Children Don’t Misbehave

By Thomas Gordon, Ph.D. (author of P.E.T., founder of Gordon Training International)

If parents only knew how much trouble this word “misbehavior” causes in families! Thinking in terms of children misbehaving not only spells trouble for the kids, obviously, but it brings on unnecessary problems for their parents.

Why is this so? What is wrong with thinking and saying that your child misbehaved? Every parent does. Yes, and their parents before them did. In fact, the origin of the concept of child misbehavior goes back so far in history it is doubtful if anyone actually knows when it started or why. It’s so common nobody thinks to question it.

Strangely enough, the term misbehavior is almost exclusively applied to children–seldom to adults, friends, spouses. Have you ever overheard someone say, “My husband misbehaved yesterday,” “I took my friend to lunch and got so angry at her misbehavior,” “My team members have been misbehaving,” or “Our guests misbehaved at our party last night”? Apparently, then, only children are seen as misbehaving–no one else misbehaves.

Misbehavior then is “parent language”, tied up somehow with the way parents traditionally have viewed their offspring. Parents say children misbehave whenever their actions (or their behaviors) are contrary to how parents think their children ought to act or behave. More accurately, misbehavior is behavior that produces some sort of bad consequences for the parent.

Misbehaving = Child is doing something that is bad for the parent

On the other hand, when a child engages in behavior that does not bring bad consequences for the parent, that child is described as “behaving.”

“Jack was well-behaved at the store”; “We try to teach our children to behave”; “Behave yourself!”

Now we have:

Behaving = Child is doing something that is acceptable to the parent.

All Behaviors are Solutions to Human Needs

Family life would be infinitely less exasperating for parents and more enjoyable for children as well if parents accepted these basic principles about children:

Principle 1:

Like adults, children have basic needs that are important to them, and they continually strive to meet their needs by doing something.

Principle 2:

Children don’t misbehave. Their behaviors are simply actions they have chosen to meet these important needs.

These principles suggest that all children’s actions are behaviors. Viewed in this way, all day long a child is behaving, and for the very same reason all other creatures engage in behaviors–they are trying to get their needs met.

This does not mean, however, that parents will like all the behaviors their children engage in. Nor should they be expected to, for the children are bound to do things that sometimes produce unacceptable consequences for their parents. Kids can be loud and destructive, delay you when you’re in a hurry, pester you when you need quiet, cause you extra work, clutter up the home, interrupt your conversation, and break your valuables.

Think about such behaviors this way: they are behaviors children are engaging in to meet their needs. If at the same time they happen to interfere with your pursuit of pleasure, that doesn’t mean children are misbehaving. Rather, their particular way of behaving is unacceptable to you. Don’t interpret that children are trying to do something to you–they are only trying to do something for themselves. And this does not make them bad children or misbehaving children. But it may cause you a problem.

An infant cries because she is hungry or cold, or in pain. Something is wrong; her organism needs something. Crying behavior is the baby’s way of saying, “Help.” Such behavior, in fact, should be viewed as quite appropriate (“good”), for the crying is apt to bring the child the help that is needed. When you view the child as a creature that is doing something appropriate to get its needs met, you can’t really call it misbehaving.

If parents would strike the word “misbehaving” from their vocabulary, they would rarely feel judgmental and angry. Consequently, then they would not feel like retaliating with punishment. However, all parents do need to learn some effective methods of modifying behaviors that interfere with their needs and causes them a problem, but labeling the child as misbehaving is not one of them.

(Excerpted from the P.E.T. Participant Workbook.  Copyright 2006, Gordon Training International)