Good Parenting Tips for Understanding Bad Behavior
As I was talking to a mother on a video call, she said that she had been trying to “stop” her boys from arguing, teasing, and tormenting each other with all manner of gestures and tones. “I tell them,” she said, “that we have a 'Zero Tolerance' for anger, whining, and teasing, but they keep doing it. I think it might be unconscious. Maybe they don’t understand what they’re doing.”
I burst into laughter and said, “When you walk on a flat, safe surface, are you conscious of moving each muscle required for walking?”
“So, you’re walking, but it’s almost all unconscious, right? In fact, sometimes you forget you’re even walking, yes?”
“Have you ever walked in the woods?”
“Sure, a few times.”
“I live in the woods, so I do it a lot. When I walk on the concrete and wood and gravel paths on the way to the woods, I’m not consciously choosing how my legs move. It’s just habit.
"But when I enter the woods to do a project—or just for fun—everything changes. The ground is uneven, and almost everywhere on the ground there are roots, sticks, logs, animal burrows, small tree stumps, and more.
"If I continue walking in the woods with the same unconscious stride I use on the concrete, every one of those objects can cause me to stumble and fall. I have to watch every single step I take in the woods, because these objects are everywhere and sometimes not easily visible.
"On occasion, though, as I’m working in the woods, I become occupied with a task and take a step unconsciously. Commonly, my foot snags on a root or branch, and then either I stumble or even fall to the ground—with unpleasant results.”
How to Teach Your Children to Choose Loving Behaviors
I continued: “When I’m in the woods, I CHOOSE to make my steps CONSCIOUSLY. I choose to switch from unconscious to conscious walking, and you can teach your kids to do the same with their thoughts, speech, and behavior.
"First, you have to point out to them EVERY single unloving behavior. EVERY time. If you don’t, they regard each failure to say something as your giving them PERMISSION to behave badly. Fact.
"If you teach them every time they’re unloving, though, you’ll teach them to become conscious of behavior that has always been unconscious. It’s understandable that they are unconscious of their ‘bad’ behaviors. You have actually TAUGHT them—unconsciously on your part—to feel empty and afraid.
"So, they have learned to REACT UNCONSCIOUSLY to their pain all day, instead of consciously making loving choices. And by saying nothing, you have taught them that their reactions to pain were acceptable. But all that unconscious reacting can begin to change now.”
As we spoke, I could hear the sounds of unkind conversation in the next room, so I said to Mom, “Call one of them in here to join the conversation.”
Teaching a Child that He DOES Understand His Choices: A Demonstration
Ten-year-old Jay came in. Keep in mind that Jay’s mother had already taught him about the behaviors that are unloving and unacceptable. I introduced myself until he felt less uneasy, and then I said, “Tell me some of the manipulative, terrible behaviors you’ve done today with your older brother.”
I repeated the question exactly, and he looked at me with that expression that children often use, where they are imitating the intelligence and understanding of a rabbit: quizzical, puzzled, bewildered, and innocent, all at the same time.
I smiled and turned to Mom: “Do you recognize the expression on his face?”
“What do you mean?” she asked, with almost the same expression as her son’s. This conversation was very different from anything she had experienced, so she too was puzzled.
By now I was chuckling. “When I ask him about his behavior, he acts like he has no idea what I’m talking about. And he succeeds in convincing you that he really doesn’t know.
"Here’s the useful part: Often he’s not aware CONSCIOUSLY of what he’s doing, but if you ask him to THINK about it—even just by asking him a question—he really can CHOOSE to BECOME CONSCIOUS of what he was doing.
“Watch this,” I said to her as I turned to Jay. “Jay, let’s play a game and do a test at the same time. It won’t be difficult.”
Jay’s expression changed from bewildered to curious.
“Do you understand,” I said, “the meaning of the phrase, ‘Tell me?’ For example, if I say, ‘Tell me your name,’ what would you say?”
“Okay then. You’re one hundred percent correct so far. Now, what do I mean by the word ‘some’? If I say, ‘Tell me SOME of the letters of the alphabet, do I want you to recite ALL of them?”
“So SOME means more than zero but less than all of something, yes?”
“You’re still perfect,” I said with a smile and lifted brows.
“Do you know the word MANIPULATIVE?”
“Sneaky,” he said. “Trying to get what you want by being sneaky.”
“That’s about as good a definition of that word as I’ve heard. What about the word TERRIBLE?”
“Awful, bad, horrible.”
“Hmmm, so you really do understand what I said to you earlier. You got the first half, so I’m certain you understand the second half. The whole sentence went like this: ‘Tell me some of the manipulative, terrible behaviors you’ve done today with your brother.’ Remember now? So tell me some of the behaviors.”
Jay said, “Teasing.”
“YES!” I said. “You tease your brother a lot. What else? Just from today.”
“I got angry and called him names.” He paused.
I calmly—even with some humor in my face—said, “Keep going. You’re doing great.”
“I used his things without asking. I argued.”
“Nice work, Jay.”
Good Parenting Tip: Be Consistent
I turned to Mom: “See how smart he really is? When you ask him what he did, he always acts like you’re speaking some foreign language. He acts like he has no idea what you’re talking about, but the truth is he DOES understand.
"You just need to continue talking to him until his unconscious feelings and behaviors become conscious to him. Then he can describe them. Then he can begin to make wiser and more loving choices.
"It’s not that he doesn’t understand. The truth is that (1) he doesn’t WANT to understand, and (2) you’re not teaching him consistently.”
Mom learned to love and teach, and steadily Jay and his brother became consciously aware of their behaviors. They learned to make conscious, loving choices. They worked to find solutions to their problems. Sometimes they needed to be motivated with consequences.
Children don’t behave badly because they’re evil, or because they weren’t taught at school. They behave badly because they haven’t been taught what loving feels like, nor have they been taught how to be loving toward others. They haven’t been taught by their parents.
It’s all about the parents.
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