There are times when a child’s behaviour can seem so perplexing or irritating or infuriating, that even the most committed gentle parent might stop to wonder how on earth to respond. Maybe your baby is insistent about playing with the cord of the floor lamp. Maybe he throws his plate across the room like a frisbee as soon as you set it before him, laden with lovingly-prepared food. Perhaps your toddler walks into a playgroup, throws toys at the babies, bites another child, then throws himself down on the floor to scream as soon as you go to him. Maybe your pre-schooler starts making annoying repetitive noises while you’re trying to have coffee with a friend. Or perhaps it’s the daily squabbles between older children, the resistance to helping with chores, the back-talking or insolence. Many parents wonder, “How should I respond?”
I’ve been there. I was there only three hours ago. More about that later.
Some might say that a smack is the answer. Their argument goes that a child needs punitive discipline to be brought to obedience. The children described above are ‘spoiled’ and need to be taught that adults are in charge and children should fall into line. Show them who’s boss, and children will behave properly, the argument goes. If that’s what you believe, I guess we’re just not going to see eye to eye about this parenting issue, but let’s go for a coffee anyway and find out what else we might have in common.
There is no doubt in my mind that parents have a role to play in helping children learn socially acceptable standards of behaviour. Of course it’s not ok for the toddler to hurt another child. Of course I want my children to speak to me in a loving way. Sure, I’d rather that my older children not scream at each other. I don’t suggest that children should just be allowed to get on with it, without guidance. But I don’t think that punitive discipline methods are the way to get there, especially if your main parenting goal is to foster deep and loving connection with your children
What I am suggesting is a paradigm shift. I’m suggesting that we look at every behaviour as an expression of needs.
This isn’t a new idea. If you’ve ever been on a Non-Violent Communication course (as I have), you will have heard about this idea. If you’ve read Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Let me explain what I mean when I say that every behaviour is an expression of needs. Remember the toddler who pretty much melts down as soon as he walks into the playgroup? Let’s go sit beside him. He’s throwing toys at babies, he’s bitten another child, and now he’s in the throes of a tantrum. What needs is he expressing? I wonder whether he’s tired, hungry, overstimulated, overwhelmed or in need of attention? I wonder whether he really wants to be at this group? I’d consider whether it’s normal for him to struggle at groups such as these: is there a pattern for him? When I watch his behaviour, what can I learn about him?
(And if you want to take your observations deeper, if you are interested in leading a child-led life, consider: what do your own reactions teach you about yourself? Are you ashamed, infuriated, resigned? Is your instinct to punish or perhaps to retreat? What can you learn about YOU?)
There are other people in this picture. The other children have a need to play, a need to be safe, a need for space. Perhaps you as the parent have a need to be around other adults, a need for someone else to make you a coffee for once, a need for a change of scene (i.e., to get out of the house).
Now let’s think about the pre-schooler who’s being noisy while you’re talking to a friend. Have you ever been cut out of a conversation? Ever been to a party where everyone else seems to have something in common, except for you? Maybe your child has a need for acknowledgement, attention, entertainment or rest. You have a need to speak to your friend and your friend has a need to be with you.
The key is to consider each person’s needs and to ask, “How can everyone’s needs be met?”
Sometimes with a little creative problem-solving, everyone’s needs can be met. If your toddler has a need for a quiet morning but you have a need for stimulation and adult company, how about having play dates with one family at a time, either at home or at a local park or the beach/woods? If your pre-schooler needs entertainment and distraction, how about taking your friend to the local park so you can talk while you push your pre-schooler on the swing or ride the roundabout together?
Other times, compromises might be appropriate. You might need to make a request of your child or of yourself. Here, it helps to consider the developmental capabilities of each person involved. Many times I find that I naturally make more compromises, because I am the adult. Would I be willing to go without company this morning because my child is obviously struggling with unmet needs? Would I be willing to delay my visit with my friend until my pre-schooler has gone to bed? Would I be willing to put the floor lamp away until my baby understands that it’s dangerous to pull on the cord (or until he grows out of this stage)? Would I be willing to accept being spoken to unkindly by my child, because I understand that he’s still learning how to communicate when he’s angry?
So let me tell you about my morning. My elder daughter was irritated because while she was out last night, one of her younger siblings went into her bedroom and got out her High School Musical DVD. “I don’t want her going into my room and rooting around for things!” she said. So I said, “OK, so you don’t want her to go into your room. But she just wanted to watch the DVD and she had no malicious or nosy intent. It’s ok for her to watch the DVD, right?” She acknowledged that it was alright for her sister to watch it, but she objected to her sister entering her room without permission.
It was early, I’d had a bad night and I hadn’t had breakfast or a cup of tea. Many of my own needs were unmet! In hindsight, I can now see that my daughter has a need for space and autonomy. Her sister had a need for entertainment. But instead of acknowledging those needs, I said, “I think you’re being unreasonable. All she did was go into your room and get out a DVD. Stop being ridiculous.”
Not a stellar parenting moment, and at that point, communication ceased. And it’s no wonder, because this sort of evaluative commentary and directive reasoning, combined with my taking her sister’s side, was bound to make her think that I wasn’t going to listen to her.
As I considered how I could resurrect this communication stumble, I noticed that I didn’t need to. Already, the girls were upstairs talking about their needs, and I took the opportunity to overhear:
Child 1: “I know you want to watch those DVDs, and I don’t mind if you do, but I really don’t want you to go into my room and look through my things.”
Child 2: “But I didn’t look through your things! I just wanted to watch High School Musical!”
Child 1: “Okay, but what I’m going to do is put all my special things away, and just leave the DVDs on my desk, so if you want to watch one, it’s ok if you just go in there and get one. And if you don’t see the one you want, don’t look through my drawers because that means it’s already downstairs next to the DVD player. Are you happy with that compromise?”
Child 2: “Yeah, that’s a good idea! Ok!”
Child 1: “Thank you.”
What this interaction says to me is that these children (ages 10 and 7) have taken on board our family ethos that at the heart of every behaviour and communication there are deep, deep needs. Even though I stumbled this morning and shut my daughter down, I felt so grateful that afterwards she was able to draw on the examples of effective and loving communication that her father and I have tried to model. Instead of beating myself up, I practised self-compassion. I had so many unmet needs. And I acknowledge that this paradigm shift is something that takes practice. I’m human; I make mistakes. It’s okay. Maybe what I could have done is to say, “Would you be willing to talk about this after I’ve had breakfast and a cup of tea?” There will be another chance to practise, guaranteed.
Think back to when your child was a baby. When he cried, you picked him up. He needed to be held, or fed, or changed or kept warm. Maybe he woke a lot in the night. He needed company and reassurance. His communications were an expression of his needs. At the time, you probably needed rest, comfort, to be heard by others, to be supported, and perhaps sometimes you needed someone to acknowledge your needs for space, comfort and reassurance.
All human beings have needs, not just children. When we adopt a model of needs versus one of control, we instantly move into a position of compassion and love. When we see the beauty of other human beings and their needs, it is possible to see them and ourselves as fallible, needy, interdependent beings. I look into another person’s eyes and I see myself. I know that they have unmet needs and so do I. How can we work together to help our needs to be met?
It’s a different way of approaching every area of our lives. And when you look at life through these lenses, it changes everything.
Words and photographs © Lisa Hassan Scott 2013.