Puzzling Behavior

In discussions about children’s behavior, understanding it and responding to it, the focus is often on negative behavior – behavior that is unacceptable to parents, teachers or in social situations.  In such instances children may be viewed as “misbehaving” which in turn often leads to interpretations of the behavior that involve negative judgments of the children themselves. 

On the other hand, sometimes behavior is negative in the sense that it creates a problem for the child or parent – such as protests or resistance to a plan – behavior  that expresses a child’s unhappiness yet seems not to make sense to a parent.  This is behavior that often causes parents to worry.  There is a natural tendency to try to understand why something happens.  Because the behavior in these situations is incomprehensible to a parent, the feeling may arise that there must be something wrong in some profound way.

A parent raised one aspect of this kind of behavior about which she was both puzzled and worried.  The situation involved a four year old child whose mother described him as loving to do art work.  He spends hours at home drawing and creating many projects involving art.  The parents enrolled him in an art class that seemed a perfect match for his interests.  However, he now protests going to the class, stands outside the classroom refusing to go in, yet once cajoled into entering and participating seems to thoroughly enjoy being there.

The boy’s mother was both bewildered and frustrated by his behavior.  It simply made no sense to her that he loves the content of the class but protests so vehemently about attending.  In an effort to help solve this riddle, I asked a number of questions about what was going on and learned that the child goes to nursery school for four hours daily.  Mom works but the routine is that the baby sitter picks him up from school, they have lunch and then he has about a half hour left to play before they leave for the art class that meets once a week. 

The mother had described her son as a child who gets involved and invested in projects of his own invention.  She often has to make an effort to get him out to the park to play because of his reluctance to leave what he is doing.  Despite this, she did not see that this could apply to this situation because he would be going to do something he loves doing.  Why would he so strongly protest going to do something he loves and enjoys once there?

I asked the mother to think about how she feels after a day’s work, pointing out that four hours of school is a day’s work for a young child.  Adults may not realize the self- control that goes into functioning in a group, meeting expectations and generally behaving in acceptable ways.  It was very likely that even while enjoying this art class her son was ready at that point in the day to be left to his own interest with no further demands made of him.  Even dealing with a different teacher and a new group of children may feel like too much.

With this in mind, the coercive and somewhat critical approach that was being used did not seem to address the real issue.  We talked about other possible ways of handling the transition that is so often a trouble point for young children.  There were also ways in which he could be helped to feel more in control – such as being in charge of the clock and knowing the time to leave, which he apparently enjoys.  But as in many seeming conflict situations, the most helpful of all would be to acknowledge to the child the understanding that it is hard to leave his project but that it would be waiting for him when he returned.

In this situation, although the mother did not see her son’s protests as misbehavior, her own confusion and worry about its possible meaning created frustration and anxiety.  These feelings were expressed in a way that sounded critical and reproachful to her child thereby creating a conflict situation and an impasse.  Even worry can lead to the feeling that a child is doing something wrong and a negative approach in response.

Behavior is often puzzling – especially when it is an expression of feelings that may not be clear to a child himself.  Sometimes walking a mile in the child’s shoes can help us find the elusive understanding of his behavior.  And it is this understanding that helps us know what to do about it.