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.