Thursday, January 21, 2010

Positive Intent

This chapter of Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline called my attention to one of the areas where I often fail to live out what I believe about parenting. I'll come right out and admit it: despite the fact that I know better, I often automatically assume that my child has negative intentions when he behaves inappropriately. In other situations, I am the person who usually speculates about the perfectly reasonable motivations that could underlie people's negative actions- but as soon as my seven year old misbehaves, I am assuming that he has all kinds of negative motivations for his behavior. Why?

Why is it so hard for me to remember that while his behavior or words may be inappropriate, his underlying motivation is probably not negative? A negative behavior does not mean there is a negative intent. I rarely take the time to look beneath the surface; I just want to squelch the inappropriate behavior now. As a result, I assign negative intent (he is just being selfish, or he just wants to get his way, or he is trying to make me angry), then I try to make him feel guilty. In the end, we both feel badly about ourselves and nothing positive has been accomplished. This is not my job as a parent.

Yes, children need to know when their behavior is inappropriate, but my job is to communicate this to my child without attacking him, and to teach him a better way. I am all too familiar with what takes place when a parent attributes negative intentions to their child's behavior. The parent makes the negative assumption ("He is just selfish!") and starts feeling angry. Then the parent uses words, actions, or tone of voice to punish and make the child feel guilty. Predictably, the situation escalates: the child becomes defensive rather than cooperative, and the parent becomes more punitive. On the other hand, if the parent attributes positive intentions ("He is frustrated and is trying to express that"), the parent stays calm and turns the situation into a teaching moment.

A lot of the time, children actually have positive intentions, but they simply do not have the skills to consistently communicate this in a more appropriate way. When my seven year old yells at his one year old brother for turning off the TV while he's playing a video game, his intention is not to be mean; he just needs to learn a better way to communicate that he doesn't want his brother to turn off the TV. If I recognize this intention, I can say something like, "You were frustrated that your brother interrupted you while you were doing something you enjoy, so you yelled. You may not yell at your brother. Instead, say, 'Isaac, keep the TV on,' or you can come to me for help. Try that now." This approach states the positive motive behind his behavior as well as the negative way he tried to achieve his goal. A limit is set and it is made clear that the behavior was inappropriate. Then a more appropriate way is taught. This is true discipline.

I need to focus on intent- not just my child's actual intent, but mine as well. Do I intend to teach or to make my child feel bad? Do I intend to move a situation toward cooperation or defensiveness? Do I intend to discipline or do I intend to punish?

Underneath it all, my real intention as a parent is to raise children who are patient, kind, understanding, and so on. Just like our children, parents often have positive motivations but choose negative behaviors to try to attain our goals. Positive intent doesn't justify negative behavior, though; I am responsible for learning a better way. I realize that this is an area where I struggle, and I am working on it by asking myself a few questions in moments like these: What is my goal in this situation? What is motivating my child's behavior? What do I want him to do instead? And how can I teach him a better way?


  1. I struggle with this too. Are you enjoying that book? It's on my very long list of things to read, lol.

  2. I really do enjoy this book. I think this is either the fourth or fifth time I've read it.