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Changing Children’s Behavior — Part II

According to the theory of noted psychologist Alfred Adler, the basic motivation for all human behavior is the desire to belong. People need other people.

At our most basic level, we are in fact pack animals. Just like a wolf pack, we instinctively look for a group where we have membership, where we feel protected, and where we have a place. Young children, like wolf cubs, constantly check with the adults to see whether they are doing the right thing. Preteens and teens start to separate from their families and make cliques. College students and young adults join fraternities or find other ways to make friendship groups. Adults make communities based on where they live or work or worship or play.

Everyone at least starts out with the idea that being part of some circle of trusted others is the way to have needed comfort and support in an unpredictable world. Yes, there are people who reject others: some as a discipline (monastic orders, for example), some as a response to hurt, some as a way to feel superior. But even holy monks, hermits, and insufferable snobs need other people — if only to have people to withdraw from.

Children Need to Belong Too

Very young children are no different from adults except that their choice for a group is usually limited to their families. The family is the first human group in which we have membership. It’s where we figure out how to fit in with others and how we need to behave to get what we need from the group. Given the opportunity, children will work to be included, to contribute, and to find a place in a useful and constructive way. This isn’t calculated. Kids (like wolf cubs) instinctively copy the grownups they admire. Children follow their parents and older siblings around, trying to be just like them. It’s cute but it’s also a rehearsal for how to be a contributing member of the family.

Because it is cute and even sometimes helpful, healthy adults respond with approval and attention. A cycle of positive interaction is then established that encourages the children to continue to be helpful and learn new skills and that encourages the adults to be close and protective.

If you have any doubts about whether this is true, think about the last time you were at the beach or pool where young children and their parents were relaxed and at play. In healthy families, you will observe the kids calling, “Look at me!” “Mom. Watch this.” “Mom. Mom. Look what I can do.” “Dad. Did you see that?” The moms and dads do watch. They smile. They praise. And the kids keep working on learning how to duck under water, swim, dive, do handstands — whatever will keep the adults smiling. The good feelings run between the parents and children and make those observing them smile too.

Changing Children’s Behavior — Part II

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2020). Changing Children’s Behavior — Part II. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 19, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 29 Jul 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 29 Jul 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.