Understanding Behavior

Attempts to level the playing field between children of the rich and poor have focused on their early childhood experience.  Children who are economically and socially advantaged are exposed from infancy on to more spoken language, books, and activities that are developmentally stimulating.  Attempts to correct this disadvantage for poor children frequently involve training parents in some way.

Recent programs have focused on the number of words children hear, and teaching parents to speak more to their children.  Parents are motivated to speak more by the use of technology to show them an increase in children’s words as parents increase their own speech.   Apparently many parents think that children don’t understand language until they start to talk.  But it is hearing language spoken that promotes speech development in children.

What is called receptive language exists before expressive language.  What this means is that children understand language before they speak it.  Most parents know this.  Non-verbal communication goes on between parents and children from infancy.  Parents read the cries of their babies, interpreting them to mean that the baby is hungry, tired, or needs a diaper change.  Toddlers with outstretched arms show that they want  to be picked up.  They may point to what they want or pull a parent to an object.

In the same way, children read their parents behavioral cues – at times even more than we as parents, may want.  They show they understand if we are upset or angry about something they have done.  In fact, parents often are puzzled or even angry when they believe children understand what was expected – or what they were told not to do – and   then don’t comply.  (Of course, understanding and complying are two different things – and skills.)

Some years ago, I was leading a group of parents whose children were developmentally impaired, many with little or delayed language.  It was interesting to find that in getting to know the children it was possible to understand what they were communicating through their behavior.  The difficulty was that just as speech itself can sometimes get garbled, the behavioral communications of these children were often indirect and not immediately clear.  Many times their parents did understand what certain behaviors meant, and were able to respond to the children in meaningful ways. 

At other times, when a child’s behavior was provocative or in some way unacceptable, the parent involved would read a negative interpretation into the behavior.  The behavior no longer seemed like a communication but rather a sign of the child’s lack of comprehension or some other deficit of development.  This would leave the parent feeling hopeless about knowing how to respond in a meaningful way.

A powerful example of this was a child whose behavior led his mother to believe that she had no meaning to him and, therefore, had no ability to influence his behavior.  He often would scratch her and she felt helpless to stop this behavior.  He would come into the room where the mother’s group was meeting and stand patiently behind his mother’s chair.

His mother viewed this as misbehavior and tried to order him back to the nursery school room.  The other mothers, however, saw this as her child trying to be close to her and challenged her perception of his behavior.  Once she could understand his behavior in a different way, it opened to her the possibility of responding to him in a way that would be more meaningful.  Before too long, the child no longer needed to scratch her to get her to respond to him.

Although this example is of a child with serious communication problems whose communications were, therefore, more difficult to understand, it actually points to a pitfall that exists for all parents at times.  When a child behaves in a way that we don’t like, or embarrasses us, our own emotional reactions can get in the way of seeing the behavior as a communication.  Then our response becomes one to our own feelings rather than to what a child’s behavior is actually saying.  That kind of response is most often not helpful in effecting a change in a child’s behavior.

One thing I have found helpful, and shared with other parents, is to ask myself, “If this child could put what he is feeling into words in this situation, what would he be telling me?”  Answering that can often make intelligible, behavior that seems meaningless or simply “bad.”  It then becomes possible to respond to your child instead of to your own feelings.  It opens communication between you and your child and the ability to help your child learn how to communicate in a different way in the future.

Understanding a child’s behavior as his or her means of communication is empowering to parents.  Most parents are good at it and are already doing it.  The next step is providing the words a child can use the next time a similar situation arises.  Surely, this is more meaningful in promoting communication between parent and child than simply counting words.