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Law #3: Behavior Occurs in Levels

With child behavior, there is almost always much more than meets the eye. Because it occurs on so many different levels, child behavior that seems simple on one level can often be much more complex and meaningful on another.  

For example, a toddler’s chronic pattern of getting into cupboards, drawers and closed rooms, even after being told not to, is easily perceived as simple mischievousness. When viewed on that level, the pattern is unacceptable and could lead to discipline. But it can be viewed on a more complex and meaningful level, namely child exploration. If a child regularly encounters an angry parent who seems determined to thwart any exploratory activities, the child will often resolve to soldier on to achieve future discoveries. When parents view this behavior as exploratory (born out of natural curiosity, a good trait) rather than simple opposition, they are more likely to accept and appropriately monitor it. Although it may lead to cautionary responses to ensure the child’s safety, it is less likely to lead to discipline.

Another example might involve high school students who argue with a teacher and absolutely insist they are correct even in the face of contrary evidence. Viewed on a basic level, this may look like simple stubbornness, or worse, stupidity. However, when seen on a more complex level that is relevant to the way teens behave – looking good in front of peers – the stubbornness makes more sense. A youth who argues with a teacher often is trying to save face. On this level, the stubbornness (or idiocy) is easier to understand, accept and manage. At this more complex and meaningful level of behavior, a simple solution would be for a teacher to forgo the exchange for the moment and set a time to discuss the issue later in private.

There are countless other examples. Holding a goldfish outside its bowl is idiotic on one level but also can be seen as a young child’s attempt to express physical affection to a pet. Spending time with friends rather than with family is selfish and insensitive on one level but also exhibits a teen’s need for independence.  

My point here is that child behavior is often exhibited in simple forms that can appear to be oppositional, selfish or generally unacceptable if viewed only at that basic level. However, when viewed at a more meaningful level, the same apparently simple behavior can be seen as something larger and potentially more adaptive. This doesn’t mean the behavior should be ignored, especially if it is inappropriate. But looking at the bigger picture of a child’s behavior, adults might gain a fuller understanding of what they’re dealing with, which can create more flexibility in how they respond.


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