MISBEHAVIOR IS A MYTH

“If parents would strike the word ‘misbehaving’ from their vocabulary, they would rarely feel judgmental and angry.” —Thomas Gordon


Can you imagine? Just strike a single word from your vocabulary and you’ll rarely feel judgmental or angry?

Sounds way too good to be true, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t just some Joe Schmoe who made such a claim. It was Dr. Thomas Gordon! The internationally renowned psychologist nominated not once but three times for the Nobel Peace prize for his pioneering work in communication skills and peaceful conflict resolution. So, there had to be some truth to it. And since I was eager to live a life feeling less judgmental and angry, I wanted to know exactly what he meant.

It took me decent awhile to really wrap my head around it, but once I did, it was truly life altering. What I came to realize is that it’s not simply about just not saying the word “misbehavior,” but rather grasping the hard-to-grasp concept that misbehavior as we know it doesn’t exist. That it’s actually a misnomer. Even an oxymoron.

Let me explain.

Behavior, as I learned, is a universal language—one that all humans are born speaking. In fact, at first, our behavior does all of our communicating for us to ensure that as helpless newborns we get what we need—not just to survive, but to thrive. For instance, when we cry; reach and scrunch up our faces, our caregivers do their best to interpret our behavior and respond in a helpful way. They wonder if we need food, or sleep, or if we’re cold or if we need some love and attention. Then, based on how we respond to their response to our behavior, our caregivers know if they’re on the right track or not. Hmmm. She’s still crying after I’ve changed her. Maybe she’s hungry. Sure, there’s trial and error involved, but the longer our caregivers know us and the more they pay attention to our cues and patterns, the better they understand what our behavior is saying and it becomes easier to respond helpfully.

And even as we grow and begin to speak our native tongue, we never stop speaking behavior. For instance, if you saw me rubbing my arms, you’d probably guess I was cold and trying to warm myself. And likely if you had an extra coat, you’d loan it to me. In other words, my behavior (arm rubbing) both expressed my physiological need for warmth and it effectively helped me get that need met. While the need(s) driving our behavior aren’t always so obvious, it remains that all of our behavior is continually driven by our needs. And our basic human needs are non-negotiable. We can wish we didn’t have them as much as we want, but they will never go away because they are part and parcel of being homo sapiens.

This begs the question: What exactly are these basic needs? 

Needs aren’t wants. They’re not I need a coat. Or I need a candy bar. Those are merely ways of satisfying needs, and there are an infinite number of ways to do that—some healthy, some not so much. Rather, there are only a handful or so of basic human needs and they are the same for all people across all time. Over the past 75 years, various folks have identified these needs in a range of ways. The first was the renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow who, in 1943 named five universal human needs (and later added a sixth). They are:

1) physiological (a need for food, water, sleep, etc.);

2) safety (a need for shelter, financial resources);

3) love (a need to belong, for friendship, family, a partner);

4) esteem (a need for respect, achievement, self-confidence);

5) self-actualization (a need for values, creativity, problem-solving);

6) self-transcendence (a need to help others, to feel at one with the world).

Maslow explained that behavior “must be understood to be a channel through which many basic needs may be simultaneously expressed or satisfied. Typically, an act has more than one motivation.” For example, a baby nursing is at once satisfying her physiological need for sustenance as well as, perhaps, her need for safety and love. Similarly, I am motivated to write this essay to satisfy my need for safety (financial resources), esteem (achievement, the respect of others), self-actualization (creativity and problem-solving), and self-transcendence (helping others). If for some reason someone (perhaps a dictator) passed a law where I wasn’t allowed to write what I wanted, then I would be driven to try to find another way to meet those needs. Or I might risk the punishment because the need was so pressing.

We never stop speaking behavior. Nonetheless, and perhaps not surprisingly, often around the time children start to speak—adults usually stop trying to interpret their children’s behavior (with the intention of responding in a helpful way) and instead start trying to control their behavior through language and discipline techniques. For instance, if a toddler is hitting, we may say, “Hitting hurts. We don’t allow hitting,” and then we may give a time-out. This method of “discipline” (making them suffer more for doing something “bad”) will ultimately fail to stop the hitting in the long run because it doesn’t address the need the child was trying to meet by hitting. What the child needs is help finding a better way to meet the need, not punishment. And that’s our job as parents, to help them find that better way. For needs long to be met and if we can’t be satisfy them one way, then we’ll try to find another—relentlessly. Certainly, how we help a teenager, will be different than how we help a newborn. 

