When the Naughty List Isn’t So Bad

Testing boundaries is developmentally normal for young children (even with the lure of holiday gifts)

December 13, 2017

You may have told your kids, in a moment of exasperation, that less fighting this month will mean more presents; it’s a standard fallback. Between the naughty list and the elf on the shelf, the holiday season tends to amplify conversations about good behavior, bad behavior, and consequences.

But for young children (ages 3–5), testing boundaries and acting out is a typical, even positive part of development — so don’t stress too much on the nice-or-naughty assessments. Instead, use the inevitable moments of misbehavior as an opportunity to build skills and establish trust, rather than a time to enforce unrealistic standards or punish children unfairly.

Naughty or Nice — or Both

When children test boundaries — ignoring rules about fighting, listening, or sharing, for example — they’re trying to understand how the world works, says developmental psychologist Stephanie Jones. Figuring out how to interact and behave at school, versus at home, versus on the playground, is a basic developmental task for young children. Acting out is “not always a sign of intentional disregard or disrespect of others or of the rules,” Jones says.

In fact, misbehaving can be an integral aspect of healthy growth, helping children develop:

  • their ability to understand cause and effect — how different actions will lead to different results, and how consequences work.
  • their personal identity and sense of agency, or their understanding that they are in control of themselves and their actions.
  • their sense of self-efficacy, or the growing realization that they can feel competent when they set goals for themselves and successfully reach them.

Figuring out how to interact and behave at school, versus at home, versus on the playground, is a basic developmental task for young children, and acting out is “not always a sign of intentional disregard or disrespect of others or of the rules."

Because young children are still developing these skills, misbehavior is not usually a purposeful act of rudeness or aggression. When a child goes against what’s expected of her, she may simply be focused on something she finds more interesting, but she may also have a specific reason for defying what she’s been asked to do. For example, she may understand that she’s supposed to pick up her blocks, but she would rather first locate the blue block she’s been looking for.

"I'm Telling You Why . . ."

How adults respond to these moments of seeming defiance is key. Helping children identify and communicate the reasons for their actions is an essential learning process, says Jones.

When you ask a child about her misbehavior and try to problem-solve with the child:

  • you help her build key skills and learn how to communicate her needs and wants.
  • you strengthen your relationship, helping the child learn that this adult cares for her and wants to help her succeed.

Consequences are most effective “when they are motivated by an understanding of children’s behavior and supportive of children’s learning and growth,” says Jones, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. When misbehavior occurs, a first step for a teacher or parent is to figure out the root cause of a child’s behavior and respond in a way that clarifies boundaries, rules, and norms. At the same time, the adult should affirm the legitimacy of the child’s needs, wants, and feelings.

Imagine, for example, a frequent challenge during the holidays: Between time away from school and visiting relatives, a child’s schedule is likely to be disrupted, and he may act out in response. Adults can respond by affirming the stress of that change (“Does it feel strange to be around all these grown-ups and not in your own home? I know it’s hard to manage lots of changes. I feel uncertain, too”) and by returning to a routine (“Let’s sit together and read a book to calm down”).

Consequences are most successful if they are focused on developing the child’s social-emotional and self-regulation skills — not on the adult’s wants and needs. Public shaming, berating, and threats are harmful to children’s development, and research tells us that they are ineffective.

It’s also important to keep in mind that some consequences are never acceptable. Public shaming, berating, and threats are harmful to children’s development — and research tells us that they are ineffective. Consequences are most successful if they are focused on developing the child’s social-emotional and self-regulation skills — not on the adult’s wants and needs.

"Better Be Good" Is Not Always Easy

Teachers and parents may notice that a child’s behavior varies: he is perfectly behaved at school, for example, but loses control completely once he gets home. Those behavior issues may have less to do with testing boundaries than with the simple fact that being on your best behavior all the time is stressful and exhausting. Like adults, children need a chance to relax and let their guard down.

Adults can help by scheduling time for children to let loose, run around, and yell — which is especially important as the temperature, and opportunities to be outside, drop. When a child is constantly on alert about her behavior, “it tires the basic stress response functions of the brain,” says Jones. Areas that are responsible for signaling and responding to threats can get overstimulated, undermining the child’s capacity for learning and for engaging in socially appropriate behavior.

Above all, says Jones, it's important that children have opportunities to make and learn from their mistakes — and for adults, that means accepting that children will test boundaries. The ability to understand cause and effect takes time and practice to develop.

It’s a reminder that constant mentions of the “naughty list” may not be helpful — because being bad may be a step on the road to being good, for goodness sake.

This piece features contributions from Rebecca Bailey and Sophie Barnes, researchers at the EASEL Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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