Monday, July 26, 2010

The Mistaken Goal Chart: The Swiss Army Knife of Parenting

(originally posted at Reepicheep's Coracle)

I was firmly entrenched in the positive discipline method before I discovered the Mistaken Goal Chart, and now, I cannot imagine thinking through misbehavior without it.

First, what is a mistaken goal? The practitioners of positive discipline hold that behavior is purposive. That means that when a child does something inappropriate, she is trying to meet some need or want. She is trying to achieve a perceived value, even if the value isn't in her best interest or if her way of of trying to achieve it is inappropriate. The mistaken goal chart includes four possible reasons a child might misbehave: to get attention, to have power, to get revenge, or to give up and be left alone. There might be more reasons, but in my experience, these four are awfully common.

Because positive discipline is not permissive, the point of identifying a child's mistaken goal is not to ignore the behavior itself; inappropriate behavior must be stopped. The point is that when a parent or teacher has more information about why a child misbehaves, he can choose his explanations, tools, etc with more care and directly address the child's actual problem.

The first mistaken goal is called "undue attention." The child's goal is to get the attention of the parent or teacher, and it is "undue" because the call for attention is inappropriate. A baby crying for milk or a terrified child needing to feel protected from a big dog is not trying to achieve a mistaken goal; her goal is perfectly rational, and she needs "due attention." An example of undue attention might be a child who acts up when mom is on the phone because he doesn't like it when she is not available to answer his questions or look at his drawings.

Next is "misguided power." The child's goal is to have power over someone else or to prove that no one has power over him, and it is misguided because the child has chosen an inappropriate way to gain power and control. A child who fights getting dressed because he wants to pick out his own clothes is seeking legitimate power over his own body and choices. But a child who refuses to put his shoes own because he doesn't want to go in the car to pick up his brother from school might be an example of child seeing inappropriate power; he cannot have power over the schedules of everyone in the house.

The child who has the mistaken goal of "revenge" is trying to get even. She might be hurting and want to hurt others so they feel as bad as she does. An example of this would be a child whose feelings got hurt when her mom set a limit, and so she lashes out and tells her that she wants to go to her dad's house she to make mom feel just as bad as she feels. Not that that has ever happened here. Sigh. I can't think of a time that a child taking revenge would actually be okay, but I think the wrong the child wants to get revenge for could be real or just perceived. Either way the goal of revenge would be a mistaken one.

The last one is the hardest for me to get a handle on because it is so much rarer and more scary. A child who is acting based on "assumed inadequacy" has decided that she can't do things well and may as well not try. She may actually not have the skills to be a competent person, or she might have made a wrong judgment about herself. But either way she is acting as if she is inadequate. For example, a child might have decided that he is not able to make friends, and so he doesn't even attempt to get to know his classmates or the other kids on the playground. He assumes from the beginning that he will fail, and so he doesn't bother to put forth any effort.

To use the mistaken goal chart, a parent introspects about his own reaction to the child's misbehavior and uses his feelings as a clue about which mistaken goal a child might be trying to achieve. At first, I was very resistant to this part. After all, what do my feelings have to do with my child's motivations. But when I used the chart, I found that my feelings did seem to be good clues. After putting some thought into this, I came up with this explanation.

Our feelings are automatic responses to certain kinds of situations. Anger is our reaction to a perceived injustice. Sadness to a perceived loss of a value. Happiness to a perceived gain of a value. When our children misbehave and we react to it, we are reacting to more than just the momentary situation. Our subconscious has made a gazillion integrations about our child's behavior that we may not have consciously considered. Our emotional reaction is based on what we perceive in the moment and all the integrations we've made in the past, even subconscious ones. So, when I feel anger at Livy's misbehavior, it's a good starting point to look for some injustice against me, real or perceived.

