Toddlers aren’t ‘bad’—they’re little scientists and explorers!

Much of what looks like “bad” behavior is really just exploration and experimentation. Kids are naturally curious and it’s their job to figure out how the world works and how to get what they want or need.

Like scientists, they do “experiments.”

In my view, these “experiments” are in two primary domains: the natural world and the social world.

The natural world includes what adults generally think of as physics (the water will spill if you invert an open cup), chemistry (when you pour milk into Mom’s beer it makes an interesting mixture), civil engineering(when you flush Dad’s ring down the toilet it disappears and does not return),and so on.

Think of the world from your child’s perspective: If you weren’t yet familiar with gravity, you might also keep dropping or pouring things to see if they will go down every time. Kids really do experience the world in a different way than adults.

The second domain—the social world—is where the action really is. Experiments in the social world focus on the important people in children’s lives: parents, siblings, family members, caregivers, and teachers.

Kids need to know how each of these people work and how to get what they need or want from them: love, affection, five more minutes at the playground, ice cream, screen time, privacy, and so on.

The answer to these critical questions (How do you work? What happens if I ____?How do I get ___ from you?) varies from person to person.  To get the answers, kids must do“experiments” on us, experiments we often think of as “testing.”

When your child appears to be misbehaving, I encourage you to imagine her wearing a tiny white lab coat and taking notes about the results of her experiment (on you) in an imaginary lab notebook:

“When I throw a tantrum in public, I’m more likely to get what I want than if I do the same at home.  Interesting…”

If what we want kids to know about us is that we mean what we say, that we can be relied on to do what we say we’re going to do, that we are fair and reasonable, and so on, then we need to teach them this through our daily interactions with them.

Seeing our children’s behavior through this lens—as an experiment aimed at getting useful information about how people and the world work—can also help us not to take it personally when they push our buttons or ignore us.

Try this: The next time you find yourself dealing with your child’s challenging behavior, change your lens to see it as an experiment intended to get useful information about how things work (in the world or in your family) and respond accordingly.

Ask yourself this crucial question: “What do I want my kids to know about me?”

Write down two or three words (e.g., “kind,” “patient,” “fun,” “reasonable,”“centered,” “reliable”) that you would like your children to think of when they think of you.

Now try to see yourself from your children’s perspective. How might they view you?Do those qualities match the ones you would like for them to associate with you?

For each word that you choose above, write down two or three specific behaviors relevant to your life that would clearly demonstrate those qualities to your kids in your regular interactions with them and others.

Here’s an example for “reliable.”


1.   When my daughter asks me to play with her, and I tell her that I will in one minute, I will stop what I’m doing in one minute and follow through on that commitment.

2.   I will not tell my kids that we will go to the movies (or the park, or whatever) next weekend unless I am willing and able to make that happen.

3.   When my son wants to show me the new trick he learned in skateboarding, I will not say, “Sure, after I finish this report!” without also making a note to remind myself to follow up with him later that day.

The final step is to implement those new behaviors purposefully in your daily life.

Pick one specific behavior per week, and put it into practice. Add a new one each week until these behaviors become part of your regular way of interacting with your kids.

Excerpted from What Great Parents Do: 75 SimpleStrategies for Raising Kids Who Thrive by Erica Reischer, Ph.D. © 2016by Erica Reischer. Tarcher Perigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Erica Reischer, Ph.D. is the author of What Great Parents Do: 75 Simple Strategies for Raising Kids Who Thrive. She is a clinical psychologist and parent educator based in Oakland, CA. She received her doctorate from the University of Chicago in psychology and human development, and is an honors graduate of Princeton University. A former consultant with McKinsey & Company, Dr. Reischer sits on the advisory board for Happy Healthy Kids and leads popular parenting classes and workshops at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, Habitot Children’s Museum, and the University of California. Learn more at

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