When my son was four, I took him on a day trip to sled and play in the snow. It was a beautiful cold yet sunny day. Up on a mountain, with the alps in the background we climbed up and sled down a hill some 25 times in a row. When I was a feeling cold and tired, I let my son know I would be sitting down for a break.
Within seconds I felt a sharp, freezing blow to my face. My eye hurt terribly. There was a strange mixture of cold and burning pain going on and I was totally dazed.
As I processed what had happened, I came to understand that my son had thrown a chunk of snow covered ice right into my face.
Except he had no idea it was a chunk of ice.
He had made a mistake.
He had no idea it would hurt me.
He just wanted the fun to continue.
But this wasn’t fun anymore. At all. I was doubled down in pain.
While I was hurt, my little four year old was scared.
I learned a lot from that painful moment that has helped me be a better, calmer mother over the years:
- Children make mistakes.
- Children misbehave.
- Misbehavior isn’t always what is seems.
- Parents and children have disagreements and disconnect.
How we choose to address the disconnection, misbehavior and mistakes makes a big difference. When misbehavior shows up we can help the child feel capable of doing better. And this means the child can change their behavior for the better. Because children are very willing to learn when they feel safe and loved.
Helping Children Learn from Mistakes
What I learned that day, once the pain had subsided, is that my child needed me to help him understand his mistake. He needed me to forgive him, to love him and to help him get back to feeling safe and secure.
“That was ice. The ice feels harsh and cold on my skin. It actually burns. It hurt me a lot. I bet my painful yelp scared you too.”
We hugged for a long time and we both cried.
Eventually I said something about what had happend…”If you don’t like it when I say we need to stop playing, I want you to tell me, not throw something at me. Do you understand?” I added. “Yes, mom, I do.” Came a reply. “I wanted to play, not hurt you.”
And so we were both ready to play again. “Hey, do you see how heavy the ice is? Snow feels light and fluffy, it’s easier to throw. Want to try again?” we continued. Me offering some guidance, my son willing to listen and trusting me.
That was it. No time out, no consequences, no punishments.
My son did not need me to make him feel bad, just because he had mistakenly made me feel pain. He needed to know I have faith in his ability to do better, to learn, to make amends. He needed to know that the right thing to do about making mistakes is to apologize wholeheartedly. He needed to understand what he could have done differently.
That night, before falling asleep, my son reached up and kissed my cheek, exactly on the red spot the ice had burned. “I am sorry I hurt you with the ice mamma.” he said. “I am sorry I scared you when I yelled.” I said back.
Is It Really Misbehavior or Just Mistakes and Unmet Needs?
We will all have moments when we will receive messages from our children in a totally different way than they mean it. They will throw what seems like ice our way even if they intend to throw snow. And if we can make the choice to see our child’s mistakes as opportunities to offer guidance we can help them grow well. This positive road isn’t always clear or easy but it does make a world of difference to your bond with your child. It often helps me to remember that misbehavior isn’t always what it seems.
“Children don’t misbehave, they simply behave to get their needs met.” – Dr. Thomas Gordon
Even now, many years later, when my son and I aren’t seeing eye-to-eye I might ask myself, is he looking for ways to connect with me but totally missing the mark? Do we need to pause and reconnect? What kind of guidance is missing here? Is pain or fear clouding my judgement or thoughts?
The amazing thing about this approach to misbehavior is that it works in the toddler years and now it’s working in our pre-teen adventures…At age ten, my son knows that sometimes we need to pause and start over.
“This feels like an ice ball situation” I said to my son recently sensing a potential power struggle in the making…
He was trying to argue his way into something with less than nice words…“I think we need to find a better way to talk about this” I continued. “Oh, mom, Ok. I don’t think you are understanding me. Wait, I will try again.” My son answered. Then he took a deep breath and we smiled at each other. Because of that pause (and about six years of practice, imperfect moments and willingness to reconnect) we were able to continue our argument in a respectful and helpful way. “I’m worried. That is how I feel right now, worried…” he went on trusting me with his needs and feelings. And we worked things out.
The Power of Choosing Guidance Instead of Punishment
This process of offering guidance, listening for needs and trusting that children are capable of learning is what is at the core of parenting with respect, love and kindness. Positive Parenting is not at all about getting children to behave perfectly all the time. It’s about seeing mistakes (ours and theirs) as part of the journey. Guidance and trust replaces punishment and consequences, and as a result children want to do better, because they believe, rightfully so, that they can.
There is no doubt that as your child grows, they will make choices that turn out to be mistakes. Misbehavior in childhood is guaranteed to happen. Being willing to accept, validate, listen and offer guidance instead of punishment is sure to make a positive difference in their life.
Peace & Be Well,