Will our feelings always lead us to the right mistaken goal? Definitely not. That's why I think it is wise to use the mistaken goal chart as Jane Nelson and Lynn Lott intended, as a guide and a starting point, and not as a final answer. Our emotions are great indicators, but they aren't tools of cognition. The mistaken goal chart tells me that if I am challenged, it would be a good idea to look and see if Livy might be seeking misguided power. The feeling of being challenged might be based on something irrational, but, especially if the parent has been working hard on his psycho-epistemology and carefully evaluating his feelings through introspection, the feeling is likely to point to something real that is going on. The mistaken goal chart is a way to find a starting point for thinking about the child's goals.

What I find so valuable about the chart is that it helps me address the root of a child's problem and not just work on the symptoms. It's possible for the same behavior to come from any of the mistaken goals, and if the parent just punished or stopped the behavior without trying to understand the cause and work on it, the behavior (or one like it) is likely to happen again.

For example, a child might refuse to put away his dirty dishes in the dishwasher because of any of the mistaken goals. What follows might not actually be said or even understood completely by the child, but these are the things they might be thinking or saying or acting.

  • Undue attention: "If I don't do it, mom will yell at me or help me do it. I don't care if it's negative attention, I just want her to focus on me right now."

  • Misguided power: "You can't make me do it! You do it! You aren't the boss of me! I don't have to put away my dishes just because you say so!"

  • Revenge: "You were working on your blog all day and didn't help me with my art project, so I'm not gonna do the dishes now!"

  • Assumed inadequacy: "I will not do it right. I never do. So why bother?"

Instead of just getting mad and forcing the child to put the dishes away, a parent who figured out his child's mistaken goal could address the larger issue while still stopping the inappropriate behavior.

  • In the case of undue attention, the parent might insist that the child put her own dishes away but make sure to spend some special time with the child at another time or do the dishes together while talking or singing. The limit is set about dishes, but the parent also knows that the child is craving more attention.

  • In the case of misguided power, the parent might insist that the child put her own dishes away but talk with the child about whether she is feeling out of control of her own life. Maybe the child needs more choices about when and how to do the dishes or maybe the child is feeling out of control in some other area. The parent can search for a way to give the child a reasonable chance to feel powerful and in control if he knows that she is acting from misguided power.

  • In the case of revenge, the parent can insist that the child put her own dishes away but talk about what might have hurt the child's feelings. If the parent finds out it was revenge for her all day blogging session, she can let the child know that is inappropriate and help her find other ways to express her anger. The parent can validate her feelings of anger.

  • In the case of assumed inadequacy, the parent might break the job down into smaller steps that seem manageable or express confidence in the child or remind her of a time she succeeded. In the future, the parent can watch for times the child does really well with chores and point out to her that she is capable.

The mistaken goal chart has become a part of the way I see Livy's behavior, and it has enhanced my response to her. When I remember to see her behavior as goal directed, though mistaken, I stay calmer and am in a problem solving frame of mind. It also helps me to teach her about introspecting about her own motivations. When I know that she is acting out of revenge, I can help her to realize that she is feeling hurt and lashing out. Then we can address the hurt in a healthier way. I hope she won't have to learn to sort out her tangled motivations in her late 20s, as I did.

I don't always get it right, though, as I said above, and that is also good practice for both of us. She gets to see that adults screw up too (always a good lesson), and, even if she tells me that I am wrong about her motivation, I still encouraged her to introspect and figure out what it was. I really really like the times when we get good results whether I am wrong or right, so the Mistaken Goal Chart is my friend!

I use things I have learned from the chart all the time, but the best times to use it for me are the times when Livy is doing the same kind of behavior over and over. Those times when nothing is working, and I feel like I am going to sell her to the gypsies. I have never gone to the Mistaken Goal Chart at a time like that and not come back with a better understanding of what the underlying problem might be or a few new suggestions for what to do (yes, there are suggestions!! Woohoo!!).

I recommend that all parents and teachers take a good look at this chart and revisit it often, especially in hard times. It's applicable to every kind of situation. It gives you different tools depending on what the problem is. It's only one piece of paper, so it will fit in your purse or pocket. It's the Swiss Army Knife of parenting tools.

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