Why Does My Toddler Act Up?

There are two schools of thought when it comes to children acting up.  One school of thought believes that all children are born bad and it is up to the parents to set them straight.  The other school of thought believes that all children are good but it is how parents channel their energies that determine whether they behave as we expect them to or not.  I’m sure you can guess which school of thought I belong to…

I wrote a blog post some time ago that babies are not manipulative and that they cannot be spoilt.  I posted that article on another website and received the following comment which has been copied verbatim spelling mistakes and all:

“You are wrong on this one honey, you are trying to get too scientific, common since tells us that babies can manipulate us. They don’t want to lay in bed, they want to lay in moms arms, so they cry, and to teach them to stay in bed and sleep, there must come a point where we have to let them cry, and not give them what they want, hince spoiling them. come up with all the data you want, but I have 4 children and they are born manipulators. The bible tells us that we are born into this world sinners. No one has to teach us to do wrong, it comes natural, thus, we prove that the bible is right. Most articles like yours usually set out to disprove the bible, but you can’t, it proves true every time. I suppose that you are against discipline as well? You can’t prove evolution either, so don’t use it as a proof.”

Personally, I felt that the comment was so ridiculous I didn’t even attempt to reply back because I knew I would be typing until my fingers were blue and this man would still be convinced that I am an anti-Bible atheist and that I am trying to spread evil into the world with my blasphemous assertions regarding the innocence of babies.

Although I can’t remember where I first read it, I’m presuming some parenting book, I remember reading that children act up for two reasons:

  1. Boredom
  2. Desire for their parents’ attention

In “The Complete Secrets of Happy Children“, Steve Biddulph outlined two cases regarding the effects of boredom on a child and their deep desire for their parents’ attention.  I thought they were pretty interesting so I’m going to outline them here.  It might have lost something in the retelling but essentially the gist of it is here:

1. On boredom

A group of rats were placed into a box with food and water, a concealed video and a switch.  If they pressed the switch, it would reveal the video and they would be able to watch it.  The researchers found that the rats constantly pressed the switch so they could watch the video.

The rats were then placed into another box with just food and water.  Not surprisingly, they tore the box up because they had nothing to occupy themselves.

Then the rats were placed into a third box with food and water.  They were occasionally given electric shocks, which are obviously rather nasty.

Finally, the rats were given options to choose the order of their preference of the three boxes.  Guess what they chose?

1. The box with the switch and the video.
2. The box with the electric shocks.
3. The box with only food and water.

The rats would rather suffer electric shocks than to suffer boredom.  Likewise, children with nothing to do will look for something to occupy themselves.  Even if they get in trouble for their activities, they would rather be punished for it than to be bored.  So if you don’t want your child playing with your prized Ming vase, give them something to do.

2. On parents’ attention

There were two boys whose parents were often entertaining guests.  The boys had a room full of toys and activities to keep them occupied.  However, whenever their parents’ guests arrived at the house, the boys would get into a huge fight that required the attention of their parents.  The parents were at a loss as to why the boys would always fight when their guests were around.  Since it caused them great embarrassment, they went to get help.

Psychologists came to the house to observe the boys during a dinner party where the parents were told to behave as they normally would.  True to form, the boys started to fight during the dinner party.  Although the boys were in a separate room, the commotion they made could be heard by all the guests and the parents.  So the father went to the room and berated his sons.

What the psychologists observed was very interesting.  Firstly, the boys fight didn’t appear to be a real fight.  It was almost like a staged fight.  Secondly, when the father appeared and scolded the boys, they had a half smile on their faces almost as if they were enjoying the scolding from their father but trying not to show it.

What the boys wanted was their parents attention.  And when the father started playing golf with his sons, the playing up stopped.

Now here are my own personal observations from my study of one:

1. On boredom

Whenever we go out for a meal, I often bring along some colouring books, Thomas and Friends trains and a few other miscellaneous knick knacks to entertain Aristotle during the meal.  Aristotle loves his Thomas and Friends trains and he loves colouring and drawing with crayons.  With these activities, he is often quite content to sit through the entire meal without needing to get down and run around.  The only exceptions have been when he’s sick, tired or if we happen to go to a restaurant with live fish.

If we forget to bring his toys and books, we usually get a fidgety toddler who squirms around and tries to get out of his seat.  The contrast is plainly obvious.  If you want your toddler to sit down, you need to find something to entertain him – unless he loves to eat, then the food becomes the distraction.  For us, Aristotle’s Thomas and Friends trains and his colouring books work a treat because he loves playing with these.

2. On parents’ attention

I was working on a new railway design for Aristotle’s train table one day while Aristotle played nearby with his trains.  Thinking that since we were side by side, he would be content to engage in his own activities.  I got so absorbed with the designing of his new railway, that I was completely oblivious to my son’s attempts to get my attention… until he pushed his cup of water onto the floor.

At first I thought it was an accident because Aristotle hardly ever throws objects, but he was staring at me so pointedly that I had a hunch it had been deliberate.  When I asked him, he owned up to it.  I immediately launched into parenting mode and told him off.  When he started to cry, I asked him why he did it.  He couldn’t answer.  By then I had already guessed the answer.  I asked him if it was because I had been ignoring him and he nodded.

When I nursed him to sleep later, I thought back to the events and remembered how he tried to get my attention but I had brushed him off because I had been too absorbed on completing the railway.  He kept telling me his hands were dirty and wanting me to wipe them even when they were clean.  He told me several times that he wanted to nurse but I tried to stall him because I was waiting for my brother to drop by the house.

If you don’t like your children’s behaviour, then you need to think of new ways to engage them so that they behave the way you want them to.  As parents of young children, we have a lot more control over our children’s behaviour than we realise.

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.

4 thoughts on “Why Does My Toddler Act Up?

  1. Figur8, you are an amazing mother and the fact that you put so much thought to EVERYTHING that happens on a day to day basis is testament to it.
    I am glad that the heir to our family name (whoaaaaa thats a little dramatic isn’t it? Ok. So nephew it is) is mothered by you.
    🙂 Have a happy week!

    Like

  2. Thanks dear, I try. When Gav grows up, I’d like to be able to say I did the best I could and not have any regrets that I should have done things differently.

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  3. Gavin’s mum,i really admire how much effort and research you put in towards parenting your son.

    The lady mentioned above belongs to one group of people i have little regard of. People who refuse to acknowledge their own responsibility(in this case it is parenting). It is after all much easier to blame the child for being manipulative or better still, quote something from the bible. They are the same people who are quick to dismiss others effort and can’t help themselves but to put in unnecessary negative comments.

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  4. Thank you, Sophia. For better or worse, I have a tendency to get obsessed with things that interest me.

    The person who left me that comment was actually a man. I feel for his children. He is the sort of person with the misconception that the only way to discipline is by smacking since he assumes I don’t believe in discipline. Although I choose not to smack, I fully believe in the need to discipline our children.

    He is also the sort of person that makes other Christians look bad.

    Like

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