When Little Leprechauns Turn Naughty

March 02, 2012

Posted By: Shaunescy

A special quest post by Jennifer A. Williams

Whenever St. Patrick’s Day comes around, I remember a story a mother at one of my

parenting classes told a few years ago. As it happened, she was not thinking about

shamrocks and leprechauns on the afternoon her son came home from kindergarten

with green hair. The little guy walked in the door gleefully, and the mom went ballistic

as soon as she saw him. What started out as a fun St. Patrick’s Day activity at school

turned into a catastrophe at home. “All I could see was a teenager standing there

with green hair, tattoos, a ring in his nose, and a chain hanging around his waist!” Her

mind had catapulted her into some imaginary future scene, and her fear set off a chain


As parents, sometimes we jump to conclusions about our children’s behavior. And

occasionally we react not from what is real but from what we imagine, like this mom did.

But how children behave rarely has anything to do with what we think it does. What we

label as naughty might not be what it seems.

There is a common misconception about behavior that sometimes causes us to react

too quickly. We tend to believe that behavior is either good or bad, acceptable or

unacceptable—no questions asked. This misconception causes us to react without

thinking, and it creates a lot of unnecessary difficulty with children. What we forget by

reducing behaviors to black and white is that children have their own unique perspective

and experience of the world. When we move to correct or coerce instead of observe

and honor children’s innate (and uncontrollable) need to experiment, explore, and grow,

children may turn into “naughty little leprechauns.”

Let’s face it, we adults can get pretty set in our ways. Once we define a behavior as

naughty, we have already blinded ourselves. We really do want to do what’s best for our

children—but in order to have more nice than naughty, we need to rethink the way we

approach their behavior.

I once coached a woman who had been in a major power struggle with her two-year-old

son for months. They lived on a very busy street in the city, and guess what he loved

to do? Yup, make a mad dash for the street! Was he being naughty? Some parents

would think so. He was driving his mom crazy, and her multiple spankings had no effect

whatsoever. She was worn down, stressed out, and exasperated.

So let’s dissect this “naughtiness.” Being chased is a powerful experience for a toddler.

To him, it was a game! The little boy’s gross motor development was in full swing and

screaming to be exercised. Breaking the taboo by running into the street made the

mischief that much more appealing. And being able to trigger mom in an instant was

extremely gratifying. “I have power!” But when we shifted her belief that his behavior

was bad to suspending judgment and looking for the needs driving the behavior instead,

the mom was able to rectify his behavior in just a few days. How?

First, whenever he ran toward or took one step into the street by himself, he was

immediately taken inside, firmly yet lovingly. He therefore lost the privilege of playing

outside, which he loved dearly. Second, the mom arranged chasing moments, but at her

discretion. In the safety of a fenced backyard, they played the chasing game, satisfying

his need for running to exercise his gross motor development, his need to feel powerful,

and the mom’s need to keep her son safe! And an added bonus was that they both had


So when your child is acting “naughty,” ask yourself, “If my child had a really good

reason for acting like this, what might it be?” Asking this simple question will help you

take a step back and pause before rushing in with a sharp word or a punishment you

may regret later (usually after the child is fast asleep, lying there looking angelic and


Your child needs elbow room to grow. When nice turns to naughty, look for the need

and meet it. Guaranteed: You’ll enjoy being a parent a whole lot more!

Jennifer Williams is a mother of three children, ages 18, 20, and 25 and lives with her husband in Livingston, Montana. As the founder of the Heartmanity Center, her passion is helping parents create loving and harmonious homes. She is an emotional fitness coach for couples as well as a behavioral consultant and a trainer for the International Network of Children and Families. For an upcoming parenting class starting soon, visit Heartmanity.com .

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