Recent research on children is showing that children as young as 18 months have an uncanny scientific instinct. They are constantly observing their surroundings and gathering data about the people around them and the world. Developmental Psychologist Alison Gopnik puts it best when she said, “Babies are making complicated calculations with conditional probability that they’re revising to see how the world works.”
As I thought about the ways in which children are very much little scientists, I realized that much of the success I’ve had working with difficult children comes from the fact that I have much in common with our little scientists.
1. I never believe anything until I’ve proven it for myself.
I never assume that any behavior I see can’t be controlled. I see attention, emotional states, and comprehension as flexible states that tell me very little about a child until I’ve tested them to see if his or her behavior can be changed. For all I know these “inappropriate”, difficult and even aggressive or violent behaviors are serving an important purpose. Most likely, these behaviors have developed to meet a need. Let’s change the effects/reactions to these behaviors in a precise and consistent way and see if these things change.
Anyone who’s worked with difficult children knows that the first thing they ask you, before you even meet the child, is “Have you read their file?” The kids I’ve worked with all came with a file. Filled with others observations, diagnosis and conclusions about the existing disorders. Others always gave me funny looks when I’d respond with “No I haven’t. I don’t like to read the file before I’ve met them.” Truth be told, I almost never read the file even after I’d met them. I didn’t want to prejudice myself before I’d seen things with fresh eyes and tested what I was seeing.
2. Always do rigorous testing.
A mother recently said to me about her 8-year-old, “He is always putting his mouth on the dog, it’s gross. I’ve asked him to stop, but he’s been doing it for more than a year. I can’t give a break for something like that can I? I mean, he’s got an oral fixation. I don’t think he can help himself. He walks around the house going like this (she opens her mouth, sticks out her tongue and wags it back and forth). So if I’m going to try and get him to stop, I should give him something else to do with his mouth instead, right?”
I said to her, “Let’s not make any assumptions about an oral fixation. When I think about it, I’ve never seen him do this at school, and maybe there’s a reason for that. Perhaps at school when he did that the other children gave him funny looks. Maybe they mocked him for doing it. Maybe others just asked him quizzically, “What are you doing?” Perhaps that was enough for him to inhibit this behavior. There’s nothing wrong with inhibiting behavior. We inhibit behavior all the time. We don’t fart when we’re around others, hopefully. We don’t scratch the wrong places in public, hopefully. We inhibit urges to interrupt when others are talking, etc…. All of this healthy inhibition happens because we feel a slight tension, an awareness of others needs and feelings when we are in their presence.
So before we rush to any conclusions about your son having an oral fixation, let’s create some healthy tension around that behavior. Let’s test it and see what happens. This is actually a perfect behavior to give short breaks for. The next time you see your son put his mouth on the dog tell him to take a break for a minute. Don’t tell him why you want him to take the break. Don’t be angry, disgusted or judgmental in your reaction. Just tell him to sit quietly in the nearest chair for a minute. Do this every time you see him put his mouth on the dog. Essentially, you’re creating a similar kind of tension to what exists at school minus the shame, guilt or judgment. This tension, this mild one-minute frustration, will create awareness of your needs (you need to not see your son putting the dog’s tongue in his mouth).
Do this for a month, and then tell me if the behavior has changed significantly.
3. Consider the situation with scientific instincts.
When they’re presenting a behavior (a problem behavior like tearing pages out of a book), they aren’t doing this because they need to tear. They’re doing it because they want to see what happens when they do that. It’s an experiment. When the parent sees the child tearing the pages out of the book and responds with, “No thank you, we don’t tear books. Do you need something to tear?” (giving them paper to tear so the child can satisfy their need to tear something) they’re missing the point. The child’s actions ask questions. What will Daddy do when I do this? Can I do this? Is this allowed?
As we get older we tend to believe the rules and take more for granted. We stop experimenting. Someone tells us this is the right way, these are the rules, this is how it’s done, and we believe them. For children, everything is new and must be tested independently by them alone. They don’t care if you say hitting the other children is wrong or bad. They are trying to learn the meaning of “wrong” and “bad.” When they do it they get a reaction. For example, the other child drops their toy, and you give them lots of excited and loving attention.
When you know your children’s behaviors are guided by healthy, scientific instincts it’s much easier not to become mad or judgmental in reaction to their behaviors. Children aren’t acting out of some flawed moral compass or desire to hurt or disrespect you or others – they are learning! To reason exhaustively with them, as many popular parenting approaches advocate, is like refusing to speak French when you are in France, and becoming annoyed when no one answers you. Give your children data! That’s what a scientist loves.