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SALT LAKE CITY — I scroll my news feed and pause at a friend's video. Curiosity grabs me so I press the play button. A 3-year-old girl with tufts of short hair fills the screen. Her dad calmly asks, "Why did you cut your hair?"
"Because I wanted to be like Jessica. I need practice," she innocently replies with glistening tears in her eyes.
My heart melts. It feels like a soft pile of warm marshmallows. The image of this sweet, innocent little girl plays in my mind all morning. She is sharing important truths that we need to see and understand.
Some parents would have harshly overreacted to this sweet little child and scolded her for being "naughty" because she cut her own hair. But her humble response proves she harbored no naughty intentions.
Children are not naughty; they have logical or emotional reasons for their actions. Unfortunately, we often fail to take the time to see them.
At Christmastime, children are frequently labeled as being "naughty" or "nice." It is sad that Santa's "naughty and nice" list insists we categorize our children's behaviors as either one or the other. This is short-sighted and completely hijacks being an understanding, loving parent. If that father had immediately labeled his daughter as naughty and reacted rashly towards her, the outcome might have been abrupt and harsher.
Instead of labeling our children's behavior as "naughty," which causes us to feel angry, it is helpful to respond like the dad in the video and calmly ask, "Why did you do that? I am trying to understand."
Sometimes children know why and can explain their reasons, other times it may be difficult to express their feelings. This is when we need to take a step back and see if we can understand the "why" behind their actions.
There are at least three underlying reasons why children behave in ways that we might initially consider "naughty."
1. Children eagerly follow our example or the example of others
The video described above is a classic example of children mimicking others. She just wanted to be like Jessica. Obviously, she had seen Jessica cut hair and was impressed by her skill and knew she needed to practice. Who better to practice on than herself?
Fifteen years ago I opened my bathroom door to find my 1-year-old son sitting on the counter with my mascara in hand and black streaks all over his body. My initial reaction was frustration, but I quickly understood that he was following my example (although I do not put mascara on my body). Our actions and behaviors are watched and mirrored by our children every day.
2. Children are naturally curious
Children are naturally curious about the world around them. Curiosity fuels learning. Young children want to test and understand everything around them. They drop food, pound blocks and throw balls to see what happens. This is how they learn. We as parents need to see their actions for what they are — sheer curiosity.
Psychology researchers Bonawitz, Schijndel, Friel and Schulz discovered that children's spontaneous curiosity caused them to explore their environment even more, especially the parts that were unfamiliar. They insightfully discovered that "curiosity paved the way for learning."
A few months back I found my youngest son taking everything off our piano. "What are you doing?" I asked (I was trying to maintain composure and not get too bent out of shape).
"I want to see how the piano works," he calmly responded.
"Oh, you mean you are curious about it?" I asked. He nodded.
"Please ask me if you want to start moving things of mine around," I said. "Now let's take a look inside and see how the sound is made."
I have not always responded so well. However, being aware that curiosity fuels my kids has helped me be more patient and understanding.
Nonetheless, we can't let children run wild and wreak havoc in our home or in public all in the name of curiosity. Instead, we can set up child-friendly areas in our homes so they can explore and be curious.
Sadly, if all we do is stop our children and correct them or take things away, their curiosity slowly dies. Gradually the desire to learn fades.
3. Children do not know how to verbally communicate their physical or emotional needs
Children have basic physical and emotional needs. They need to feel safe, fed, rested, loved and connected. When a basic need is missing, fear and uncertainty take over. They act out in ways we might label as "naughty," when in fact they are simply trying to get their needs met and do not know how to properly express it.
Instead of viewing our kids as "naughty" we need to teach them about their physical and emotional needs and help them build a vocabulary to express them. This takes time and practice. When they are small and still learning to talk, we help meet those needs for them. As they grow and mature, we teach them how to meet those needs on their own.
Let's stop allowing Santa's naughty and nice list to hijack how we view our children. Let's see them for who they are and look deeper to discover "why" they behaved a certain way. Then our hearts will open with understanding and patience will be our guide as our special parent/child relationship is fortified with love and trust just like the shining example of the little girl and her dad.
Damara Simmons is a family life educator and author who loves empowering parents with knowledge and truth.