Discipline: Understanding Behaviour Motivation from a Child’s Point of View

They say that every child is different; every child is unique in their own ways. Even two siblings can be like day and night. Aristotle and Hercules are two such siblings. So different in nature that you could be forgiven for thinking they weren’t brothers – if it weren’t for the fact that they bear the same familial resemblance. Having two children with such different natures has been a blessing and a trial.

It has been a blessing because I get to enjoy motherhood in a completely different way. It has been a trial because I do not know how to discipline Hercules. He does not take me seriously and he does not look to me as an authority. While he fears his father’s stern voice, he laughs at my reprimands. While I’ve always been able to get through to Aristotle, it seemed that I was at a loss when it came to Hercules. In a fit of desperation, I found myself pondering corporal punishment despite my stand against it. And then I thought about it further and spotted the irony of smacking a child for smacking his brother. What kind of mixed message would that be sending my son? It’s okay that Mummy smacks him but not when he smacks his brother?

The epiphany came through a few days ago while I watched Hercules playing by himself. But before I get to it, let me set the background. Aristotle was an easy toddler in the sense that he never bit anyone; he didn’t really hit people either; and he didn’t throw his toys around. Hercules, on the other hand, is a biter, a hitter and a thrower. It was confounding. In most cases, children learn by watching other children, but that would mean that either an older sibling was doing it, or he was learning it from the other children at school. Since Hercules does not go to school and his older brother does not do such things, where did he learn these terrible habits?

From his environment. Understandings that we take for granted were being missed by his lack of experience. A friend of mine gave this wonderful example a long time ago. We encourage our children to throw the ball, but we get upset when they throw the orange (fruit). For a young child, this can be confusing. What’s the difference between a ball and an orange? Both are round. A young child lacks the experience to realise that we don’t throw our food but it is okay to throw a ball. Extrapolate this example further and it isn’t hard to understand how Hercules got into the habit of throwing his toys. A child might think: if a ball is a toy and I can throw balls, then I can throw other toys, too.

Back to my epiphany… One afternoon, I was listening to Hercules playing with the wooden train set. He was taking the pieces of the railway tracks and crashing them together as he usually did. It always frustrates me to see him play so roughly with his toys because he’s already broken so many. That afternoon, I also heard the sound effects he was making with his voice. He was mimicking the sound effects his brother makes when we play our homemade version of the physical Angry Birds game. He had learned to crash his toys because we did it with the blocks. And I, being the initiator of that game, had only myself to blame for inadvertently teaching my toddler that smashing toys was okay and even fun!

Now that I could see the connection, the rest became clearer. He would bite us in return because we used to pretend to eat his fingers with mock biting. It was a game he really enjoyed so he must have thought we would enjoy it as much if he bit us back. Instead, we responded with anger and reprimands that I’m sure were just as confusing for him. As for the slapping, he must have witnessed our mock fights with pretend punches. Games we played thoughtlessly with an unspoken understanding of the boundaries were observed and misunderstood by my toddler.

Even though I have repeatedly told him to stop, there are times when he still does it – not because he is trying to be disobedient but because children are forgetful especially when they are having fun – they forget the rules because they get carried away. Even adults are prone to such mistakes when we are too wrapped up in the moment.

So the only way to stop it is to play the broken record and tell him why we don’t do these things and to stop playing these games (at least until he is old enough to understand the limits to such games). I’ve noticed that the biting has reduced considerably already so perhaps it is just a matter of time before he fixes the rule in his head that dropping alarm clocks on his brother’s head is a “no-no”.

What I’ve learned from this experience is that it is easy to label a child as mischievous and naughty without attempting to understand him. While it is important to teach our children what are acceptable and unacceptable behaviours, being able to see things from their perspective helps us to be fair and more understanding.

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

2 thoughts on “Discipline: Understanding Behaviour Motivation from a Child’s Point of View

  1. Hi, Shen-Li! My kid had just attended his pre-school for about 4 days. He is only 3 years old now. The teacher started to complaint to me that my kid need assessment because they thought he has boundaries and social disabilities. I admit that my kid has social issue because he is only child and all the while he is with adults at home, He never has chance to get a long with other kids who are same aged. The teacher even started to show impatient to him and started to neglect him. I felt that the teacher never give chance to him to get used to the routine. They just compared him with others kids that already had attended one year of nursery school. I was so sad with that but i know that my kid is bright, He is very clever. Could you please tell me what is meant by boundaries disabilities and what should i do to improve his social issue. I need your comment. I really need to know is there any school with patient and kind teachers in Malaysia that can help my kid.


    1. Hi there. I think that it is pretty common for an only child to behave as your child has because he is used to adult company. Aristotle was exactly like that. He had a hard time settling into school, too. Ask your son’s teacher to give you reasons why they think he has boundaries and social disabilities and to explain what they mean because those terms are unfamiliar to me as well. Keep in close contact with your son’s teacher and let his teacher know you are willing to work with him/her to help your son get through this difficult phase and see what the response of your son’s teacher is. If you feel you are not getting the teacher’s cooperation, try speaking to the principal. I hope this helps.


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