Ah, a newborn in your arms—so sweet, so precious, such little bundle of joy! Everyone gushes over babies. They’re so innocent. Remember the first time you gazed into her eyes? Remember the first time your baby smiled, rolled over, and began to crawl, and the way your heart fluttered the first time she said, “mama” or “dada?” And the way you cheered him on as he took his first step.

Then, so quickly, too quickly, your baby becomes a toddler, and suddenly you’re flooded with well-intentioned warnings, “Uh-oh! Watch out now!” and, “Look out! Here come the terrible twos!” In the span of a few short months on Earth, innocence gives way to trouble, but is that really the case?

Somehow, it seems that the innocence has been lost—our children becoming almost adversaries. They’re manipulating us with their tantrums! They’re testing our authority! Careful, they’re trying to run the house!

Isn’t it possible this common perception of toddlers and preschoolers skews the way we view their behavior from the get-go? Or, maybe all the labels we have pinned on young children, such as “brats,” “terrible twos” and “tyrannical threes,” have distorted our lens through which we view them.

What if it’s all wrong? What if there is no manipulation? What if innocence is not lost?

In Dr. Becky Bailey’s book, Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline (which I adore), there is an entire chapter on positive intent. Here is an excerpt from that chapter.

When you attribute negative intent to others, you subtly attack them. Your attempt to make them feel bad about themselves and their choices is a form of assault. You actually implant a feeling of danger in others every time you try to make them feel bad, wrong, or responsible for your upset, and this sense of being in danger usually creates conflict, as the other person becomes defensive, not cooperative. The conflict mounts if you proceed with your own agenda without inspiring the other person to cooperate. When you learn to attribute positive intent to other people, you possess a powerful skill. It is the skill you need to transform opposition into cooperation. 

Dr. Becky Bailey, Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline

The majority of “problems” we have with our young children are due to us attributing a negative intent to their actions.

We perceive that they are manipulating us through tantrums. What if, instead, we perceive they are overwhelmed with emotions and need comforting?

We perceive that they are testing our authority. What if, instead, we perceive that they are attempting to get a need met in the only way they know how?

What if we perceive that they are developing autonomy instead of defying us?

What if we can let go of negative perceptions and stop attributing negative intentions on their behavior?

Dr. Bailey makes a very powerful point, “By attributing negative motives to him, you highlight character flaws that he, in turn, incorporates into his self-concept.”

Of course, we don’t want our children to have a negative self-concept. We want them to believe they are caring, compassionate, accepted, and loved. We want them to have confidence. We want them to have a positive self-concept! How do we ensure that they do? By attributing positive intent to their actions. By providing care, compassion, acceptance, and love to them without conditions, just as we did when they were newborns.

Misbehavior in children is an attempt to communicate when all else has failed. Children have the drive to love other people and to be a contribution to the people around them. It is time for all children to be recognized as the magnificent people they are and accorded the dignity and respect that is due every human being. We must establish a new way of seeing children.

The Kids’ Project

Leave behind old perceptions. Change your lens. Look deep into the eyes of your two, four, eight, or 12-year old—those same eyes you gazed into that first day.

Look for the innocence. Look for the kindness. Look for the positives. If we choose to perceive them to be, then they will always be our bundles of Joy.