A mom in the group I created has posed a very important concern. She is concerned about her 20-month-old toddler getting into things, even in spite of being told “no”. The mom is concerned that this is rebellious behavior and needs to be stopped. My response to her is too lengthy to post as a comment here; and I feel this is a very important topic anyway. So I’ve decided to post here instead…
Why do children “rebel”? People (children included) do things for two reasons; either because they feel inside that it’s the right thing to do, or because they are afraid of a consequence if they don’t. If I behave in a certain way because of my own feelings, beliefs, morals, etc, I’m acting on intrinsic motivation… intrinsic, like internal. If I behave in a certain way because I fear a consequence that will occur, I’m acting on extrinsic motivation… extrinsic, like external. Let me give an example…
Let’s say I’m driving down the road. I notice that the road is curvy, it’s dark outside, and I don’t know the road well. I feel it’s unsafe to drive at a high rate of speed. In that instance, I’m acting on intrinsic motivation. Another day, I’m driving on a clear sunny day, on a long flat stretch of highway with no houses or people around. I feel I could safely drive very fast. But there is a posted speed limit. Now I have a choice. I know that if I drive faster than the posted speed limit, I may get a speeding ticket and have to pay a fine. If I drive more than 20mph over the speed limit, I might have my license revoked or even go to jail. If I choose to act upon this extrinsic motivation, I will drive the posted speed, even though my intrinsic motivation says I should be able to drive faster. This means that the extrinsic motivator (the threat of a fine or worse) is greater than the intrinsic motivator (my knowledge and beliefs and my confidence in them). But what happens if I happen to know, without a doubt, that there are no police around? Without the extrinsic motivation, I will act intrinsically and do what I feel is right; in this case, speeding. Because in the absence of an extrinsic motivator, we all act intrinsically.
This is why corporal punishment and authoritarian parenting seem to work, but also why it actually doesn’t. If you tell your child not to do something, they want to know why. This is a huge trigger for most parents, especially if they themselves were raised in an authoritarian household; because the common belief is that children should do what they’re told, without question. But this is a misplaced belief. In fact, the reason that every child starts asking “why?” at about 2-3 years old is because it is human nature to do so. It’s how we learn. Our job as parents isn’t to train our children to do as they’re told without question. Our job as parents is to teach our children how to make good decisions based on logic and moral reasoning. Authoritarian parents say “do as I say, because I’m the parent!” But as in my example above, if the child doesn’t understand the “why” behind the rule, or doesn’t think it’s a good enough reason, they will do what they feel is right (what we call “rebellion”). This is why authoritarian parenting has to utilize corporal punishment. Without a big enough threat, and without a reason behind the rule, a child will simply do as they feel is right. So parents then say “if you don’t do as I say, you’ll be spanked/put in time out/have your favorite toy taken away/grounded/etc”. Now the child must choose between doing what they feel is right while risking the punishment, or complying with the parent’s demands. Let me be clear: they must choose between blind obedience based upon fear of punishment, or doing what they feel is right. When we think about it that way, we can see why authoritarian parenting and corporal punishment doesn’t work in the long term, and why it’s not actually what we want for our kids after all.
Why do teenagers rebel? Because they don’t understand the reasons behind any of the rules that have been beaten into them (literally and figuratively) by their parents. So they must now go and test these rules to find out if they are right or wrong. They must go acquire intrinsic motivation via experience, because they have not been given a good enough reason not to. Corporal punishment only works so long as the threat is great enough to deter the action. This is why it creates children who lie, because all they have to do is circumvent the discovery of their actions to avoid the punishment.
Toddlers and teenagers actually have something in common. Their brains are creating new neural pathways at an increased rate. Toddlers are forming these pathways for the first time. Teenagers are reevaluating all these pathways and deciding if they should be kept or severed. If they are severed, new ones are formed in their place. What we’re talking about here is the foundational pattern for their thoughts and behavior that will be with them for life. Once those pathways are solidified in the teenage years, it will become very difficult to change them later.
Now to go back to the concern about the 20-month old. This toddler did the exact opposite of what she was told to do. Was she being defiant because she is just a “bad kid”? No, she acted defiantly because she lacked the intrinsic motivation to stop. She had no reason to. And at that age, she also has little impulse control. She literally cannot help but do what she feels like doing. The way toddlers learn is by doing. They are hard-wired to experiment. She was doing what she was told not to in order to find out why her mother said not to. She cannot possibly understand the reason of “because I don’t want you to waste my time and money by smearing diaper rash cream all over everything”. She has no concept of time or money. She simply sees something interesting that her parent uses and she wants to use it also, because that’s how toddlers learn to be adults… by doing what adults do. Because she lacks the reasoning skills necessary to understand why she shouldn’t smear diaper rash cream on everything, she will do it anyway. An authoritarian parent would then say (or yell) “I said no!” and enact a punishment. The punishment would not magically make the child understand, it would simply instill fear into them and foster a mistrust of the parent. A peaceful, gentle parent would take the opportunity to communicate a reason to the toddler “no, we don’t play with diaper rash cream, it’s not a toy.” and then place it out of reach, knowing that the toddler still doesn’t understand the reason, and knowing that she will still try to play with it. This is when a distraction can be helpful, because the toddler is bound to feel frustrated that they can’t have what they want. If you can offer something similar, the distraction will work even better to ease the frustration and deter future attempts to get the diaper rash cream. “We don’t play with diaper rash cream, but we can smear finger paint on this paper! How fun!” This interaction will build trust, because the toddler learns that there are certain things they’re not supposed to play with, but that mom cares about their frustration and desires and will come up with a solution that is enjoyable.
These little interactions are a set-up for the years to come. Soon, the toddler becomes a preschooler and begins asking “why?”, has a much larger ability to comprehend language, and will more readily accept verbal explanations if they already trust their parents. Once they become teenagers, they will gain adult-like reasoning skills and can begin to understand a far wider range of “why” scenarios. Not just ones with immediate, tangible consequences (like “we don’t tip our cup because the liquid will spill, and then we have to clean it up”), but ones with more intangible, long-term consequences (like “we don’t steal from stores because you could go to jail if you’re caught, and it’s also harmful to the store owner because of the loss of profit, and would cause them mental upset…”etc etc). But if the teenager doesn’t already have a deep connection with and trust in their parent, they are unlikely to listen to their reasons and will choose to go find the answers for themselves, which we call “rebellion”.
It’s far more time-consuming to parent without demanding blind obedience. But parenting is a long-term commitment. You are helping your toddler become an adult. My rule for myself, now that I have two new toddlers whom I’m choosing to parent peacefully, is to ask myself “why not?” If there is no good reason for me to prevent them from doing something, I let them do it. If there is a good reason (safety, loss of money, etc), I either remove the option (placing things out of reach, using a baby gate, etc), offer a brief explanation and alternative (“you can’t color on the wall, but here’s some paper!”) or use a distraction (“no, you can’t go outside to play when it’s dark. How about we read a book instead?”).
I think a good first step in changing our mindset from authoritarian to peaceful parenting is realizing that the goal is to raise our kids to make good decisions, not to be obedient.