Your Child’s Behavior: Willful Non-Compliance or Skills Deficit?

This might sound familiar, “I said, go to your room!” If that’s what happens in your home consider this. Many parents focus on punishment, calling it discipline. But discipline is something you teach your children not something you do to them. You may agree, but now you wonder, “Well how do I do it differently?”

It is best to consider discrete behaviors you hope your child will exhibit and what is in the way of your child’s achieving this behavior. OK, that seems like a tall order, but it’s simple once you learn to work your observation muscles a bit. When your efforts at parenting do not appear to be working, take a step back and look closely at what is going on. Observation leads to a better understanding of what poses difficulties for your child. Then you can put in place some strategies to better equip your child for success.

A really important concept I teach parents is the difference between behavior that stems from a child’s skill deficit and behavior that is from willful non-compliance. A later chapter will be devoted entirely to these two topics, but right now, we’ll be focusing on identifying skill deficits.

First, let’s give The Family Coach Method definition for these two terms:

The Family Coach Method Definition: Skill deficit

(n.) With a skill deficit you are dealing with a child’s inability to exhibit the expected behavior in this time-frame and under these circumstances.

The Family Coach Method Definition: Willful Non-compliance

(n.) When a child who possesses a necessary skill set, obstinately and deliberately chooses not to exhibit behaviors required within a specific social, work, cultural, academic or family setting.

Next, let’s see what that means in the real world where you and your child live:

Let’s learn about identifying skill deficits as opposed to willful non-compliance.

How to Identify a Skill Deficit  (the short version). 

Ask yourself these two questions:

  1. What is the expected behavior?   …and
  2. Can he/she do it?

(If yes, expect it. If no, teach it.)

Many times we ask our children to exhibit behaviors for which they have not yet developed the skills. The process of examining your child’s ability to “do it” helps you to make sure you are fostering reasonable expectations of your child.

For Your Toolbox: “Can He/She Do It?”

This is an effective evaluation tool I use in my office and you can do at home. It works like this: Write down a specific behavior your child has had difficulty with in the past 48 hours. We’ll call this “the expected behavior.” Then, before enlisting your normal compliance strategies, ask yourself if your child possesses the skills necessary to complete the desired behavior. If the answer is yes, then expect it. If the answer is no, then teach it. It’s that easy.

Now, let’s look at one specific behavioral challenge.  Behavior 1: Sharing Toys

Step #1: What is the expected behavior?

  • “I expect my 5-year-old daughter to share her toys with her brother.”

Step #2: Can she do it?

Here are the kinds of things to look at as you consider the answer:

  • Did I discretely define one behavior I am seeking my child to exhibit?
  • Does my child have the requisite skills to exhibit this behavior?
  • Are there any roadblocks that inhibit my child’s ability to exhibit the behavior? For example, did my child sleep well and eat well?
  • Have I defined which toys are for sharing and which are personal and will not be played with by others?
  • Have I told my child she may place special toys in a basket in her closet and those will be just her own, no sharing?
  • If my child will share another toy, but not the requested toy, did I offer that alternative solution for the children?

Step #3: If yes, expect it.

If you determine that your child has the skills for the expected behavior, then expect it! You can ensure the behavior by clarifying expectations and establishing a time frame for sharing. It might look like this:

Parent: “Shiloh, James has asked to play your Nintendo. That is a toy we agreed we would share right now. You now have ten seconds to hand the toy to your brother.”

Step #4: If no, teach it.

If you determine that your child does not yet have the skills for the expected behavior, then teach it. Help the child to choose an alternate toy. Your child now has an opportunity to model sharing and practice sharing.

Parent: “Shiloh, James has asked to play your Nintendo. When will you be willing to let him play? In five minutes or in ten minutes?”

When we parent children 0-3 years of age, most of what we do is teach, guide, mentor and reinforce. We do not need to punish a child for not sharing, we need to teach the child how to share.

Take a peek at a behavioral challenge you have had with your child. Ask yourself, “Did my child have the skills to do as expected?” Most of the time, your child needs the cognitive skills, words and actions to make a different choice. When you understand the difference between skill deficits and willful non-compliance, the focus of your parenting shifts to teaching and away from frustration and anger. Give it a try, you can do it! Your child will thank you.


This post reflects Dr Kenney’s “The Family Coach Method” used in practice for a number of years, and released for publication just this past September. The Family Coach Method is ‘rug-level,’ friendly and centered on the concept of families as a winning team – with dozens of age-appropriate sample conversations and problem solving scenarios to guide a family to the desired place of mutual respect, shared values and strengths. The goal is to help children to develop the life skills, judgment and independence that can help them navigate the challenges of an increasingly complex world. The Family Coach Method is also being taught as an Educational Series where parents can join with other moms and dads in live calls with Dr Kenney.

Don’t Eat Yellow Snow

Happy New Year. In two thousand eleven I am going to bring about world peace, end childhood starvation and molestation and make a huge dent in the ever growing obesity problem. Everyone will safely buckle up and no one will ever operate a car while intoxicated. Cigarettes and tobacco products will be a distant memory and feeling good about one self will be the new ‘drug’. Haiti will see a rapid recovery from the effects of last year’s hurricane. All soldiers will lay down their arms and return to their families. Pollution will fade and the threat of global warming will end. Hatred and bigotry end this year. And kids won’t eat the yellow snow.

It likely started for me at the time that I grew up. Let’s face it in a world of John Wayne it seemed possible. We did not need heroes- we had heroes. To me my Dad looked like, talked like- was the embodiment of the Duke. Later Han and Luke and Leia saved us all against tremendous odds and “Mom and Dad Save the World.”

The real challenge for me and for us all is to remember those things we can influence. I can wish for world peace and I can speak of world peace; I can talk about equality and an end to suffering. I can hope that one person will hear. That one person will buckle up- that one person will put down cigarettes or begin to walk and to lose weight. By myself I can not end world hunger, or bring about world peace. It’s important that I keep things in perspective. I can remind people that seat belts save lives. I can talk about pool safety and join the voices to encourage others not to drink and drive and to cherish kids.

I have to know my limits. Not to be shackled by them but to push them, to make the most of my gifts of my abilities and this is important to teach our kids. It’s living the Serenity Prayer. Perhaps I can’t end all suffering- perhaps my limits are teaching and warning of the dangers of eating yellow snow. So be it- as that too is a worthwhile lesson- as anyone who has eaten it knows.

All my best for 2011. Thanks for reading my words this past year and for sometimes taking the time to comment. It helps remind me and all of us that you are there and our words are not floating on the wind without ever being read or heard. I still wish I could pull off that World Peace thing…