Children Don’t Really Misbehave
by Thomas Gordon, Ph.D.
Most parents and teachers think of children as either “behaving” or misbehaving. ” This labeling of behavior as “good” and “bad” begins when the child is quite young. In our [P.E.T. and T.E.T.] training programs we try to help parents see that children don’t really misbehave.
Interestingly enough, the term is almost exclusively applied to children – seldom to adults. We never hear people say:
a.. ”My husband misbehaved yesterday.”
b.. “One of our guests misbehaved at the party last night.”
c.. “I got so angry when my friend misbehaved during lunch.”
d.. “My employees have been misbehaving lately.”
Apparently, it’s only children who are seen as misbehaving – no one else. Misbehavior is exclusively parent and teacher language, tied up somehow with how adults have traditionally viewed children. It is also used in almost every book on parenting I’ve read, and I’ve read quite a few.
I think adults say a child misbehaves whenever some specific action is judged as contrary to how the adult thinks the child should behave. The verdict of misbehavior, then, is clearly a value judgment made by the adult – a label placed on some particular behavior, a negative judgment of what the child is doing. Misbehavior thus is actually a specific action of the child that is seen by the adult as producing an undesirable consequence for the adult. What makes a child’s behavior misbehavior (bad behavior) is the perception that the behavior is, or might be, bad behavior for the adult. The “badness” of the behavior actually resides in the adult’s mind, not the child’s; the child in fact is doing what he or she chooses or needs to do to satisfy some need.
Put another way, the adult experiences the badness, not the child. Even more accurately, it is the consequences of the child’s behavior for the adult that are felt to be bad (or potentially bad), not the behavior itself.
When parents and teachers grasp this critical distinction, they experience a marked shift in attitude toward their children or students. They begin to see all actions of youngsters simply as behaviors, engaged in solely for the purpose of getting needs met. When adults begin to see children as persons like themselves, engaging in various behaviors to satisfy normal human needs, they are much less inclined to evaluate the behaviors as good or bad.
Accepting that children don’t really misbehave doesn’t mean, however, that adults will always feel accepting of what they do. Nor should they be expected to, for children are bound to do things that adults don’t like, things that interfere with their own “pursuit of happiness.” But even then, the child is not a misbehaving or bad child, not trying to do something to the adult, but rather is only trying to do something for himself.
Only when parents and teachers make this important shift – changing the locus of the problem from the child to the adult – can they begin to appreciate the logic of non-power alternatives for dealing with behaviors they don’t accept.