From the time that our babies learn to walk and talk, we are hit with warnings.
The “terrible twos” are coming.
You’re in trouble now!
Just wait until she’s a threenager.
Oh please, that’s a breeze compared to my middle schooler.
They’ll walk all over you if you let them!
He’s just trying to see what he can get by with.
She’ll keep pushing boundaries just to push your buttons!
We are, in fact, smothered with messages about how we must get a handle on our children or there will be hell to pay for years to come. Our culture is constantly feeding us negative ideas about children. When they are infants, we see them as blessings and gifts. We are quick to gush over newborn babies as “innocent” and “sweet,” but just wait a few months and the messages begin to change. We are constantly told about how they will manipulate us, test our authority, push our buttons, and see what they can get away with. With the dire warnings come loads of advice telling us the best way to control our little tyrants – so they don’t control us.
It’s no wonder, then, that we learn to assign negative intent to our children’s behavior. The clamor of the world drowns out the whispers of our hearts, and we end up viewing our children less as gifts and more as mischief to be managed. You may begin seeing our child’s motives as negative (to gain control, to manipulate, to challenge) and when you see negative intent, this triggers negative reactions. You become angry, embarrassed, frustrated, or frightened, and in that triggered state, you become reactive. You may even justify making your child feel bad through your “discipline” because, in your mind, you are doing it to make her a better person in the long run. So, you scold her wrongdoings and highlight her character flaws in the process. Unfortunately, when our children see the “badness” that we see, they may come to themselves that way, too. But they don’t just see their behavior as bad, but often they see themselves as bad. If that works its way into a child’s self-concept, you’ll see the “bad” behaviors repeated again and again.
If, on the other hand, you choose to see positive intent, then you can see that she’s a good person who needs guidance on this issue. You’ll see more than the behavior; you’ll see the heart and soul of the human being exhibiting it. Though you still correct the behavior, you can now approach her with a different tone and attitude, changing your language so that you reflect her light.
Below are a couple of examples of negative versus positive intent from my book, The Positive Parenting Workbook.
Mason comes running to tell you that his sister, Mia, spilled the red juice she was drinking. Mia says she did not! Her lips are red, so you know she’s been drinking red juice, and the spill is in her room where she has been playing while Mason has been with you making sandwiches. Mason discovered the spill when he went to Mia’s room to call her for lunch.
Negative intent: You think, She’s a sneaky little liar! You say, “You liar! I see the juice stains on your mouth! Mason was honest. Why wouldn’t you just be honest with me? I’m very disappointed in you. It’s wrong to lie.”
“Liar” is not a label you want to stick. If a child thinks she’s a liar, she’ll be a liar. Then if she gets punished for being a liar, she’ll become a sneaky liar. Self-fulfilling prophesy! You just created what you feared. Remember, our behaviors reflect what we believe about ourselves.
Positive intent: You think, She doesn’t want to get in trouble or disappoint me. You say, “Hmm. I see cherry red lips. I value your honesty. Were you drinking juice and it accidentally spilled? Sometimes I spill things by accident. No big deal. We just need to clean it up. Come help me.”
Doesn’t the tone feel much different in the second scenario? The first one probably leaves Mia feeling like a terrible person. In the second example, she may feel a bit of guilt for spilling the juice or even for fibbing, but she doesn’t get shamed or berated. She cleans up her mess, and you move on.
How can you assign positive intent to bad behavior? The difference is in being mindful of the thoughts that arise when you see “bad” behavior. It is your thoughts about what is driving your child that will determine how you feel and, as a result, respond to the issue. Let’s look at how the intent you perceive determines the actions you take.
A child hits his brother.
Negative intent: He is a naughty child trying to hurt his sibling.
Action: Believing he is acting maliciously will likely incite anger, or at least frustration, in you. This could cause your tone to be sharp. You might verbalize your thoughts, calling him “mean” or “naughty,” and you’ll likely feel he needs some sort of punishment.
The child learns: He is bad or mean. His parent is mad at him. He may believe his brother is favored.
Positive intent: He is needing attention or direction and asking for it in an immature way, as children do. He doesn’t have the words to express his needs.
Action: Because you see that his aggression is a signal for help, you aren’t moved to anger. You are able to address his action calmly. You view him as an immature child needing guidance rather than a mean child needing punishment, so guidance is what you give. You bring him onto your lap and tell him that you won’t allow him to hit and that you will help him calm down. You might look through a book or practice counting to ten while taking big breaths. You’ll then tell him two or three things he can do when he’s upset, practice them, and then as him how to repair the relationship with his brother.
The child learns: Hitting is not an acceptable release of anger. His parent is on his side. How better to handle anger. How to apologize and repair relationships. Emotional intelligence.
Your five-year-old is having a tantrum.
Negative intent: She is manipulating her parents to get her way.
Action: If you feel manipulated, you will likely follow the common advice to ignore her to prove that she has no power over you.
The child learns: Mistrust. Being ignored by one who loves you hurts deeply, and when you feel you can’t depend on someone to pay attention to you in your time of need, mistrust forms. She also learns that she is accepted (she may see this as loved) by you only when she is “good.”
Positive intent: She is a very young person struggling with a heavy load of emotions and needs the help of an adult to wade through them.
Action: Seeing a child as needing help doesn’t move you to ignore her but to actually move in closer and offer support. If a child is kicking and screaming and you can’t move in physically, you remain emotionally tuned in and available. Otherwise, you embrace her while her sobs subside and she returns to calm.
The child learns: She is loved unconditionally. Her parent will be there for her when she feels out of control or upset. Trust.
Learning to ascribe positive intent to what we see as misbehavior is a positive parenting skill that we can learn through reframing and practice. Even if your child has negative intent, by seeing the best in your child and treating them that way, you help lift them to the moral high ground. Love sees the best in others.