Silly Defiance

Happy kidDear Miss Faith,
My 3.5yo son used to be very helpful,  but lately when I ask him to do things, he deliberately “misunderstands.”  For example, if I ask him to bring me my purse, he’ll look around and bring something else.  If I try to correct him, he just laughs and brings me something else again.  What’s going on?

Dear Mama,
My experience is that when kids do something “wrong” and laugh while they’re doing it, the vast majority of the time, they’re trying to ask for fun and connection.  They’re just doing it in ineffective ways.  This goes for the one-year-old who pulls at the lamp plug again and again, laughing as you try to correct her; this goes for the two-year-old who hits you and runs away laughing, and it goes for the three-year-olds who pretends to misunderstand what you’ve asked, and laughs about it.  Then when you get annoyed with them or try to correct them they either ignore you, or they have a meltdown, right?  That’s because they’re trying to ask for fun and connection, and we get mad.  I’d be upset too if I asked my partner for fun and he responded by getting mad.

So, do we respond to the behavior, or do we respond to the request, no matter how annoyingly it’s made?  My suggestion is to respond to the request, while also teaching them how to make the request in ways that you both can enjoy.  Children are usually happy to ask for things in ways that we enjoy, as long as they are AS effective as negative behavior in getting our attention.  The problem is that when we teach them to say, “Rough-house, please!” then when so politely we might be tempted to say, “Sure, in a little bit, honey.”  But if they run up and hit us and run away, they’re sure to get a response RIGHT NOW.  So if we want to nip that negative behavior in the bud, we need to 1) teach them how to ask for fun/attention/connection in a different way, and 2) be AS consistent in responding when they ask in the way we’ve taught them, as we are when they do the negative behavior.

Let’s get to the nitty-gritty.  How do we go about this?  With the one-year-old and the lamp cord, I would simply respond to the unspoken request.  “Uh-oh, that cord needs to stay in the wall.  It looks like you’re ready to play!  Come here, you!” And I’d scoop that one-year-old up and swing her around, and move off to another part of the house.  For the two-year-old who hits and runs away laughing, I might say, “Ouch, that hurts!  You can say, ‘Rough-house, please!'”  Depending on the kid, I might cup my hand around my ear and look at him expectantly, perhaps repeating it again.  “You can say, ‘Rough-house, please.'”  As soon as he does, I say, “Yes!  I’m ready to rough-house, too!” and I pretend-tackle him, enveloping him in growl-y hugs.  The next time, I correct him again.  And again.  And when he finally comes up to me and says, “Rough-house!” on his own, I celebrate and make sure that I respond appropriately.  I work on responding positively to his requests as much as I can, until the behavior has shifted for good.  Of course, sometimes I really can’t rough-house on demand, but in those times I remember that what he’s really asking for is fun and connection, so I respond to THAT, even if it’s not by rough-housing.

And what about for that three-year-old who deliberately misunderstands your requests?  How can you teach him to ask for fun in ways that are connecting and not annoying?  And what type of fun is he looking for?  You might try this: You ask him to bring you your purse. He looks around, spots your hat, and brings that over instead, laughing.  You have a couple of options at this point. You can try the “skip-to-the-end” method: say, “Oh-ho, it looks like you want to play! OK! Well, bring me my purse first, and THEN we can play.” He may go for it, and he may not. If he does, then as soon as he brings your purse, do something fun and funny with him: Movement fun is often appreciated, or you could come up with an impromptu game: maybe put your hand in your purse and say, “Guess what’s in my hand?” He guesses, and you pull it out. You could do this three or four or five times. Anyhow, you want to do something fun and connecting immediately after he does what you ask him to.

It’s quite possible, however, that you’ll say, “Bring me my purse first, and THEN we’ll play,” but he won’t be able to do it. This is because his need for connection is so strong that he’s not able to delay his request.  So, say he goes back and brings back a glove, instead. You might say, “Oh! You need to play FIRST? Well, OK. Come here, little monkey!” Do some fun playing, and then go back. “NOW I bet you’re ready to bring me my purse!” It may be that he runs over and brings it back, or perhaps the two of you need to go over and get it together.   Perhaps you weave in a little humor and imagination while you go over with him.  “Purse!  Oh, purse!  Where are you?  Where have you gone?”  When you guys get to the purse, have him give it to you.  Thank him, then do a little more playing.  You might say, “Next time, you can get my purse first, and then we’ll play.”  You’re being responsive to him but you’re ALSO expecting him to be responsive to you, in return, and giving him the support he needs in order to do what you’ve asked.  If this just feels like way too much work, then you certainly could just stop asking him to get stuff for you for a few weeks.  He’ll find other ways to ask you for fun and connection, and who knows, they might even be less annoying!  Or you can teach him how to ask in ways that you’ll want to say “yes” to.



  1. Dear Faith,

    LOVELY article, and great advice. I have been experience a lot of “silly defiance” in my neck of the woods as of late. Something that has been working well for me is honoring the children’s request for connection through a game we like to call “Naughty Children.”

    A daily occurrence for most parents and providers is children’s’ reluctance to tidy up. What I’ll do, if I have asked and asked and asked with no compliance in sight, is I’ll say “Okay, whatever you do, DON’T TIDY UP.”

    Like magic, they get their game faces on, and start being “naughty” and “disobeying” me – by tidying up! I make sure to really ham it up when I tell them not to do something, so they know it’s a game.

    As they put different toys away, I’ll just cry “Nooooooo, not that one!” or “Please stop, you’re so naughty!” Before I know it, they’ve tidied the whole room and are now actually willing to follow other directions, even if I break out of character. They will even ask “What else can we NOT do??”

    Sometimes, they will straight up ask “Can we play Naughty Children?” during times when it’s clearly hard for them to do what I want (e.g., sit still, take bites, lay quietly on their mat). Usually I am more than happy to play Naughty Children, but I think you’re right that asking in the appropriate way needs to be AS EFFICIENT as asking in the other way. So, I am inspired to say “Yes!” to Naughty Children as much as I humanly can from here on out. After all, all I have to do is to tell them NOT to do something. 🙂

    • Francis, thanks for sharing what works for you guys. What fun! It’s always great when you come up with a game where you get things done and everyone can enjoy it. As long as the kids are really clear on the difference between when you’re playing and saying “No,” and when you’re serious, of course. But it sounds like you guys have things well in hand over there. 🙂

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