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Kate MartinAs a teacher and parent educator of many years, I am now able to inform any parent at any time at any place the motivation behind any behavior their child chooses and do so with confidence!  Pretty impressive, eh?

Well, not really; it’s quite simple—Every child chooses every behavior in any situation in order to meet a need and they will do so in the best way they know how. That’s it!

Our children are working 24-7 to meet their needs to the best of their ability with the knowledge and resources available to them.  So, what does this mean for us as parents? Well, having more clarity in motivation allows us to respond more appropriately and improve our chances for a positive outcome.  It’s like having a high-resolution lens with which to view our children, and for that matter, every other human on the planet.  It’s true. From age zero to old, we are all attempting to meet the same darn needs!

The 411 on Your Child’s Behavior

Having this information can greatly reduce parenting stress.  For example, a parent using this quality lens could no more be upset with a two-year-old for drawing all over a wall than they could be with the infant who chooses to scream when his milk supply has been delayed. While both can cause parents some frustration, armed with the knowledge that they are simply acting to fulfill a need in a way they believe is most effective, we are less inclined to react in frustration and instead respond with love.

Parenting becomes challenging as children mature and begin to individualize, choosing precise wants to satisfy human needs— And, it is at age two that this change becomes most apparent… hence the familiar moniker the terrible twos!  At this same age, a child also begins to seek more autonomy and for the first time they feel both justified and capable of letting everyone around them know of their new found preferences.

Guess what? This is absolutely integral to healthy human development and in the evolutionary sense the behavior is actually quite amazing!  However, for the busy and fatigued parent it is anything but amazing and often feels just plain terrible:

“Who are they to suddenly question our routine and our authority, spouting NO to a nap,” and “NO to pureed green beans, objecting by flailing about on the floor like a rag doll? The audacity! If we let them get away with this at age two, who knows how they will turn out! We have to put an end to this nonsense, now!”

Steer Clear of Fear

Be wary of ‘fear-based’ thinking. If left unchecked, it will bulldoze beyond the terrible twos, past the forbidden fives, the tumultuous twelves, and right on through to the terrifying teen years! While most of us wouldn’t adhere to such negative titles, the more acceptable terms used by many on a daily basis: such as good boy, bad boy, naughty girl, nice girl, while less abrasive are, in truth, no less toxic.

So, what does a parent do when a child engages in a ‘need-fulfilling’ behavior that is so upsetting and inappropriate, like drawing all over the walls? First of all, a purposeful parent knows to separate the child from the behavior allowing them to provide unconditional love in ALL situations. The child is not bad!  Secondly, such a parent views themselves as a teacher, a coach and a guide rather than a boss and knows that every behavior choice made by their child whether responsible or not provides a fantastic opportunity for teaching and learning.

By donning your ‘need detection lenses’ prior to responding to your child’s behavior you will be much more successful at helping the little mind find an even better, more healthy and effective behavior to meet the need—to pick a better want, so to speak. Pause and think about what she might be trying to achieve. What was going on prior to the behavior that may have triggered her ‘best’ choice?  What does she know? What does she need to learn? Then we use this information to help guide our ‘budding Georgia’ to a better way to express her artistic needs.  Providing choices such as paper taped to the refrigerator, different types of drawing surfaces, options for framing and hanging the finished product might all help fulfill her need. Perhaps she has some ideas of her own that will work. (It’s always wise to involve the stakeholder in the decision-making process.)

And how about scratching the old script! If we feel the need to give our little two year olds a handle, how about ‘the transforming twos?’  How much better will you feel saying. “My two-year old is transforming into an individual and I am so excited to help guide her to fulfill her unique desires responsibly.”

Stay tuned for next week’s blog where I will introduce the FIVE basic psychological human needs!  —This is amazing stuff, and you will want to save space for it in your parenting toolbox!

About the author

Kate Martin has been a high school teacher for 27 years and retired from the Racine Unified School District in 2015.  She taught students with special needs as well as those in general education. While working with hundreds of parents over the years, she discovered that there was a significant lack of resources and educational opportunities to help them navigate the many demands of parenting today. For this reason, in 2013 she founded The Purposeful Parent, offering workshops and resources for parents, teachers, and caregivers.

Check out Kate’s past columns:

The Purposeful Parent: Make Time For Genuine Encounters

The Purposeful Parent: Correct Your Child In Private

The Purposeful Parent: The Art Of Yelling


Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.