Two Things Every Child Needs for Intrinsically Motivated Cooperation

Two Things Every Child Needs for Intrinsically Motivated Cooperation

Your child’s behavior is not the problem. Really.

If your child’s behavior is not the problem, then what is?

Some parents reply, “I’m the problem!”  It’s true that you may be part of the problem but here’s the real answer . . .

The problem is the problem. There’s always something deeper that causes the behavior to show up. Always.

Behavior is only what we see . . . it’s on the tip of the iceberg.

But under the surface children have beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and abilities (or lack thereof based on developmental stage and physical or neurological differences) that are driving what we see.

belief behind behavior iceberg

When we get curious, and look under the surface, we begin to see that our kids want to do well, they want to please us and stay connected, but something is getting in their way. Our job is then to figure out what that is . . .

Sometimes what’s getting in the way is a basic feeling of hunger or fatigue. We’ve all seen how hunger and fatigue can affect our kids’ behavior, right?

Sometimes what’s getting in the way is abilities or rather, the lack thereof. When we expect our kids to do something that they’ve not yet developed the skills to do, that can also end up looking like “misbehavior.” For example, if you tell your 4YO child to color inside the lines, they might throw the crayon or scream out of frustration.

But there’s something else that gets in the way.

Alfred Adler, the pioneering psychiatrist whose philosophy underlies Positive Discipline, proposed that very often, what’s getting in the way of behaving well are feelings, thoughts or beliefs having to do with two things:  Belonging and Significance.

Belonging:  I’m included, connected, loved

Significance:  I matter, I’m capable, I’m worthy

At the heart of Positive Discipline is the Adlerian theory (it’s really more fact than theory now) that all children (and adults) have a strong and basic need for belonging and significance.

And when children feel, believe, or think that these basic needs are not getting met, they will try to get their needs met, in whatever way they can think of, which might be to whine, or have a tantrum, or sneak, or any number of “misbehaviors.”

For example, if you believe you’re not included, not connected or loved enough after a new baby sibling comes home from the hospital, you might be more clingy or whiny, or you might try to push the baby off the bed (exactly what my oldest did at age 3.)

These are feelings, beliefs, and thoughts that can get in the way of doing or behaving well.

Think of yourself for a moment. When you feel rejected, (for example, how you might feel when you don’t get invited to the neighborhood Mom’s night out) or humiliated (when your boss criticizes you in front of the whole team), do you behave differently?

Most adults will admit that it’s hard not to behave differently because things like rejection and humiliation hurt.

Thanks to brain scan research using FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), we now know that the place in the brain that registers social pain is the same place in the brain that registers physical pain. (Read more about this fascinating research in Matthew Lieberman’s book, “Social”)

To the brain, a threat to my belonging or significance feels just like a threat to my physical safety, and before I know it I’m ready to fight (with defiance or back talk for example), or flee (avoiding, lying, sneaking, etc.), or flop (accept my fate as a boring and useless member of society and give up.)

The opposite is also true:  when belonging and significance are strongly felt, many misbehaviors simply disappear.

There’s no need for back talk when I feel connected and respected. There’s no reason to push the baby off the bed when I know I’m loved, valued, and needed as much as ever.

As Jane Nelsen of Positive Discipline frequently notes, “kids do better when they feel better” and “where did we get the crazy idea that in order to make kids do better, we have to make them feel worse?”

The opposite is true, and it’s true for me, too:  when I’m well-fed, well-slept, and when I feel loved, appreciated, respected, and capable, I do better – as a Mom and person in general.

So how do we help our children perceive that strong sense of belonging and significance (without feeding a sense of entitlement)?

belonging and significance

One very easy thing to do is put your smart phone away and really listen to your child with your eyes, your body, and your heart. Deep listening is one sure way to send the message that “you matter, and I care about you.” This tool is called a GEM, a Genuine Encounter Moment and I swear when I use it, my child naturally gets more cooperative.

Another is to give your children meaningful responsibilities in the home, so that they learn life skills and create the belief that “I matter, I’m needed, I’m capable.”

These are just two of many tools that can help you parent with more peace and cooperation.  

Learn more tips and tools at the upcoming Free TeleClass:

6 Obstacles to Peaceful, Positive Parenting (and how to get around them)

In this short, one-hour, parenting training, you’ll learn:

  • The 6 most common obstacles that get in the way of peaceful, positive parenting
  • The #1 perspective shift that can make all the difference
  • Two simple, effective parenting tools that are easy to implement and improve respectful communication and cooperation right away
  • My favorite phrase to invite rather than demand cooperation
  • The most important thing you can do right now, to help you raise respectful, resourceful, and self-disciplined kids.

You will also have the opportunity to ask questions in a live Q&A.  

This class is based on my experience coaching hundreds of parents as well as the popular book series, “Positive Discipline” by Jane Nelsen.

Click here to reserve your spot for the free parenting teleclass

“Thanks so much for offering this free teleclass on positive parenting!  It was well structured, delivered effectively and just the right amount of info and action items.  I got several take-aways that I can implement right away with my son.  Thank you!”  

— Helen Bouras, Mother of 2 children

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Marcilie Smith Boyle, MBA, CPCC is a Life, Leadership, and Parenting Coach who helps high-achieving, working parents find authentic success in their personal and professional lives. She offers 1:1 and group coaching (live or via phone/Skype) on topics such as parenting, work/life balance, career transition, and leadership as well as Parenting with Positive Discipline classes and speaking engagements in the San Francisco Bay Area. 


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