A Misbehaving Child is a Discouraged Child

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Where did we ever get the crazy idea that the way to make a child "do" better is to first make him or her "feel worse"? That is the premise of punishment; and it is truly crazy. Think of the last time you felt scolded and humiliated by another adult. Were you thinking, "This is so helpful. I really appreciate it. I will now do so much better, and I can hardly wait to consult you will all my problems." Unlikely. The truth is that children (and adults) do better when they feel better.

A theme of Adlerian psychology is that a misbehaving child is a discouraged child. The most powerful motivation for change is encouragement. If a child—or adult—misbehaves out of discouragement, it follows that the motive for misbehavior is removed when he or she feels encouraged.

Many years ago I decided to test this theory. My two-year-old son had been whining and I was so annoyed I felt like spanking him. Instead, remembering the concept of encouragement, I knelt down, gave him a hug, and told him how much I loved him. Not only did he stop whining and crying, but my annoyance magically disappeared.

If a child came up to you and innocently said, "I am a child, and I just want to belong," could you get angry and put that child down in any way? Of course not! What most adults don’t realize is that any child who is misbehaving is subconsciously saying, "I just want to belong, and I have some mistaken ideas about how to accomplish belonging." It takes courage from an adult to recognize the discouragement in a child and to respond with encouragement instead of more discouragement. It is much easier to "react" to the misbehavior with more misbehavior of our own.

Much of what takes place in homes and classrooms, though intended to encourage, does not foster courage. Adults attempt to motivate change through punishment and reward. Positive results are temporary and usually involve a heavy dose of discouragement. Children may do better to avoid the punishment or to gain the reward, but the price they pay is the loss of an inner locus of control, the loss of self-confidence, and the loss of opportunities to learn life skills.

Dreikurs emphasized encouragement and taught that it is the most important skill adults can learn in helping children. He said many times, "Children need encouragement, just as plants need water. They cannot survive without it."

The root word of encouragement is, of course, courage. When we strive to encourage others and ourselves, we are actually helping to develop courage to face life’s challenges and difficulties. Encouragement comes in many forms. Each of the many positive discipline tools is designed to help children feel better (encouraged), so they are motivated to do better. Watch for the foundation of encouragement in every Positive Discipline Tool we will be sharing.

For more on encouragement read the blog post by Kelly Bartlett: Encouraging Things to Say to Kids