It can be confounding when our children behave in negative ways after we’ve told them umpteen times it’s wrong. Surely they’re aware that we don’t approve! And yet, they repeat the behavior no matter how frustrated, annoyed, or angry we get. Janet offers her perspective on this dynamic while answering a question from the mom of a short-tempered 6-year-old. This boy’s father believes certain behaviors are simply unacceptable because their son is “old enough to know better,” but this mom isn’t as sure and wonders if Janet can clarify what they should realistically expect for a child their son’s age.
Transcript of “Shouldn’t They Know Better By Now?”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.
Today I’m going to address a concern that parents often share with me, and usually it’s in the form of questions like, At what age will my child stop doing these [fill-in-the-blank] impulsive behaviors? Or, When can I expect my child to be able to self-regulate? For instance, stop having tantrums, stop flying off the handle, stop losing self-control. When can we expect more consistent kindness or manners, or at least that our child stops lashing out at their sibling or yelling rude things when they’re upset? Shouldn’t they know better by now? The short answer to that one is yes, but as I’m sure you guessed, I also have a longer answer.
So yes, our children not only should know better, they actually do know better. From the time they’re born, children are already sensing our feelings and doing their best to try to adapt to them. This is basic human survival instinct. Children need us to feel okay and be accepting towards them. They sense they need to be in our good graces so we’ll fill their needs. Still, though, they can’t manage their discomforts and emotions enough to be those perfect babies for us. But we could say that even they “know better.” The very first time our baby flaps their hand at us or pulls our hair, they learn that this bothers us and it isn’t acceptable behavior. Which doesn’t mean they stop doing it, but if we can try to calmly block or just disallow the behavior without giving it a big, interesting reaction that children might tend to have the impulse to explore, they usually do stop.
So this isn’t about “knowing better.” It’s about how much control their thoughtful, reasonable center of their brain has over their behavior in any given moment. Certainly by the toddler years, but even infants, demonstrate self-regulation when all life’s elements are in their favor. They can do that. But in the early years especially, children are easily overwhelmed by internal developments, there’s so much rapid growth in these early years, along with stressors in their environment, threat detection, and other discomforts. And then, bye-bye, knowing better! And there they go, seeming to overreact, doing these annoying or destructive behaviors again. Reason leaves the building.
Now, does anybody besides me relate to this happening to us, even as adults? It happens to me all the time. And I love the way that my brilliant, generous, charismatic friend Mr. Chazz makes children’s behavior relatable to us as adults through his videos. He’ll remind us of things like, Hey, did you get that speeding ticket because you didn’t know better? Did you shout obscenities at people driving too slowly? Or what about that extra glass of wine that you know wakes you up at night, right? But you did it anyway. Or those chips or the chocolate that always makes you want more. Did we know better? What about yelling at your spouse, your kids, your friends, or in the office? What about that meltdown over something teensy that happens after we’ve had this long day and we just can’t take it anymore? We can find ourselves making these kinds of “choices,” but how thoughtful and conscious are they?
So what’s the answer to, When will children stop doing such and such? or, Why are they still doing this? It’s true that there’s a gradual maturation in the prefrontal cortex that finally matures around age 25 or so, and that helps us to regulate better. But still, for us and for children, it’s always relative. Our ability to act from our knowing place will always be relative to our comfort level, our inborn sensitivities, our temperaments, our moods, and our internal comforts, combined with the stressors we’re managing in our environment. And there isn’t an age cutoff for this, unfortunately, or we’d all be perfect angels by now. Which might even make life kind of boring, but that’s a whole other topic.
And why is this understanding important for us to grasp and make peace with? Because here’s a universal truth about caring for children: Our responses to children’s behaviors will stem from our perceptions and expectations. So if we’re finding ourselves and/or our children stuck in challenging patterns, in other words, our child keeps repeating those behaviors or the behaviors seem to worsen, chances are that our perceptions and expectations are at least a little bit inaccurate. And these misperceptions are causing us to feel and react in a manner that’s continuing or worsening the behavior. Because out of those misperceptions, we’re not giving our child the helpful response that they unconsciously seek. And instead our mis-response can make our child feel more distanced and alone, afraid maybe, uncomfortable. Which means more struggles with self-control and behavior.
