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Why Kids Do the Things They Do: 

Ultimately, what parenting comes down to is nourishing children in ways that allow them to grow into a person who does the right thing most of the time and behaves in prosocial ways. in order to do that, it’s helpful to have a good grasp on what motivates a child’s behavior in teh first place. Let’s explore some of the different factors at work.

The fundamental drives that impact a child’s behavior Children are born with several fundamental drives/instincts already in place. These have been summarized as…

1. To seek pleasure and avoid pain
Every life form on this planet is designed to seek out pleasure and move away from pain. Even people who hang themselves are adhering to this script. We can hardly fault children for seeking out what feels good, and many of the things they do that annoy us in some way relates to this goal. And since children have less impulse control (which is why they’d eat candy at every meal if allowed to do so) parents sometimes have to work a little bit harder to keep this impulse in check.

2. To strive for social connection and attachment to others
Outside of the need for food and warmth, a child’s need for attachment is the most important. Young children who don’t receive enough affection literally die from lack of care, even if their other needs are being met. (See our information on attachment in our +Child Maltreatment+ book.) As children grow older, their need for social connection becomes less lethal in physical terms, but it remains just as important to their mental health. Many child behavioral problems can be traced to problems or insecurities in attachment.

3. Empathy/Guilt
Children are born with an inherent capacity for both empathy and guilt-the underpinnings of social emotions.

4. Seek approval/avoid disapproval
Though it may not seem like it at times, every child is born seeking the approval of adults. This is the reason for all the exclamations of “Dad, look at me!” or “Mommy, see what I’ve drawn!” You don’t need to create the motivation in children to do good–it’s already there. When problems arise, it’s because this normal desire for prosocial acknowledgement has somehow been blocked.

The universal rule: Attention and affection trumps all
There is one caveat in all these rules: When it comes to children, attention and affection from others will trump all. A child will seek pleasure and avoid pain…unless that pain brings him attention and he is largely ignored when he behaves himself. A child will try to seek approval and avoid disapproval, unless he feels that approval is difficult and disapproval seems to bring him more attention and gives him a role to play in the family. They’ll normally avoid conflict and strive towards peace, except when that conflict brings them attention. The need for attention can warp all these other drives. If a child feels deprived of the attention they need, he or she will do anything to get that attention, even if it comes with some degree of pain or conflict.

The search for an identity

From early infancy children are engaged in exploring ways and means of finding their place, of being significant, important. As they discover a technique for reaching this goal, they cling to it, regardless of how many times they are scolded or punished. The unpleasantness of parental reaction does not diminish the satisfaction of feeling important.”

– Rudolf Dreikurs & Vicki Soltz (1964, p. 186)

All children are searching for a sense of potency. They need to find a role and identity; a situation in which they can matter. They first must search for a role within the family, and later in adolescence within the world at large. Problems emerge whenever they struggle to find positive ways of ma mattering. Children who cannot find positive roles tend to misbehave, and adolescents or young adults who cannot find a place to fit in or positive ways of mattering shoot up schools or engage in other self-destructive and antisocial behavior. A healthy identity includes…

1. Uniqueness

Children don’t want to be too different from others, but they don’t want to be the same, either. They need to feel unique and are constantly comparing themselves to others to see how they measure up and pinpoint what makes them unique as an individual.

2. A sense of self-worth

How am I valuable? What am I good at? Who cares about me? Children must answer questions like these in a satisfactory way on their path to establishing a healthy identity.

3. A sense of belonging

What is my place in the world? Who do I fit in with? Where am I accepted? Children can’t maintain a healthy identity if they don’t feel they belong.

Behavior and the purposes it serves

Finally, it’s been said that all behavior serves a purpose. Here is a more nuanced list of some of the purposes a child’s behavior might be serving:

  • Entertainment
  • Play
  • Autonomy
  • Self-soothing
  • Attention
  • Exploration or novelty
  • Trying or testing new things
  • Testing limits

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