Coin-Operated Boy Redux

I love my daughter. Actually, I love both of them, very much. However, today, I’m speaking of the younger one, age four years three months.

Recently, she has had an obsession with the song “Coin-Operated Boy” by the Dresden Dolls. Now, let’s ignore the phallic symbolism and self-love implications for a moment here. After all, she’s four, she has no idea what the song is talking about. She only knows that she likes the song, and only remembers one line from the song, “and I’ll never be alone” which she will sing over and over and over and over, and yes, over again.

As we were driving to her grandmother’s house she began to sing (rather loudly, I may add, it drowned out the radio) this one phrase for about three minutes straight. I thought I would lose my mind. 90% of me wanted to yell, “Enough already! Shut up, you!”

Thankfully I listened to the quiet 10% instead. The conversation played out something like this:

Emily: And I’ll never be alone, and I’ll never be alone, and I’ll…

Me: Wow! You really like that song, don’t you?

Emily: [enthusiastically] Oh yes!…[begins to sing AGAIN] And I’ll never be alone, and I’ll never be alone, and I’ll…

Me: What other songs do you like?

Emily: Well, I like the song that has the bananas…and I like the song with the rainbow in it.

Me: Really? Bananas and rainbows? How fun? Let’s see, do you remember any of the words?

Emily: No…

Me: Would the song with the rainbow be…[singing] Somewhere, over the rainbow…

Emily: Yes, yes! That was it!

What followed was a ten minute discussion on lyrics and songs that she liked, of which there were many. And thankfully, I didn’t have to listen to “and I’ll never be alone, and I’ll never be alone” any longer!

What struck me the most was the joy in her voice when I first commented on how she liked the song, and then again when I asked what other songs she liked. Joy at sharing her interests with me, joy at the personal attention she was getting, it made a difference to her. I realized, hearing that joy so evident, that she hadn’t been trying to drive me insane, which I had certainly contemplated after three solid minutes of hearing her repeatedly sing “and I’ll never be alone.”

It reminded me of the four goals of behavior:

  • Attention/Contact
  • Power/Independence
  • Revenge/Protection
  • Inadequacy/Withdrawal

When we examine our children’s behaviors, they typically fall into one of the four main categories and are exhibited in either appropriate or inappropriate ways. For example, if your child is constantly bothering you while you are on a phone call and will not stop, that could be Attention. However, if he comes up, asks if you will read to him, and then accepts your answer of “no, I’m on the phone and I will read to you when I get off of it” then that would be Contact.

Power struggles often arise out of a need for Independence. We see this in toddlers and often refer to this age as “The Terrible Twos” – the child wants to dress herself and you find yourself arguing that “no, you can’t wear a bathing suit outside in December!”

Judging by Emily’s response to my interactions, she was definitely in the Attention/Contact category of behavior. When I think back, I realize she had no idea she was annoying me, so she wasn’t even going about it in a way that could be considered inappropriate. But the simple repetition of it was enough to make me want to change the paradigm, and quickly! So I used distraction and engagement – and as a result we had a lovely discussion and a peaceful remainder of our drive to grandma’s house.

Understanding the goals of behavior is important. Once you understand the need your child has, you can adjust your own reactions to turn an inappropriate behavior into an appropriate one. This strengthens your relationship and helps with future communications. One of the keys to understanding which of the four goals of behavior your child currently is exhibiting is to pay attention to your own reaction. The next time your kiddo says or does something that has you all riled up, ask yourself the following:

  • What is my reaction to this behavior?

Annoyance and Irritation – If you feel annoyance or irritation, your child is most likely asking/demanding attention.

Threatened, provoked or intimidated – If you feel any of these emotions, your child is most likely seeking Power/Independence

Deeply hurt, resentment, or even hatred – Your child has most likely done something to seek Revenge

Helpless and discouraged – Your child may have retreated, given up on something you think he is capable of doing, or in other words, Display of Inadequacy

There is an excellent article here that describes the four goals of behavior and gives some tips on how to deal with them.

More often than not, our children are not deliberately trying to drive us crazy. Instead, they are seeking to fill needs, just as they did as infants in regards to comfort (food, clean diaper, rest). One of our jobs as parents is to help them make appropriate choices, and encourage appropriate behavior, while helping them to fill those needs and goals.

Happy Parenting!


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