Now maybe that sounds really complicated, but to offer a simple example: In my work with parents, often the most helpful feedback I can give them is assurance that their child’s behavior is typical, within normal range, for their developmental stage and for their current life situation and stressors that are going on—when I tell them that from my years of experience and training and research this behavior makes sense to me. And honestly, that’s just about every time with every kind of behavior. At least eventually, with enough information, it makes sense to me. And just that realization, and I totally get this, I’ve felt it myself about my own children, that Phew, okay, I’m not doing anything terribly wrong. There’s nothing I need to fear about my child here. This is just the way they’re reacting, reflecting, processing, and maybe adapting to everything that’s going on right now. That increases our comfort and makes it possible for us to be less fearful and more helpful as our children’s leaders.
So now here’s a question I received on Instagram:
I would love to hear about how to approach boundary-pushing in older children, six or so. My husband is convinced that since they have greater understanding of the world than babies and toddlers, that they should know better and that your principles don’t apply. I have yet to find an eloquent or even literate way of describing how it would still apply greatly.
So then I asked her if she could please be specific, and she replied:
He’s been very disrespectful in the way that he reacts to any scenario. He dislikes bedtime, chores, non-screen activity. There’s lots of talking back, tuning out, coming out of nowhere to reprimand us. Just generally very sensitive and reactive, which my husband sees as being too much for his age. I’m not sure exactly what our realistic expectations are for this age.
Okay, so generally I’d say when we have this mindset that there should be certain cutoffs for when our children should be doing this or doing that, or they should stop getting upset about small things, that they should be behaving a certain way at a certain age. The answer is, as I said, there’s really no set timetable for children to react a certain way. They always react out of what they’re feeling. And this general idea that I recommend absorbing is that our children’s behavior is a reflection of their comfort level. So when children are uncomfortable for different reasons, then they’re going to have more defiant-type behavior (if children have those tendencies). They’re probably going to have more emotional behavior and, as this parent says, they’ll be more sensitive and reactive to things. So I don’t know why this boy is reacting as he is, with this information that she’s given me, but one reason could be that he’s feeling his dad’s disapproval of him. And maybe this is anger or maybe fear. Dad may be afraid that his son isn’t going in the right direction, and the son is picking up on that. So that’s one thing that I could say for sure from this information, there could be other things.
But the behaviors that this mom is describing, they all sound like they’re within the normal realm of the way a six-year-old or a five-year-old, maybe even a four-year-old or an eight-year-old, has a tantrum, has a reaction to a limit, has a disagreement with a limit or a with a direction that we give them. And really, children ideally need to have a right to have their reaction throughout the years. So we’ll want to be able to confidently set a limit, but then accept that our child needs to be able to say, I don’t like that limit. And that basic dynamic continues. What this parent is describing can be what it looks like with a six-year-old child. He’s snarling back and saying, I don’t like you guys! Talking back, tuning out, I’m not going to pay attention to you! This is similar to the toddler that’s “not listening.” They are listening, but they’re just getting stuck in this impulse to resist. Making that choice, not a very conscious choice, to not jump up when their parent wants them to do something or to stop doing something.
And at six years old, they’re still young human beings, they’re still easily overwhelmed. And when they’re uncomfortable, they’re going to have messy, unpleasant behaviors. So believing as this husband does, and it’s very understandable, Hey, he’s six years old, he should shape up and cut this out. Certainly makes sense. But the problem is that this lack of acceptance of the stage his child is at right here is what’s continuing the problematic behavior. And this is why it’s the most helpful for us if we can try to remember to come from a place of curiosity: I wonder what’s going on with my child? Rather than having this expectation that our child should be whatever, and by doing so, preventing ourselves from being able to see what’s going on.
When we follow this natural inclination that most of us have as adults to understand things by labeling them, whether we’re doing it positively or negatively, but especially when it’s negative, we’re going to miss out on understanding. It’s like we’re closing doors that we really want to keep open, perceiving something as fixed. They’re a bully, or they’re shy, or they’re too aggressive or they’re too passive. We close off our ability to understand and to be able to see how to help make things better. So we want to try not to impose labels, that judgment that our child will then feel. They’ll sense that, they’ll pick up on that, and it has a chance of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy for them.
