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A Guide to Understanding Children

Updated on July 7, 2014


Children's behaviors are motivated by:

*his desire to belong

*his own observations

*his environment

*his position in the family

*his own responses

Now let's discuss each of the 5 factors so you can better understand children and their behavior.


Have you ever done something and then wondered why you did it? Children do the same thing. They sometimes do things and do not know why. Our behavior has a purpose and the things we do move us toward a goal. The same is true of children. Children have a strong desire to belong and a child's behaviors are governed by a desire to belong. When you know this about children, you can better understand them and why they misbehave.

Let's look at this example: Mom and 7 year old Joshua are in the kitchen after breakfast. Mom busies herself planning a meeting. Joshua begins tapping his fingers on the table. "Stop", mom says. He does. She works more and notices he is doing it again. I said, "stop it." He does. Again he begins tapping a bit louder and mom yells, "Are you trying to annoy me?" She tosses her pen into the air and pops Joshua on the hand. "Why do you keep doing that when you know it annoys me?" She asks in an irritated voice. Joshua, says, "I don't know."

Actually he probably did not know. But if mom looked a little closer, she would know that Joshua had a goal. Now, let's look at the results of his bad behavior. Mom got annoyed. He wanted her to (consciously or not). He got results because mom yelled. She slapped him. She stopped what she was doing "just for him". Mom gave him her full attention. So why should he stop annoying her? He was in control. This was his goal. And Joshua did this all day long. She yielded...he got reinforced (in a negative way).

Now, what if Joshua discovered that his misbehavior did not bother mom? If the tapping no longer annoyed mom, he would cease. What if instead, mom caught him being quiet and not doing annoying stuff and instead hugged him for behaving, smiled because he pleased her, and praised him for his good behavior? He would still obtain his goal and feel as if he belonged. Instead of "seeking" attention, (his motive) he would feel he belonged there with mom.

In this example, Joshua acted on his "mistaken goals" to gain his all important goal-belonging.


A child's own observations influence his behaviors. A child's observations can be keen, but they are often misinterpreted. As a result, kids sometimes draw wrong conclusions and thus act on "mistaken goals". A good example of this is when a young child sees his younger sibling not being punished for something he would be punished for. He often misbehaves out of mistaken goals or bad interpretation of events. He thinks, "little brother did that and he did not get into trouble. I'll try it too."

Similarly, sometimes when children see parents in a position of power, they admire it. They think, "wow, power equates to place (a sense of belonging). Mom gets mad=power...I'll use anger to get this power too". Next thing you know, when mom punishes him, he interprets that as a reason to act out in retaliation for her punishing him. Then there is a constant power struggle between the child and his mom.

When parents analyze this behavior, they begin to see that punishment can be ill advised.


A child's desire to belong and a child's observations are a factor in a child's behavior. Once we understand a child's motivation for bad behavior we can begin to help move him toward positive behavior. Likewise, when we understand that children can misinterpret what they see, we begin to understand why a child chooses to behave in certain ways.

Please come next blog will cover how a child's environment, his position in the family, and a child's response can influence his behavior. When you understand these factors, you will better understand children.


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