Myth of the misbehaved child

Are the behavior and character same? Does a misbehave make me a bad person? All of us are work in progress so why to bother child for their misbehavior. Rather give them the gift of understanding and help them to flourish.

“So how do you handle a child who misbehaves”? was asked by a set of parents who were visiting our center. In a blinding rush my childhood flashed in front of me – they were talking about me! (rather kids like me). I smiled, “There is no child who misbehaves.” They were completely puzzled and started a spontaneous objection, “But…” I interrupted them, “Wait, come with me outside.”

“We have a crossroads right outside our center. If you stand there for some time you can see four big cars driven by four high profile well-to-do, highly educated gentlemen in their 40s, who come in from four different directions. Each will impatiently honk at the other wanting to be the first one to go and each will eventually wind down their windows and shout in inappropriate language.”

The mother almost sighed in acknowledgement of this common occurrence. I continued, “So how are these adults different from four 4 year-olds fighting over who will be the first one to go on a slide? Are the 4 year-olds and 40+ year- old all misbehaving?

The parents were silent for some time, and then the mother remarked, “This is fine but you do have children who are generally aggressive, who hit others without provocation, who are generally misbehaving for no reason.”

I retorted “Aren’t we all misbehaving in some way? Some of us hit physically, some of us tease, some of us manipulate, some of us don’t respond, some of us bully, some of us take sides or form groups, some of us use sarcasm, some of us play politics, and so on. Haven’t you, as an adult, misbehaved in some way or other”?

Let me put three propositions and see if together they make some sense to you in the way we have misunderstood the so-called misbehaved child.

One, no child gets up in the morning and says, “Today I will misbehave”!

Second, each child is trying his best in any situation possible.

Third, who needs the most understanding from us – the one who is misbehaving or the one who is not?

“Interesting”, piped the father, “Sometimes I get up in the morning and think about my child misbehaving! While he is actually a fresh ‘being’ every morning.”

Yes, I wish every teacher had a reset button – which she or he could activate while going to bed every night. I wish we could all look at each child in the morning making a new beginning with a new set of potentialities.

The mother was a little skeptical. “Just because it’s a new morning, it does not mean that the child will behave differently.”

“Exactly”, I replied, “Likewise it does not imply that we, as teachers or parents, behave better every new day. In fact, so many of us know that punishing, scolding, etc., does not work – rather it only belittles the child, and yet we (mis)behave in the same way every day. But if we could connect with the child, not with the baggage of his past actions, but with the possibilities that every new day offers, we can ask the child to think of different ways of responding.”

“Hmmm”, the father was pensive now, “we need to understand the child better – but how do we do it right at the time the child is misbehaving, because that is the time when we get impatient?”

“For that, I have a formula, provided you first resolve that there is no child who misbehaves”.

The mother was still doubtful, “But some children will still hit or hurt.”

So one needs to separate the child from his or her misbehaviour. You see, the child is not the misbehavior, only the action is. Child is not what he or she is does, child is much more than that; Actions do not define the child. If we can understand the child, we can address the action / misbehaviour.

“Please tell us the formula,” the father said eagerly.

I smiled and showed them a poster with these two lines

Judge the actions of others by their intentions.

Judge your own action by the consequences.

I offered an explanation. “We often do the opposite: We judge our actions based on our intentions. Since our intentions are mostly pure and positive – we justify or defend our actions.

However, we judge the actions of others by the consequences – how it has affected us or a third person. If we are feeling bad because of the actions of the others it is good enough reason for us to pounce (externally or internally) on that person.”

The mother asked, “Can you please give an example?”

“Okay: Let’s say a child is shouting at the top of his voice that he wants to be the first one in the queue. We are irritated by this behavior and we scold him for shouting. The child sulks on being scolded. The consequence of his action was that the class was disturbed and we were irritated, and therefore we scolded the child. We could have alternatively judged his action not by the consequence, but by his intention of wanting to feel good (or important) by being the first in the queue. If we could have done that, we would have empathized with this need. We could have then asked him to elaborate on other ways where he could have felt good or important”.

In some ways we can be more understanding of the child’s actions when we look at the child’s intentions. On the other hand, we justify our scolding because we like our intention of ‘helping the child improve’ or keeping the decorum of the class intact. However we could’ve judged our action by its consequence (child sulking) and realized that this consequence is not what we want. This will help us improve or change our action so that what we do is more effective. This way we can be more responsible for our actions.

After a long silence, the father remarked, “So, no child really misbehaves. But there can be a more understanding response from us (parents and teachers) to any kind of misbehaviour”.

“Exactly”, a big grin was writ on my face, “Now you are talking just as I would like each teacher and parent to talk – to take an inclusive and resourceful stance.” Also, you realize like everything else in the curricula, behaviour is something the child is learning. With this formula of understanding and responsibility, we can help the child in this learning process and thereby make a huge difference to his life.

There are no misbehaved children, only work-in-progress children”.