Now for this situation, with the little information I have, it’s kind of hard. But it may be that the mother or both the parents aren’t being as confident in their limit-setting. Because when we talk about things like bedtime, first of all, that’s a transition. Always hard. It’s the hardest one of all, because it’s the end-of-the-day transition, when everybody’s tired, especially our child. It’s not a time when we want to give options that there’s something else they could do at that time besides be in their bedroom. We can’t force a six-year-old or any child to fall asleep, but we can say, You’re not having screens now. There won’t be screens in your bedroom. We’re not going to let you have more drinks or give you more attention when we’ve done our bedtime routine and we’re done. This is your bedtime. Our job is done for the day. Instead of getting sucked into trying to convince our child of our point of view, trying to get their agreement. All those things that keep our child holding on because we’re still holding on.
I know that’s very oversimplified, but I wonder if the parents feel positive about setting limits to free their child to fall asleep, in this case. That finality that we feel with that limit is really important. And a big part of that certainty and that finality that children need is when we’re also fine with him saying, No, no, but I don’t want to do this and I want my screens! Then we can even acknowledge, Oh wow, you don’t want to do that. You really don’t want to go to bed now, or you don’t want to stop using your screens. Whatever it is, that’s okay with us. We accept how you feel. We really do. And we don’t mind when you say that. We’re confident enough in our position, we can handle that pushback. In fact, we expect it.
Not giving power to these things that he’s doing, like talking back. Instead seeing this as, That’s your reaction. That’s okay with us. You know, it doesn’t hurt us in any way that you say no. We’re still, as the parents that love you and that you need to help take care of you, we’re the ones deciding here. I know that talking back can feel very threatening, especially if we feel like we’re seeking that agreement from our child, which I would honestly give up on and let go of, even with a child this age. And so maybe we end up repeating ourselves. We’ve got to make it so clear, No, this is what you’re supposed to do. Don’t you get that? Appealing to what he knows.
But that’s not the part that’s getting expressed here because he does “know better.” He knows that it’s bedtime. He knows that he’s not supposed to do this, that, or the other. He knows the parents don’t want him to talk back, but he’s doing it anyway. So that becomes wasted energy on our part, leading very quickly, if we didn’t already start that way, to frustration, anger, and annoyance. Ah, this child, they should know better. Why are they acting like this? We’re getting caught up in it. Instead of seeing it for what it is, an immature person that we love that does know better, but they’re just not doing it right now. They can’t. Accepting that.
This child sounds like a very strong child, an alpha child, which is all to the good, ultimately. With those children especially, they need us to be even more certain and to expect, of course, we’re going to get pushback. If we can shrug our shoulders, accept, not let it matter to us, not let it shake us: That’s where he is. This is where we are. We’re not going to pull ourselves down into bickering about this because it’s wasted effort. He’s not going to happily accept everything that we decide. It’s not our job to change that. And it’s better for him to share these feelings that he needs to share because, just as with a younger child, their reactions are not really even related to screens or bedtime or anything in particular, so much as those are tipping points. And what they’re expressing are themes, feelings, and relational dynamics that they’re processing. So their reaction is magnified by, Oh, I know my parents get angry at me here and I’m absorbing those scary feelings from them. Or, I don’t like some things that happened today. Or, I’m exhausted. I’m just over the edge and I’m just venting to the people I’m closest to, the people I trust the most. So let him blast and whatever he says, you can allow and acknowledge. You’re still going to stick with your limit.
So with the screens, children need a lot of clarity around that because just like for all of us, screens are kind of addictive, right? There’s a lot of temptation there. So I would be clear, certain, comfortable, and expect a lot of pushback. Be ready for it. It’s not going to be quiet acceptance most of the time. I think that’s a fantasy that we can have, but we’re not going to get that. We’re not going to get, Sure, okay, you’re the parents and of course I’m going to do what you say. You’re right! And really it wouldn’t be healthy for a child, especially a child like this, with this kind of temperament, to just give it up. Instead, we’re going to get a lot of pushback. That’s what they’re supposed to do. So instead of seeing this as a red flag or a problem or a sign that he’s not where he should be, I would see it as nothing that can threaten you at all as parents if you don’t let it, and really healthy.
