Your Child's Bad Behavior Won't Stop Until You Make This One Change

Your Child’s Bad Behavior Won’t Stop Until You Make This One Change

Too many parents believe that children, at the core, are not interested in doing what’s “right.” That children who don’t want to share are “selfish brats.” That children who say what they think without a filter are “rude” or “impolite.”

When a child is upset, throwing tantrums, or pushing buttons, the child is “giving me a hard time.” When commands aren’t met with immediate obedience it’s because the child is “misbehaving” and “disrespectful.” When a child tries to negotiate or find another means to get what they want, they’re “manipulative” and “deceitful.”

It’s all “bad” behavior. And it must be “fixed” by authoritarianism. Time-outs, “naughty chairs,” groundings, “taking charge,” spanking, “showing them who’s boss,” “being in control,” and so on.

There are two big hurdles with this approach. First, if a child is bad, can these tactics “fix” them? Second, what if the child is not bad? What will these approaches do to their soul and their psyche?

If a child is disrespectful, can you smack respect into them? If your co-worker is being disrespectful, would smacking them be a productive tactic?

If a child is manipulative and dishonest, will a “naughty chair” instill virtue in them? Or will it just lead to them working harder to not get caught?

Authoritarian strategies don’t work. They seem to, in the short-term, but fail miserably in the long term. That’s because authoritarianism is antithetical to virtue and authenticity. Punishments *do* teach—they teach human beings to avoid punishment. But that’s all.

What I’m more interested in is the second question: “What if a child is not bad? What will these tactics do to their soul and their psyche?”

This is the million dollar question because the fundamental truth is this: There are no bad kids. Kids do the best they can with the physical and psychological tools at their disposal.

When a child is upset, throwing tantrums, or pushing buttons, the child is having a hard time. When commands aren’t met with immediate obedience it’s because human beings instinctually avoid oppression. When a child tries to negotiate or find another means to get what they want, they’re thinking critically and problem solving.

It’s all very rational behavior relative to their physical and psychological development. When they’re throwing a tantrum, it’s because they don’t have the capacity to logically communicate with you. When they’re “disobedient” it’s because they desperately want independence and autonomy. Or it’s because you’re interrupting them. Or it’s because you’re asking them to do something that’s not age appropriate.

If you see kids’ behavior as “bad,” you’ll always approach them with the belief that they need to be coerced and “corrected.” If you see kids’ behavior for what it is—the best they can do at the time—then you’ll approach situations with empathy, understanding, and actual leadership.

Of course my child is throwing a tantrum in the middle of aisle seven after I told her we aren’t going to buy the family size bag of M&Ms. She’s tired, she’s hungry, and she’s THREE. She’s not a “brat.” She’s not “bad.” She’s not manipulating me (she doesn’t even know what an M&M is). A tantrum is the best she can do at the time with the immense frustration and emotion inside of her. Knowing this, I can provide what she actually needs: Empathy. Validation. Connection.

As a parent, you have three options during rough times. You can act like a three year old yourself (yelling, hitting, punishing, etc.). You can ignore. Or, you can lead authentically.

I’m not saying authoritarianism is akin to acting like a three year old to get a rise out of you. And I’m not suggesting anyone is perfect. I believe we need to be honest with ourselves. If I yell at my 3 year old or spank my 3 year old or otherwise punish my 3 year old, I’ve employed tools that are no better than theirs. If I ignore them, all I’m doing is ignoring their needs. And if I tell myself that any of those tactics are “real leadership,” I’m lying to myself. And I’m modeling her own behavior back to her, which reinforces that behavior.

And because human beings are biologically programmed to oppose oppression, these control-based responses are going to evoke an ongoing war. The ever common “power struggle.” Oppression begets rebellion. And the stronger the will of the child, the bigger and longer and more costly the war. For many, the result is a total loss of connection that manifests most publicly during the teenage years.

Those “bad” teenagers were “bad” kids. And they’re not “acting up” because nobody “disciplined” them, they’re “acting up” because they’ve always “acted up” because their parents saw their behavior as “acting up” rather than what it actually was—behavior. Not good, not bad. Just behavior. The behavior of a young human being who didn’t have the capacity to behave any differently.

Assuming a child is “acting” anything implies that they’re in total control of their behavior. That everything they’re doing is a choice. It’s another extension of the “my bad kid is doing all this on purpose” mindset. But there are no bad kids. Kids do the best they can with the physical and psychological tools at their disposal. 

All the authoritarianism in the world can’t correct bad behavior because coercion doesn’t have the capacity to correct it. If authoritarianism “works” it’s because you broke your child’s spirit. If a child is obedient, it means their will is no longer their own. No matter how much you think you’re winning, you’re losing. And you’re losing what’s most important to you, your child’s authenticity and your connection with them.

The sooner you can see your child’s behavior for what it is, the sooner you will truly be there for your child as a leader. This affords you the opportunity to give them real skills for better handling hard situations. Not just through teaching, but through modeling. And you’re able to give them these tools in a way that empowers their spirit and strengthens your bond.

