Much of what looks like “bad” behavior is really just exploration and experimentation. Kids are naturally curious and it’s their job to figure out how the world works and how to get what they want or need.

Like scientists, they do “experiments.”  These “experiments” are in two primary domains: the natural world and the social world.

The natural world includes what adults generally think of as physics (the water will spill if you invert an open cup), civil engineering (when you flush Dad’s ring down the toilet it disappears and does not return), and so on.

Think of the world from your child’s perspective: If you weren’t yet familiar with gravity, you might also keep dropping or pouring things to see if they really go down every time. Kids really do experience the world in a different way than adults.

The second domain—the social world—is where the action really is. Experiments in the social world focus on the important people in children’s lives: parents, siblings, family members, caregivers, and teachers.

Kids need to know how each of these people work and how to get what they need or want from them: love, affection, five more minutes at the playground, screen time, privacy, and so on.

The answer to these critical questions (How do you work? What happens if I ____? How do I get ___ from you?) varies from person to person.  To get the answers, kids must do “experiments” on us, experiments adults often think of as “testing.” 

When your child appears to be misbehaving, try imagining her wearing a tiny white lab coat and taking notes about the results of her experiment (on you) in an imaginary lab notebook:  “When I throw a tantrum in public I’m more likely to get what I want than if I do the same at home.  Hmm, interesting…”

If what we want kids to know about us is that we mean what we say, that we can be relied on to do what we say we’re going to do, that we are fair and reasonable, and so on, then we need to teach them this through our daily interactions with them.

Seeing our children’s behavior through this lens—as an experiment aimed at getting useful information about how people and the world work—can also help us not to take it personally when they push our buttons or ignore us.

So, the next time you find yourself dealing with your child’s challenging behavior, change your lens to see it as an experiment intended to get useful information about how things work (in the world or in your family) and respond accordingly.

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.

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