Many parents I talk with have children whose behaviors are baffling and difficult to understand. These children appear to enjoy “being bad,” laugh when they’ve made an adult angry, and show no remorse after they’ve emotionally or physically hurt someone.
I spoke with a couple that told me the director of their upscale preschool told them their 4-year-old son was, “The worst child I’d ever seen. He appears to understand but not care about the rules. He’s aggressive and violent with other children and shows no remorse for his actions. He seems almost like a sociopath.”
While it’s typical for adults to rush to conclusions about these children (Emotionally Disturbed, Bi-Polar, Autistic, Oppositional-Defiant, or even Sociopathic) there are simpler explanations for the behavior and motivations of these children.
Imagine a 3 or 4 year-old who enters preschool and finds that his natural tendencies to play with and be liked by others don’t work very well. He thinks it’s funny to push and grab, but the other children find it annoying. He gets loud in hopes of being interesting. Some of this he does impulsively, without thinking or intention. He is good natured and affectionate but gradually finds that he isn’t liked and embraced by the other children. His mind works hard to unravel the social puzzle in front of him. He craves interaction, attention and some feeling of social status in this new world. Though his attempts to be accepted aren’t working, many of his loud and aggressive gestures do get him the immediate attention of others.
It’s as though he’s in the casting call for Star Wars. He looks around the room and sees there are a few good candidates for the role of Luke, there are a few Princess Leias, Obi-Wan is taken, there’s a bigger Chewbacca and even a better Han Solo. But wait! No one has taken the role of anti-hero Darth Vader. That’s a great role, filled with power and very cool.
Children want social power, a strong role in their peer group. Social power can be negative or positive. When a child has a hard time finding a positive role in their peer group, they will find a negative one.
For the child who is playing the role of Darth Vader all the usual motivators are reversed. Luke wants you to like him, Vader wants you to fear him, Luke wants your positive attention, Vader wants your negative attention. Luke has lots of friends, Vader doesn’t and pretends not to care.
This is why so many professionals have a tough time dealing with the little Vaders in their classrooms. They’re treating Vader as if he was Luke, and it’s not working. In fact, it’s actually making things worse. When Luke hurts another child’s feelings you sit down with him and explain to him how he’s hurt someone else and he feels bad about it because he wants to be liked. If you sit Vader down and tell him how he’s hurt someone’s feelings he thinks, “I know! That’s my role. That boy doesn’t like me anyway so at least he’s a little afraid of me.” When Luke throws his toys you tell him you don’t like it when he does that, and because he wants to please you, he’s motivated to stop. When you tell Vader you don’t like it when he throws his toys, he is encouraged to do it again, because he’s successfully gotten a rise out of the teacher and shown he doesn’t care what you like.
The most important thing to understand about Little Vader is that his embracing of this role in the classroom or the home is natural and logical, not a sign of disorder or lack of ability to empathize. Little Darth Vaders are typically very bright and socially astute. They may have come into the school setting already feeling too powerful and a bit isolated. Then they are either draw to the Vader role in the social structure of the group and/or they choose it after failing to be successful at one of the other roles.
The role of the anti-hero can be an exciting one for a child. I’ve seen little boys (and girls) who walk onto the kindergarten play yard only to have other children scream and run away from them. You can almost hear Darth Vader’s theme music playing as he struts across the sandbox (Bom, Bom, Bom, Bomba-bom, Bomba-bom). He might as well have been a rock star (think girls screaming and pulling on their hair).
The most common response, and the one that backfires with little Vader is explaining to them why what they did was wrong while telling them how angry, sad, disappointed or hurt you are by their actions. Vader knows what he did wrong and he did it for exactly the effect he got.
To effectively deal with our little anti-heroes we first need to stop telling them what they already know, and give them short consequences that discourage what they’re doing. Take away the feedback that empowers Darth Vader, and create opportunities for them to successfully get positive feedback for the little Luke Skywalker that’s trying to come out.