Whose problem?

A child's behavior has become intolerable. It has to stop. We do what is necessary to make them change, as kindly and lovingly as possible, and a rational order is restored to the environment. What other choice is there? Certainly it's in nobody's interest to have intolerable behavior continue.

But -- what is the objective definition of intolerable behavior? When push comes to shove, it has to mean behavior which that particular adult, in that particular situation, can't tolerate. Seen this way, the situation is not so clear. Is the problem the child's behavior or the adult's lack of tolerance?

The place I see this most clearly for myself is bedtime. There often comes a time in the evening when I'm just done. I've finished being a parent for the day. Three minutes ago I might have been joking or playing with them, or easily responding to their requests for aid or attention, but now I'm done. Their attempts to get more out of me--often a repeat of what they were doing three minutes ago--have become intolerable.

The issue here is clearly my tolerance and not their behavior. Of course, on one level there's a question of workability. If the adult can't live with or function around what the child is doing, regardless of the reason, then the situation isn't workable and something needs to change. But it's always useful to ask the questions "Who has the problem here?" "What needs to change?"

There may be some behavior that can be objectively defined as needing to change--behavior that is willfully damaging--to another person, the environment, or to one's own self. But between that and clearly "appropriate" behavior lies a great marshland of gray.

Sometimes, even though the behavior lies in that marshland, I see the child (or the children) clearly, and have a pretty good idea of what's going on for them. I can help problem solve and mediate, and offer alternative ways of doing things. Other times, I see them testing a limit, looking for a way to show disappointment, targeting another child as a way to vent their own feelings. Then I can often help them identify and go for the underlying feelings without having to say much about the "appropriateness" of the surface behavior at all.

But other times, my feelings are part of the tangle. The only thing that's clear is that I don't like what's going on, and want it to stop. Then there are questions I try to ask myself (though, in reality, I don't usually think of them until later, after I've already intervened in some heavy-handed, adult-authority-wielding way). "Does this always bother me, or is it just getting me now?" "Does this bother everybody, or is it just me?" "Does this bother me when every child does it, or is it just this particular child?" "What is it that I simply can't stand?"

In my best moments, I am more accurate in my communication with them. "I'm sorry, but I've gotten so tired that it just isn't going to work to play that game anymore." "Climbing up there may be safe, but it really scares me. I'm going to ask you to wait till your dad's here so he can help you judge." "You know, I just can't stand listening to this kind of argument. Maybe it makes sense and maybe it doesn't--and it certainly doesn't seem to bother you as much as it bothers me--but you're going to have to find another way to do it when I'm around."

I've found children quite responsive to this approach. After all, they have to find their way around the irrationalities of adults, often put forth as rules of behavior, all the time. It's probably very refreshing to have the reality acknowledged: we have our problems too.