John Cowan - Motives

Publish Date
Thursday, 21 June 2018, 9:52AM
Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

By John Cowan

One of my earliest memories: me, aged four, standing on a work bench in our orchard’s packing shed, smashing the glass out of a window with a hammer. And then my older brother taunting me with great glee that I was going to get a hiding from Dad. (By the way, I didn’t get a hiding; in fact, I don’t recall my parents ever smacking me).  Years later I can still remember my emotion when my brother teased me: it was indignation at the injustice of it! I thought I was being helpful! The window was already broken – I was just tidying it up, knocking the last bits of glass out of the frame. Admit it: you were thinking the same as my brother – in your imagination you saw me as a little vandal smashing windows just for the devilish glee of destroying something. But my motives were pure even if my actions were very silly and wrong. My parenting tip: don’t be too quick to assume evil motives behind what kids do. I discovered my little kids digging muddy holes in our back yard with a spade. Vandalism!? No. They had heard me say I wanted to put a drain in that swampy area of lawn and they thought they were helping. A Mum I know caught her son knocking a hole in the wall with a hammer – he was trying to hang up a picture for her. My nephew destroyed a vacuum cleaner trying to clean a fish tank, doing the same helpful thing he had seen his Dad do at the swimming pool. (The fish were recovered from the vacuum cleaner bag, fluff-coated but alive).   Great motives, but immature actions. So when you see your toddler drowning the cat – are they trying to give it a bath? When they smother your baby  – are they meaning to give it a hug? This is why we need to use ‘parent vision’ – using our wisdom to look behind their actions to understand their motives. Sure, we will correct their behaviour, but see it as a teachable moment, and not something that deserves anger and punishment.

By the way, now that I think about it, I am pretty sure those windows were actually broken by my brother with his slug gun…. and wouldn’t defend his motives at all!

About John

John has been with The Parenting Place ( for seventeen years as their senior writer and presenter.  He had various roles working with youth and families prior to that but actually started his working life as a scientist in neurophysiology at Auckland Hospital.  As well as writing and speaking, John is frequently on radio and television.

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