Did you know that letting your children be ‘naughty’ is one of the most effective parenting tools we have? It may sound ridiculous, but it’s true. And no, I’m not talking about permissive parenting where you let your child run riot, hitting other children or destroying the house.
With Hand in Hand parenting we don’t use the term ‘naughty.’ We refer to off-track behaviour, which is how our children act when they feel disconnected, or when upset feelings are clouding their thinking. When children act off-track, the pre-frontal cortex; the part of their brain responsible for rational, reasonable behaviour can’t function well. Their behaviour is like a giant red flag they’re waving at us saying, ”help! I’m upset and I can’t think well. I need some connection!”
So how does letting them be naughty help in any way? Well, imagine your child has come home from pre-school and starts randomly pulling books of the bookshelf and scattering them across the floor. We may wonder what happened and if something upset them. We might ask them, ”What’s up? Did something happen?” and not get much of a response.
It’s not surprising that our 3 or 4 year old doesn’t always tell us what they’re feeling. When the emotional part of the brain – the limbic system – gets flooded with emotions, the pre frontal cortex, where language is housed can’t function well. They may not want to talk about it, and they may want to act out their emotions instead. (adults are often no different).
Perhaps your child felt disconnected at pre-school, because they’re still getting used to being separated from you. Perhaps another child took a toy from them and they felt powerless to stop them. They may not cry there and then, and instead save up those emotions for expressing at home where they feel most safe.
We can move in and set a limit, hold our child’s hand, look into their eyes and say, ”I’m sorry, I can’t let you throw the books.” Our child feels our presence and all of that upset, flows up to the surface, and they may start to cry. This is their natural healing process at work. When we listen without trying to fix or stop, we heal the hurt that caused their behaviour. As Dr. Deborah Macnamara says, ”’crying is not the hurt, but the process of being unhurt.” And when children feel better, they behave better. This is nature’s behaviour regulation at work.
So where does the ‘naughtiness’ come in? Well, sometimes your child may not be on the edge of tears. As you take their hand, and ask them not to throw the book they may wriggle your hand out of yours and giggle as they try to throw it again and again. Laughter is also part of nature’s behaviour regulation system.
In this example we don’t want our child throwing and wrecking our books. But we do want to follow where the giggles go, because doing so gives them the play and connection they need to help recover from what happened.
Perhaps if you have some baby cloth books, you could point them out and tell your child, in a playfully serious tones, ”these are my most precious important books, please don’t throw these ones.”
Your child will probably take it as an invitation to throw these books, and can have lots of fun and laughter as you playfully try to stop them. In my article here, What to do when your child just wants your attention I explain how this kind of play does encourage the behaviour in the moment, but in the long run, it improves co-operation because your child has got their feelings out of their system.
So you do want to let your children be playfully ‘naughty’ in the context of a game, that doesn’t involve hurting people or damaging objects.
For example, the other day, I was tidying up in the evening. I’d given my daughter lots of attention all day, so it seemed reasonable for me to spend a few minutes putting some washing away. She started complaining, and I sensed that she had upset feelings that were making her struggle to play independently.
So I set a limit. I got down on her level, and gently told her that I really needed to tidy up. I thought she might have been on the verge of tears, but she wasn’t. Instead she hid under the covers of her bed, and told me not to come near her.
At this point I was putting the clothes into one of the drawers. Everything was neatly folded, and I said, ”I hope nobody comes and messes up these drawers.” She immediately jumped up and started trying to pull the clothes out of the drawers, while I playfully tried to stop her. We played that for a few minutes, me trying to stuff the clothes back in the drawers and then her throwing them out. She laughed a lot and then happily went off to play a game by herself.
It wasn’t that hard to fold up the clothes and put them back, and I gained time because then she was happy to let me tidy.
This won’t encourage our child to come and pull clothes out of our drawers all the time. They needed attention, and we listened through laughter, so they’ve got that behaviour out of their system.
It takes a leap of faith to allow your child to be naughty. But try it. Try it with something that won’t push your buttons, and when you’ve got time to play. For example put some Duplo bricks in a box, and tell your child ”see my lovely bricks are all tidied away, I really hope nobody comes and messes them up.”
Or, take a pile of non-important papers, and put them on the kitchen table. Tell your child that these are your very important papers, and you don’t want anyone to mess them up.
Children do know the difference between play ‘naughtiness’ and really ‘naughtiness,’ just like a puppy knows the difference between gently biting for fun, and really biting. When they are upset they may not always act according to their deep seated knowledge of what is ‘right,’ but when we play and connect with them it helps them return to ‘thinking mode,’ so their future behaviour will be much more on-track.
Have fun and laugh, and let your child lap up your attention. Then you may find that when you do want to get something done or need your child to co-operate they will do so because you’ve invested time in connecting.
This post explains more about why children misbehave, and what we can do, The Real Reason Our Children Misbehave
Looking for more playful ways to deal with behaviour challenges? Check out Playful Parenting by Dr. Lawrence Cohen