Assume Positive Intent is a useful tool for helping me figure out what to do in a situation that requires Thoughtful Parenting. API is a reminder to me that the child is not necessarily trying to misbehave on purpose in order to turn my hair gray or make my eyes shoot red laser beams (although sometimes that is certainly the case).
API means that the kid is doing X because she is trying to fulfill a real actual (in other words, positive) need or desire that she has. She may not understand that X is dangerous/annoying/completely irrational and she may not care. The point is that the motivation behind her behavior isn't necessarily bad--it's misdirected.
Here's another way to understand Assume Positive Intent from an Objectivist point-of-view. (I almost don't know why it never occurred to me to explain it this way before.) When the kid is doing something you'd rather he not do: whining, hitting, being aggressive with his siblings, jumping like a maniac all over the house, think of what he's doing this way--he is pursuing his self-interest irrationally. He is making a mistake about how to go about getting what he believes to be in his self-interest.
We want our kids to be rationally selfish, to pursue self-interest. In the Introduction to The Virtue of Selfishness, Ayn Rand wrote (original emphasis):
Just as man cannot survive by any random means, but must discover and practice the principles which his survival requires, so man’s self-interest cannot be determined by blind desires or random whims, but must be discovered and achieved by the guidance of rational principles. This is why the Objectivist ethics is a morality of rational self-interest—or of rational selfishness.
(Via the online Ayn Rand Lexicon)
Often selfishness is misunderstood by non-Objectivists, because of the way the word selfishness is more commonly used. Rational selfishness, or rational self-interest, does not mean "every man for himself" or that pursuing one's self-interests is a license to stomp all over others in one's path. Again, from the Introduction to The Virtue of Selfishness (my emphasis in bold; original emphasis in italics):
The Objectivist ethics holds that the actor must always be the beneficiary of his action and that man must act for his own rational self-interest. But his right to do so is derived from his nature as man and from the function of moral values in human life—and, therefore, is applicable only in the context of a rational, objectively demonstrated and validated code of moral principles which define and determine his actual self-interest. It is not a license “to do as he pleases” and it is not applicable to the altruists’ image of a “selfish” brute nor to any man motivated by irrational emotions, feelings, urges, wishes or whims.
Quite a lot of parenting has to do with helping kids put the rational into "rational self-interest." The self-interest part comes very naturally, as far as I can tell. They want things for themselves, and they want things first, and they want more than other people, and quite frankly, they might be willing to kill someone over who gets a turn with that helicopter. (I'm not prepared to test that supposition for real, though.)
It's that pesky rationality! Kids are developing this skill all the time, and the gray matter with which to perform this necessary function is still in development-mode, too. Part of what makes parenting such a frustrating endeavor for me is that I'm dealing with people who are irrational (or sometimes a-rational, when they're really little perhaps). So it helps me to remember that when they are annoying the ever-loving-crap out of me, it's because they are trying to pursue their self-interests, and they are doing so in an irrational manner.
The Positive Discipline peopleguys (Jane Nelsen and Lynne Lott) have developed a tool called the Mistaken Goal Chart (here's a link to a site where you can buy a copy of it, but it's also included in many of the Positive Discipline books). They derived the chart from different premises, but the tool is very useful because the underlying idea is essentially the same--kids are trying to satisfy a valid need and are going about satisfying that need in the wrong way. Maybe I'll write more about the similarities and differences in another post.
Back to these kids and their misbehaviors. Or maybe we should reframe that word, look it as a contraction of sorts: mis(taken)behaviors, instead of mis-- as in "wrong?" Anyway.
- So, shrieking in my ear? You want my attention, and are attempting to get it in a mistaken way.
- Grabbing toys from your baby brother? You believe it to be in your self-interest to have a turn with that toy, and are going about fulfilling it in a non-rights-respecting way.
- Want to eat chocolate for breakfast, lunch, dinner, elevensies, second breakfast, etc.? Not in your rational self-interest over the long-term.
- Think the only way to resolve a conflict with another is to resort to your fists, or run and hide and pretend there is no conflict, or always give in to the other person's demands? None of those strategies are rational (using brute force, evasion, or subverting your self-interests to another's).
In each of those instances of mistaken goals, or pursuing self-interest irrationally, a parent may (but perhaps not always) need to step in and guide, communicate, restrict, provide teaching or a tool, or set a limit in a dozen ways. This assumption of positive intent, the realization that the child is attempting to satisfy his self-interest in a mistaken or irrational manner, really helps shape MY attitude in dealing with the mis(taken)behavior. (I like that!)
I can make sure that the parenting I do is focused on the long-term and helping the kids understand why the limit I'm setting really is in their rational self-interest. It's also easier for me to remain calmer and focused on guiding and helping them out in a kind and respectful way (as opposed to punishing or shaming them with guilt or bribing them for short-term results), which in turn strengthens the relationship I have with each of them (for each is a rational value of mine, and I hope that when they're grown they choose me as a rational value, too).
And that is another way to look at Assume Positive Intent! :o)