Why do Children Act the Way They Do?

Posted on 04 September 2013

Have you ever known parents who think their child is an ‘angel’, while you are convinced the child is a ‘monster”? There are no such things as ‘good’ or `bad’ behavior in children. This is also true among nations, cultures, or socioeconomic groups.

Actions considered ‘good’ in a Northern European country, for instance, may be considered ‘bad’ in the Middle East. Also our judgment changes over time: many characteristics considered ‘unacceptable’ for women in the early part of this century, such as assertiveness, are considered desirable today.

What is acceptable and what is unacceptable is a matter of opinion, but all behavior is acquired in the same way, no matter how we label it. Within your own family there is probably general agreement about what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior.

Obviously, no one wants children to learn tad’ habits! They often do, nonetheless, and parents can sometimes see where they got such habits, perhaps from friends, school, television, or even other family members! Sometimes it seems a mystery: how did the child ever pick that up? Why does it continue in the face of punishment? In such cases, parents may be accidentally teaching the behavior and helping to maintain it by their reactions to it!

Every now and then we encounter parents who are surprised to find out that their child is quiet, cooperative, and perhaps even docile at school. At home, they find the child loud, negative, and almost constantly in trouble. Such parents may see nothing unusual in the observation that their own behavior is very different at home, at work, with friends, or while on holiday. Why not their children as well?

Children, like adults, learn what behavior fits what situations, so that places, people, and events become ‘cues’ for both desirable and undesirable behavior.

Like a green light that has been turned on, the class goes wild when the substitute teacher shows up. When the students are well aware that their teacher doesn’t know them, can have little effect on their marks, and probably will not be seen again for the rest of the year. So why work? Why not play or just do nothing, or even enjoy tormenting her? The substitute becomes a ‘cue’ for acting up. When the regular teacher returns, she finds it hard to believe that her normally well-behaved group could possibly have been so unruly.

The immediate effect of cues upon behavior can be seen in a variety of situations. For example, some young children cry when parents are about to go out and leave them with a babysitter. Yet the minute the door closes the crying stops. Some brothers and sisters will fight noisily when parents are around, yet play well together when alone. Children can also behave ideally at home but cause perpetual problems at school. Situations, people, and places serve as cues for all sorts of behavior.

Children’s actions make sense in terms of the situation. Sometimes the cues are very subtle and not noticed. In other cases, they are obvious. When we look at the complexities of each unique individual, and the variety of situations which occur in our lives, it is not difficult to see why behavior can at times seem to be beyond explanation!

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