And I would let him tune you out all he wants as well, but you’re still going to stick to those limits. So one of the examples she gave was chores. Now with chores, we do have to remember to be polite. Which we often forget with children, especially if we start out a little annoyed with them because we’re expecting, Oh, they’re not going to do this and I’ve got to nag and I don’t like nagging. Which is why I didn’t insist on too many chores with my children, that’s just me. But they need that politeness and just a reminder with a very light touch. And I believe it will help us to have low expectations. I wouldn’t expect any help at all at the end of a school day, for example, because children get drained. It’s a lot for them.
And it definitely won’t help our cause to make these voluntary activities into power struggles. We are going to lose those struggles, because doing chores is voluntary and we want to be able to see this bigger picture that we’re going to have a much better chance of gaining our child’s cooperation if we aren’t getting into a fight with them about it every day. If we’re saying something like, Oh, just a reminder my love, could you please help us empty the dishwasher? and maybe want to add, As soon as you’re done, we’ll have our dinner. So making it a part of the routine like that, very light and polite. Matter of fact. And we’re open to doing it with them, ideally. So we’re not trying to force an issue that we really don’t have the power to control. Instead, we’re nurturing that relationship where children want to be helpful to us because they’re part of a family unit where they’re unconditionally accepted.
That doesn’t mean we accept all their behavior, but we accept their stage of life. We accept that they’re human and easily overwhelmed and won’t want to do everything that we ask them to do. Just like we don’t. I mean, I don’t like brushing my teeth at the end of the day when I’m tired. I do it, but I’m a grown-up. So it’s that bigger picture, that relationship of acceptance and not getting threatened and not getting our back up about this little stuff. Seeing it for what it is, that’s what’s going to help make children agreeable in the long term, and that’s what we want.
This parent says their child seems to come out of nowhere to reprimand his parents. Again, that sounds like maybe he’s trying to see if the parents are going to give this little guy power there to upset them. He’s checking it out, and maybe they’ve given these kinds of behaviors power and some negative attention and things like that. But I really wouldn’t. I wouldn’t give that behavior any kind of power over you. Maybe hear the feelings behind what he is saying, but not make a big deal out of this. That’s what makes it go away. You know, when a six-year-old is trying to boss us around, we could have a sense of humor about that: No, I’m not going to do that, but thanks for asking.
So at the end of her comment, she says she’s not sure exactly what are the realistic expectations. And the realistic expectations are, Is he capable of doing chores? Is he capable of following directions? Yes, he’s capable of all those things, but being capable and wanting to do them in the moment, or even being able to do them in that moment, for children are two different things. That second part is the part that requires really confident empathic leaders who aren’t intimidated by what comes out of a six-year-old’s mouth.
And I think it will help to take a deeper look, coming from this very open-minded place. Nothing to fear here, looking at what’s going on in the dynamics with both of these parents and their son. Are they being clear enough? Are they being confident in their limits? Are they okay with him disagreeing? Are they still seeing him as a little person that adores them and has only been around for six years and really needs leaders that are above this, that can rise above all this petty stuff and not be insulted the way we would be with a peer or someone that was on our level of maturity? So a reasonable expectation is that when he is feeling really comfortable, he’ll accomplish a lot and he’ll be much more cooperative. And when he’s not as comfortable, with his leaders or in himself or something else in his environment, it’s going to be harder for him. It’s going to be rough, there will be grumbling and messiness. Accepting all of that is what he needs at all ages.
Children thrive when we accept them, meeting them right where they are and trusting that there’s always a reason. And none of them are fatal flaws in our children, or something we’re doing wrong. It’s a process. Our relationship with our children is a process and their development is a process. And we can always switch gears. We can always apologize for reactions that we’ve had and keep reminding ourselves that he’s not mature. Yes, he can be very capable, so can a one-year-old, so can a two-year-old. But he can also be snarly, reprimanding, reactive, a side that most of us still have as adults in some form.
So I hope that answers the question. And I’m not sure if that’s going to be what this dad wants to hear or if it’s going to make any difference with him, but this is what I’ve learned and I really hope it helps.
And there’s more help on the way—my new No Bad Kids Master Course! This immersive course gives you all the tools and perspective you need to not only understand and respond effectively to your children’s behavior but also build positive, respectful, relationships with them for life! Check out all the details at nobadkidscourse.com. ♥
Thank you so much for listening. We can do this.