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Are children naughty?

Posted in: Blog | June 5, 2020

Sharon K Hall PhD, author of ‘ Raising kids in the 21st century’ says, “When you make your expectations clear from the time your children are toddlers, they internalise those expectations and begin to expect the same from themselves.” She believes that, “from around 18 months old, they are empathetic and responsive to their parents’ expectations.” Whilst there is a lot of truth in that, we must remember that young toddlers and children don’t have the same skill set as their parents.

Does this mean that children who don’t behave in a way in which society in general finds acceptable, that we, as parents, have failed, and that our children are ‘naughty’?

Absolutely not! Throwing tantrums, hitting, spitting, scratching, kicking and ‘ talking back’, are not only ‘normal’ behaviours, but are also an intrinsic part of growing up. We can support their development into caring, responsible adults, by how we respond to them.

Children are naturally curious. ‘ What would happen if I put the goldfish in the toilet?’ A reasonable thought. Fish live in water, maybe a change of scenery would please them? These sorts of actions are not indicative of a ‘ naughty’ child. Indeed, we should celebrate the fact that our child is developing an enquiring mind. Although what my, then 2 years old son, thought would happen if he stuffed his sister’s shoes in the toilet, I’ve no idea! What I do know, is that in his mind, he was probably conducting a science experiment! Did I smile indulgently? Sadly, no. They were new shoes! I didn’t, however, let him see I was unimpressed. I didn’t throw myself on the floor, kicking and screaming, even though I’m sure it must be a great stress buster! This is the main difference between ‘us and them’! We have learned how to channel our frustrations into more positive acts. They are just learning.

Verbal communication is the key to all behaviour. If you can express your feelings, whether of joy, frustration or anger, by speaking about them, you are much more in control of those feelings. Toddlers and small children don’t have the verbal skills, empathy or logic to deal with life’s frustrations, or their natural impulses. For example, if, after a successful play date, little Barney kicks his friend as they are getting ready to leave, it doesn’t mean he’s ‘ naughty’, it simply means he is upset that the fun is over, but he can’t express himself verbally. Helen screams with rage when she can’t do her own coat up; she’s desperate to do it herself, and her reaction is one of frustration at a) not being able to do it, and b) not being able to express her feelings any other way. It’s important to see these displays of apparent aggression as a means of self- expression, for that is what they are.

‘Tantrums: (noun) an uncontrolled outburst of anger and frustration, typically in a small child.’ I believe this definition should be redefined. ‘ uncontrolled’ should become ‘ uncontrollable ‘ as that’s what they are. The children, as mentioned earlier, lack the vocabulary and the life experience to excerpt the necessary self- control to moderate their natural reactions to situations they find frustrating or upsetting. However, around 18 months or so, children experience an explosion of brain development. This brings with it, a desire for independence, but, unfortunately, not always the physical abilities to fulfil these desires, and they also still lack impulse control.

Obviously, part of teaching positive behaviour, requires a calm and positive response from adults. If your child is bitten, or bites, kicks, or is kicked etc. it is very rarely a personal attack. It is, as stated earlier, the consequence of an inability to communicate their feelings and frustrations. The children themselves seem to accept this as part of life. Within minutes, they are usually playing together happily.

We do, of course, as part of supporting them to express their feelings in a more positive way, need to address the issues. Comfort the recipient first of all. When they are calm, ask the other child to try to explain what they did, and why. If they lack the skills to understand, gently explain to them that they’ve hurt their friend and they are sad. With very small children, a quick, firm, ‘No!’ Usually suffices. The response is usually crying. No child wants to upset anyone. Let them cry for a couple of minutes, (this helps relieve tension) before offering comfort and an explanation as to why they’ve upset the other child.

Some children will need to be hugged and reassured as soon as the frustration is over, others may need to expend any pent-up feelings before seeking reassurance that they are still loved, and that their actions do not make them ‘ naughty’.

Either way, let us not label toddlers and small children as ‘ naughty’, ‘aggressive’ or ‘undisciplined’. They are ‘ normal’ children who need support to help develop the necessary tools to deal with their feelings. Anyone with older children will recognise that, as verbal communication increases, behaviour caused by frustration decreases. There is no blame at all. It’s simply a child’s response to the ever-changing world around them.

Sue Ord Dip.

HE BA English (Hons) 2:1 PGCE

Tiny Toes Early Years Child Development Specialist.