The mother of a four-year-old boy spoke of difficulties they were having with his behavior – his “not listening” and being disruptive at times in his daycare group. She mentioned that the teacher seems to have found a solution involving stickers on a chart for “good” behavior. With a certain number of stickers, a child can be excused from nap. Her son hates nap and is trying hard to collect the required stickers.

In speaking of his behavior at home it sounded as though the parents were relying on the word “no” without much success. It also seemed that the boys unfolding self-assertion expressed provocatively, was causing difficulty with the parents who in turn were trying hard to maintain their own authority.

A different example along these lines turned up in a preschool group I was observing. It was a group for children and parents who were sitting in a circle on the floor with a pile of building material available for the children. A little boy was building a tall tower which took some skill balancing the individual pieces. A little girl next to him was watching and then at an unexpected moment reached over and knocked the tower down.  The boy was startled and the girl covered her mouth with a sound and look conveying worry that seemed to say, “oh! I did a bad thing.” There was no response from the adults and the boy began building his tower again. This episode was repeated twice more with the same outcome until the third time the boy built the tower using his mother’s legs as protection.

During this entire sequence the girl’s mother smiled but said and did nothing. After the first time, it was clear that the girl was being provocative, intentionally knocking down the boy’s construction. There were other sequences of behavior that confirmed the girl’s need to be provocative. In all of the times noted, the mother’s reacted by smiling as though either she found her daughter’s behavior amusing, or more likely found it embarrassing and was unsure of what to do about it.

Parents often question how to deal with children’s provocative or other unacceptable behavior. This usually becomes a question about limits – when and how they should be set. Confusion about this often leads to the extremes demonstrated in the two examples above. The word “no” becomes operative followed by threats of punishment, which turn out to be useless. Or, at the other extreme, parents feel helpless and give up trying to do anything.

In discussing limits, the point is made that there need to be consequences for unacceptable behavior – usually the reason given for the need for punishment. But in fact, there are consequences for such behavior in the form of parental disapproval, anger and rejection by others. Yet these consequences seem to serve insufficiently as deterrence for the behavior.

As with most aspects of children’s behavior, knowing how to respond effectively depends on understanding the meaning of their behavior. Children are trying to accomplish something in unproductive ways and need help in finding constructive solutions. Setting limits should mean providing the help they need in finding those solutions rather than simply punishing the behavior.

We can tell children directly when we know something is too hard for them, such as when they are having difficulty controlling their behavior, and that we will help them.  For the little girl that might have meant moving with her to another spot or actively intervening to prevent her from repeating the behavior. For the boy, it might mean examining what he is rebelling against – perhaps parents looking at their own approach as well as his behavior.

For children – as well as for adults – providing help is more useful than criticism.