this one simple question.
I don’t get my kids sometimes. Out of the blue, my toddler will smack his brother in the face, for no clear reason. Another one will throw little cars all over the table, no explanation given, or they won’t stop fussing or crying, regardless of my many attempts to soothe.
Next thing I know, I’m in discipline mode. I’m pointing out how his behavior is wrong, asking him to say “sorry” or forcing him to share the toy they were fighting over.
What to ask before disciplining your child
Even with all that discipline, I wasn’t seeing the teachable moment I was hoping for—the peace after the storm. Instead, my kids are even more miserable than before I got involved.
And so I wondered if there was a better approach to understanding their behavior. One where it doesn’t seem like all I do is discipline all day long.
I learned there is. And it’s behind one simple question we can ask ourselves before disciplining. One question to change our mindset before reacting too quickly:
“Why is he behaving this way?”
(Told you it was simple.)
Ask yourself why your child is acting the way he does. Simple as that. And when you do, you just might find several benefits:
You learn the real reasons your child can be upset
You’re forced to dive into the reason behind his confusing or frustrating behavior. Sometimes you’ll come up with a simple answer like, “He must be hungry,” or “Oh, he skipped his nap today.”
But other times, the reasons aren’t obvious and we’ll need to consider his point of view. I asked my two-year-old to tell his twin brother that he was done playing with a toy they’d been fighter over.
He obliged and told his brother, who had been playing trains in the next room, that he can play with the toy now.
But rather than run to the coveted toy, his twin brother reacted by hitting him.
Immediately, I disciplined the offending boy. “We do not hit. Your brother was just telling you that he was done with the toy and that you can play with it.” I didn’t understand how he could go from playing with trains to hitting his brother.
Only later did I realize the reason: He was still upset. Playing with trains in his room didn’t mean he was completely over it. He had been playing with trains as a way to self soothe from an earlier argument over the special toy. And he was still harboring resentment towards his brother.
Had I asked myself “why” would have helped me be more empathetic towards both of them. Instead I immediately sided with the “victim.”
You’re forced to pause
Asking “why” also helps us pause. We can parent mindfully when we take a breath and remove ourselves from the situation. We’re more likely to assess the problem from all angles instead of reacting.
And with that quick pause, we respond, not react. We realize we don’t have to resort to disciplining or getting angry.
Instead we can redirect our kids towards something more appropriate. “Why did he just dump that box of cereal on the floor? … Maybe it’s because he was curious, not that he was purposefully being mischievous. Let me give him a box of Lego to play with instead.”
You’re showing empathy
When we ask ‘why’ our kids act ridiculous, there’s usually a reason we can empathize with.
Maybe your child feels upset because she was just trying to help put her dishes in the sink. (And not because she wanted to make a mess all over the floor.)
Disciplining children isn’t always necessary when we understand why they act that way. The next time your child acts difficult, confusing or in any way that drives you crazy, ask “why.”
And listen to what your child says, and what your gut tells you. You may find that the reason itself is much deeper than the annoying antics your child is displaying.
Download my PDF, The Power of Empathy, and learn how to prevent power struggles and instead better connect with your kids, all by understanding their perspective. Join my newsletter and get it below—at no cost to you:
The importance of acknowledging their motives
When kids misbehave or does something we don’t want him to do, usually they’re curious or don’t even know they’re doing anything wrong. To us, kids are misbehaving when they’re coloring on the walls, but to them, they only want to know what happens when you rub a red stick on the wall.
While we may not encourage misbehavior (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 get 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.
Take a look at what to do when your toddler deliberately disobeys:
Kids feel less defensive
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.
Kids feel respected
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.
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.
Get more tips on discipline and your child’s behavior:
- How to Discipline a Child: The Ultimate List of Resources
- What to Do When Your Child Says No to Everything
- Parenting Your Strong-Willed Child
- Help Your Child WANT to Behave
- How to Discipline a Toddler Who Deliberately Disobeys