Friday, February 12, 2010

Get at the Root or Cause of Behavior

      I am responding to a question raised by a mother.
Q.  As a mother of a bright 9 year old girl, what can I do to stop my daughter from stealing and lying to me?   I have tried punishing her, taking away privileges and even spanking and nothing seems to be effective. Help.
A.    When our child lies to us, we usually interpret the behavior as solely the child’s fault.  The child has misbehaved and this should not be taken lightly.  The action has to be nipped at the bud before it becomes a more serious pattern of behavior. On top of that, we feel betrayed, our trust has been violated.  We feel hurt so our instinct is to hurt back.  We punish, we take away privileges, we even spank to hurt the child.  We find that none of these punitive treatments were at all effective.  That’s understandable.   Punishment does not work. We think it works but we are surprised that after a short while, the behavior that has been punished is back.  Moreover, the physical pain builds resentment and hatred.  Punishment, which only treats the symptom, the undesirable behavior, is ineffective.  1)Children: The Challenge

       The only cure for the behavior is to treat the cause or the root of the behavior.  We have to teach the child to understand that lying or stealing is what the child does as a means to an end, to get the recognition as an important member of the family, to be valued for the gifts that one is endowed with and to acknowledge the contributions one has done for the family.  Having failed in achieving the positive goals mentioned, we switch to pursuing  goals that are annoying, destructive, hurtful or anti-social. We need to teach alternative modes of behavior to accomplish the same end that are acceptable to family members and the community as a whole.

       Consider a situation where the sink is plugged up, the faucet is running and water overflows to the floor.  We mop and mop the floor but still find the floor as wet as when we first started mopping. Instead of constantly mopping the floor, we turn the faucet off, unplug the drain then mop the floor. By doing this sequence of activities, we find our effort in mopping the floor effective.  Without turning off the faucet, we find the job of mopping endless or our mopping effort ineffective. The analogy with behavior is that the observed behavior is the symptom, the underlying cause of the behavior is the motivation or the purpose behind the behavior. 

      To cure lying, the undesirable behavior, we need to make the child understand what may be his/her  purpose for lying. We ask, “Do you know why you have to invent these stories which are not true?”  “Would you like for me to help you?”

      “Could it be that you want attention from me  by telling  those fanciful stories or tall tales?” 

        “Could it be that you are trying to impress me with the lies you tell?”

      “Could it be that you will knowingly tell a lie to show that you can do what I don’t want you to do?”

     “Could it  be that you want  to hurt  me because you know that it pains me so much to see you lying?”

     “Could it be that you made a mistake and rather than admitting to that error, you try to cover up with a series of lies?”

      “Could it be that you are afraid to admit the truth and in your opinion admitting to a lie is less scary?”

      “Could it be that you do not see that telling the truth pays off while  telling a lie pays off?”

      Similar “could it be” questions can be constructed, observing carefully what the reaction is after each question.  As I have explained in a previous blog, the bodily reaction of a sudden reflex action, a loud laugh or twitch of the body called ‘recognition reflex’ is shown as an answer to the right question.  The tongue can lie but the body does not.

     We are not sure of the root cause of the behavior, we only can suspect based on our intuition and observation, hence we ask “could it be” questions.  We do not say, “I know why you are lying. You …..”  Asking ‘could it be’ gives the child some leeway to examine his/her motivation objectively.  This is also a sign of respect for the child that the final opinion is his or hers.  This whole series of activities leads to finding the mistaken goal for lying. Finding the cause ourselves leads to disclosing the mistaken goal to the child. Understanding why we do what we do removes the punch or power of the mistaken goal to urge us to act for the satisfaction of hurting somebody or disobeying our parents like unmasking the person hiding behind the costume. Specific steps can be taken to correct the mistaken notion the child holds subconsciously depending on what the child’s mistaken goal is.

      All behavior has a purpose.  When the goal is to please the family, the actions are also wholesome, acceptable, constructive and helpful.  If for some reason, the child does not feel accepted or not made to feel important in the family, or one is not good enough, the child adopts goals to bring attention to him/her.  Even getting punished gives the child attention.  It is better than being ignored.

      What then are we supposed to do? We first talk to the child one on one to build trust and begin the journey of understanding the cause for our behavior. A personal story can be shared. “I know I used to lie when I was nine telling the neighbors that I was treated like Cinderella by my sister.  Well, the neighbors repeated this story to my mother, which I did not count on.  I had no defense for that and discovered that it was not good to tell a lie.”