For me, understanding this idea of needs driving behavior clicked when my friend Patrick—dad to Aiden, 2.5 years old and Ethan, 8-month old—told me this story of how he turned his miserable mornings around.

“So for the past few weeks every morning I’ve almost lost my mind. Eric [his husband] leaves for work early, so it’s just me and the boys. And basically our routine is I get up, I get the boys up and dressed, and then first I serve Aiden his cereal. Then I sit next to him to feed Ethan on my lap. Simple! But inevitably, now, just when Ethan opens his mouth for his first bite, Aiden climbs up on the table and starts batting our chandelier.”

“At first I told him very calmly but firmly, ‘Please come down. Tables aren’t for climbing. Tables are where we eat.’ But he didn’t listen. He just stayed up there hitting the damn thing. ‘That’s very delicate and could break. Please don’t hit it anymore,’ I said trying to give him more information. But he kept on hitting it. So, totally frustrated, I put Ethan in the Pack ’n Play, picked Aiden off the table, and said, ‘I’m not going to let you climb up here anymore,’ then I put him down and picked Ethan up and started over. And then Aiden just did it again! I figured he was trying to test my limit, right? I figured there were only so many times he’d do it before he got the message that I won’t stand for it. I But, it just went on and on.

“Eventually, I lost it and started yelling. But even that didn’t make a difference. Finally, our babysitter walked in, I handed Ethan to her so she could feed him and then took Aiden to preschool, totally spent—and pissed!

“And then, as luck would have it, the topic in my next parenting class was about needs driving behavior. I wasn’t sure what the teacher meant, but the next morning when, on cue, Aiden climbed on the table just as I was about to feed Ethan, I remember what we’d learned—to ask ourselves ‘What is the behavior saying? What need is he trying to meet?—and almost as soon as I asked myself the question, I had an answer. Belonging! To be a party of the family! I figured, Aiden was feeling left out. After all, he’d had a couple years of my undivided attention every morning, and now I was focusing on Ethan! It wasn’t brain surgery, but I’d never thought about it before. 

“So instead of sounding like a broken record saying, ‘We don’t climb on tables,’ I said, ‘Aiden, every time I’m about to feed Ethan, you hit the chandelier, even though you know it’s not allowed. That tells me you have some strong feelings about me feeding your brother. Are you feeling left out?’ He looked down.

“‘Well, if you are, I can understand that. Before Ethan came along you had all of my attention at breakfast. I don’t want you to feel left out. I love being with you. Hmmm, I wonder what we can do to include you when it’s time to feed your brother?’”

“I could see him thinking, but he didn’t say anything. So I threw out an idea: ‘Would you like to help feed Ethan?’”

“He literally lit up. He climbed right off the table himself! Without me saying a word. He sat right next to me and helped fed his brother. And he was proud! He just wanted to feel included. Problem solved!”

The more I thought about it, I realized how ironic it is that we say children misbehave when in fact the opposite is true. Children’s behavior that we find disruptive isn’t actually “mis” anything. We may find it troubling or infuriating, but it isn’t intrinsically “bad” or “wrong.” On the contrary, a child’s behavior is exceedingly accurate. It is at once a true expression of their need at a particular moment as well as reflection of their ability to meet that need. It’s precisely as Dr. Marshall Rosenberg said, “…what others do to us is the best possible thing they know to do to get their needs met.” Meaning, kids are doing their best based on their cognitive development, temperament and life experience. Imagine getting “in trouble” for doing your best. Confusing, for sure. 

The tragedy of it all is that once we adults have judged a child’s behavior as “misbehavior,”—which in our culture is happening constantly—it gives us license to dole out consequences and punishment. Which is heartbreaking because what children really need is understanding and help finding more acceptable ways to meet their needs. And the truth is, no matter how much we punish kids, the needs will not go away. Which is not to say Dr. Gordon didn’t think problems needed to be solved. Of course, he did. He just understood that punishing a child for “misbehaving” wasn’t the answer.