This small but revolutionary shift in mindset instantly transforms all bad kids back into their natural state—kids. Just kids.



  • Theresa Crannell

    Thank you. I am guilty of this and I didn’t notice I was doing it until other people started treating my child the same way I did. I handled every situation with a grudge because there was always an argument , until I realized I was getting mad at my child for being just like me, I like to get my point across and so does he. He wants the same thing I do, to be listened to. I have stopped myself from enforcing the “no arguing” rule and he has made some very good points and taught me so much, that I should have always known, about him. The answer still might be no but listening to his side has made a huge difference. I now make it a point to tell him that he is a good kid everyday. If he does something that he shouldn’t I tell him why it isn’t something he should do and how it could effect him/ others. I also have a handy trick about the grocery store, if he says he wants something (and I don’t plan to buy it) I tell him something that I wanted and agree that I too am sad I can’t have it right now. It ends in conversation instead of an argument.

  • Loïs

    I really like what you do but please handle carefully these “click-bait” titles, which can see as an appeal to curiosity of knowing “what’s this one thing?” rather than giving the reader as much information on what he will be reading so that he can judge if that’s worth his time.

    The quality of your blog being as far as one can be from Buzzfeed, I would love to see this difference carried out to the titles as well.

  • Susan

    I resent the statement: ” If authoritarianism “works” it’s because you broke your child’s spirit. ” My younger pretty much follows directions and doesn’t question requests, so that means I broke his spirit? What about he just goes with the flow and perhaps realizes if he does as I ask, life is smoother? I think kids absolutely have the capacity to manipulate, even as young as 3, but they are taught, maybe inadvertently, but they still learn it and that doesn’t mean they are “bad”. I agree strict authoritarianism seems to solve a problem only on the surface, learning what is really the root of a child’s poor behavior and trying to help that is key. But stating obedient kids have broken spirits is seems overdramatic.

      • Joann

        This was the first article I read in this blog, and I appreciate it a lot and was looking forward to more. This reply, however, really made me step back and reconsider. I feel like this could have been an opportunity for discussion, not an opportunity to mock her statements/questions. I just think in a blog about respecting our kids, and meeting other parents where they are, you could treat commenters (that aren’t being outright disrespectful or mocking) with respect, too.

          • Kevin Geary

            I’m not sure that word means what you think it means.

            “tease or laugh at in a scornful or contemptuous manner.”

            I said, “sounds like what the cops say” in a very depressed kind of way. Her messaging was quite unfortunate. I wasn’t laughing, nor was I suggesting she’s “deserving of scorn” (contempt).

  • Heather

    Love your blog!!! Thanks for advocating for the weakest members of society. All the authoritarian bullshit starts to overwhelm me as a parent sometimes, and I need articles like this to help me remember I’m not crazy.

  • Julie Anne

    I think all of us as parents, have crossed the line at one time or another. NO parent bares a child and with them, out come a set of instructions. Just as in no relationship/marriage, lessons in life, instructions on how to give and take, how to NOT bad mouth our significant other and the like. I am guilty of mishandling my kids whether that be verbally, physically or emotionally. I was adopted and came with no instructions, nor were my parents given any history except my bio family was bad. Unless I conformed, I was “bad”. But, I was a bad seed from a bad tree. As a 45 year old Mother of two boys under 12, I have learned along the way how to treat them with respect and love but with a consistent strong hand of what is considered appropriate and what is not. Self respect is something they both, age 11 and 8, have learned. They are great boys with a lot to learn. I admit to them my mistakes and they see me try to make things right. They see my husband and I make mistakes and try to make them right. They make mistakes and we have seen them try to make them right. Life is a long journey with no real instruction. We are bound to make mistakes and we are bound to hopefully grow from them and try to make them right. This is a good article to simply look at one’s self and learn from it. There are too many “roots” in our individual blood to try to just be and do one specific way. We do not need to repeat old patterns of thought and behavior, but sometimes there are things handed down to us from previous generations that can be continued but with more empathy and acceptance. EVERYONE dishes out what they “know” or with what tools they have at their disposal. NO one model works with all. I enjoyed reading this and many who balk at specific parenting types, tend to NOT notice their own weaknesses and are maybe less willing to change, especially if they notice their own mistakes.

  • Laure

    I’m struggling with this as a parent. I enjoyed the article but what should you actually do!? Like the tantrum in the grocery store, for instance? I feel like you told us what not to do…

    • Kevin Geary

      Hi Laure,

      I’d encourage you to dig into the other articles and podcasts we have here as well as my book. There are plenty of answers for you—every post can’t contain all the how-tos. But they’ve certainly been addressed.

  • GG

    What if your child just can’t stand you? How do you “lead authentically” if your child refuses to acknowledge anything you’ve done for him, and hates being around you? I’m at the point with my son where I’m about to give up on ever having a relationship with him. How do you repair something like that with an 11 year old?

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Your Child’s Bad Behavior Won’t Stop Until You M…

by Kevin Geary time to read: 4 min