      Secondly, we make a point to meet as a family to discuss values.  Stories can be told during these meetings as a prelude to discussing values. When my son was four years old, he climbed over the makeshift desk to reach for the candy on the desk. The whole desk collapsed.  The desk was simply assembled by placing a sink cut-out on top of crates. He quickly ran out of sight.  Some time later, we told him a story about Bongo the mouse, something we just made up on the spot.  “Bongo was trying to get some candy that was way up high so he climbed up the chair and table to get to the candy. The chair fell and scared Bongo so he ran as fast as he could away from the table.” 

      Upon hearing the story, our son volunteered, “That was me trying to get the candy on the desk.”

       During the  family meeting, we brainstorm, making a list of what  the  family needs to work on so that we can work better.  A list is written.  We ask which of the items listed deserve to be discussed and worked on first.  The group asks for a consensus. Having selected on the topic, we ask for concrete examples of how we can reflect the desired value. We adjourn the meeting with a reminder for the next meeting the following week.  Important items on the meeting are recorded on a notebook. The meeting only lasts for 20 minutes.

       Working as a whole  family is recommended  because we do not want to single out the misbehaving child.  This also gives an educational opportunity for all. This also gives a forum for gathering as a family to bring cohesiveness and give support to whoever needs support at that time.

       The following  week, we ask for reports and applaud each effort made  towards the week’s goal.  Trying is even better than not being aware of the value we are working on.  We ask for a consensus if we stay on the same goal for the week or move on to the next topic.  When there are no problems to discuss, the family can plan fun things to do like a vacation, an outing, a concert, a delicious meal, a fun project or even taking portraits or making videos.  Just getting together, exchanging jokes, stories, anecdotes, quotations, poems, original compositions or any such activity bring family unity.

          Through family meetings, we understand:-
1)    a)  why we do things that we do which are annoying to others to get attention.
2)    b) why our stubbornness make our parents feel challenged with their authority to                                
           show  them  they can’t make us do what they want us to do (need for power)
3)    c) why we hurt their feelings ( need for revenge)
4)    d) why our actions reflect our feeling that we are not good enough (feeling of 
5)    e) why when we are not given due recognition for the good that we do, we gain
n d      significance by doing the wrong things 2) Maintaining Sanity In The Classroom:   Classroom Management Techniques

      In conclusion, lying or stealing is only a symptom of a deeper cause of feeling insignificant, inadequate or not being loved.  We do not feel a deep sense of family, of  belonging, so we feel dissociated from our family to think of going against our family values or even hurting them.  As parents, we do not add insult to injury by punishing the doer.  Rather, we embrace the child as a victim of our own neglect. 

      A story is told that Gandhi’s son one day had his daughter drop him off to do errands while she brings the car to the shop to be fixed.  She would pick him up once the car is fixed. The daughter went to a movie and got engrossed with the story that she forgot the time.  When she came to her senses, it had been four hours since she dropped the car off at the shop.  She picked up the car and then picked up her father.  She quickly made up stories why she was late, ‘it took a long time for the car to be fixed.’  The father contradicted her story saying that he had called the shop and it had been fixed two hours earlier. She was silent. She offered her father a ride home.  The father said to her, “No, I will walk home so I can think what in your upbringing caused you to lie to me.”  He walked while the daughter drove slowly beside him, keeping pace with him.  From that day on, she never lied again.

     We do not blame the misbehaving child. We start doing the appropriate action ourselves with love.  Love will show us the way.  With love comes understanding.  With understanding comes right action. With the combination of understanding and right action with love, we make the family happy once more and the child whole again.  Happy Valentine’s Day.
Maintaining Sanity In The Classroom: Classroom Management Techniques                                                             Children: The Challenge

Maintaining Sanity In The Classroom:    Children: The Challenge 
Classroom Management Techniques


  1. I found this blog interesting. As a fourth grade teacher, I know why my students act out and yet punishment seems like the easy way to deal with it. If they misbehave, their conduct grade suffers or they receive another consequence. But unless the "punishment fits the crime" then the unwanted behavior is repeated. I must learn to get to the root of the problem, instead of just treating the symptom.
    Question: Do you really think a 9 year old understands the motives behind her actions and will be able to answer the "could it be" prompts?

  2. Children are smarter than we think. It is also the pace in asking the question and general tone of voice showing empathy that help them in understanding the 'could it be' prompts. When children have been exposed to the format of questioning we are suggesting, they actually like it and use it among themselves even if there is no conflict involved.