When we find ourselves rushed and trying to get dinner on the table while our three-year-old is whining for a glass of milk, it can be helpful to remind ourselves that our child’s behavior (annoying as it may be) has a worthy goal: to get our attention and get a glass of milk.

We can understand and even appreciate this goal; there’s nothing wrong with it. What’s wrong is the method being used to achieve the goal. In this example, the method is whining, and the goal is milk and/or our attention.

If you think of examples from your own family experience, you’ll likely find that in most cases, you would agree that the goal your kids are pursuing is worthy; it’s their method that is problematic.

So make a distinction between methods and goals when you address the behavior.

Consider what their goal is and show them how to achieve it through other, more acceptable means. Be sure to suggest (with younger kids) or discuss (with older kids) an alternative method and then be ready to respond positively when they try it.

In this example, that could look like this:

“Sweetie, I can see that you are really wanting some milk (acknowledgment of goal / empathy), but when you whine at me it hurts my ears (rationale). If you would like some milk, please say: ‘Momma, can I please have some milk.’ (alternative method).”

The alternative method you suggest should be:

  1. A behavior you consider more appropriate
  2. Something you think your child can do successfully (so the alternative you would suggest for a 3 year-old is not the same as for a 13 year-old)

I’s also important to show them that their method is ineffective, too. If they are able to achieve their goal (milk) by their chosen method (whining) then they are likely to repeat that method in the future because it worked.   So wait until they try the alternative method before helping them achieve their goal.

Whether it’s whining or grabbing or any other behavior you’d like to curb, this distinction between goals and methods will help you acknowledge and empathize with what your kids want, while still teaching them how to achieve their goals with appropriate behaviors.

© Erica Reischer, Ph.D. 2014.   www.DrEricarR.com

Get science-based parenting tips in your inbox.

Follow Dr. Reischer @DrEricaR

About the Author

Erica Reischer, Ph.D.

Erica Reischer, Ph.D., is a psychologist, parent coach, and author. She teaches at University of California Berkeley, UCSF, and other institutions.

You are reading

What Great Parents Do

Why Kids Misbehave and What to Do About It

The benefits of seeing kids' "bad" behavior as exploration and experimentation

How to Improve Your Sex Life After Having Kids

The surprising path to better sex for tired & busy parents

How to Talk to Your Kids About Trump’s Win

3 tips for talking to kids about this highly polarized election