The Volcano Theory


What is it that motivates the unacceptable behavior we see in children? In any given situation, there may be many things that play into it. Still, there is one simple and really obvious explanation for all unacceptable child behavior–and indeed, for all behavior in all people at all times.

The Motivations for All Behavior

Think about your own reason for doing the last thing you did or said. Why did you do or say it? You might come up with any number of reasons, all of which are valid answers to the question. However, I propose that when you think about your reasons, there will be one inescapable conclusion. No matter what your various reasons are for doing or saying what you last did, we can classify all of them under one or both of two headings: 1) what you were thinking at the time, and/or 2) how you were feeling at the time.

I’m saying that no matter what you did or said, two minutes ago or two years ago, in any situation, your motivation can always be attributed to your thoughts and/or feelings at the moment. Although the specific thoughts you may have at any moment are infinite in variety, and your feelings (emotions) can be many and complex, the truth remains: you do what you do because of your thoughts and feelings at the moment you act.

This is true for all people, at all times, in all situations.

By “thoughts” I mean any cognitive or mental processes that take place upstairs, in the brain. This includes ideas, mental images, pictures, fantasies, dreams, memories, choices, decisions, expectations, and any other form of mental activity.

By “feelings” I mean emotions–those mysterious internal experiences that we call happy, proud, joyful, sad, angry, hurt, disappointed, embarrassed, anxious, afraid, guilty, helpless, etc. They can be experienced as strong (i.e., intense) or as weak (i.e., barely recognizable). At times they are not noticeable at all, and could be said to be dormant or even non-existent. But they can spring to life in an instant, and be so intense as to be overwhelming, even preventing us from thinking. They are often considered to be the link between the physical, bodily aspect of ourselves, and our spiritual or non-material aspect.

I consider things like desires, wishes, wants, and needs to be a combination of thought and feeling. You might have a desire to own a new camera. It may be an intense desire–you really want it badly. intensely. When you break this desire down, it is evident that the desire is composed of 1) thoughts (the camera; you owning the camera; you taking great photos with it), and 2) a feeling (an emotional component attached to those thoughts which might be strong or weak, pleasant or unpleasant). This combination of thought and feeling impels you to start looking for the camera you want, and searching for the best price–because you also have a strong desire (thought plus feeling) to get a good deal.

Understanding children’s (and your own) motivations for all their behavior with this simple but profound realization can guide and change everything you do in dealing with your children’s unacceptable behaviors. It will help you help them make better choices.

Is there such a thing as “bad” or “evil” thoughts or feelings? That might be a moral judgment a person makes. But I’m not a moral theologian, so I flat-out declare that there is no such thing. Thoughts or feelings might be considered uncomfortable, disturbing, undesirable, or unwanted, but they are not bad or evil, or morally wrong. They are merely neutral internal processes. It’s the behavior that flows from them that can more appropriately be considered bad, evil, wrong, or unacceptable.

The Volcano Image

There are a number of significant implications that flow from realizing and accepting this understanding of behavior motivation. I’ll get to them in a minute, but first I want to present the image of the volcano as a metaphor for the human being. It will help you in understanding and deciding how to deal with your children’s unacceptable behaviors.

I say that every person is like a volcano in the sense that everything we see or hear another person doing is only what is on the outside: the body, the person’s behavior. But, although we can see and hear what another person does or says, we cannot see into his brain or body and directly observe the thoughts and feelings beneath the surface, deep down inside, just as we cannot observe what’s deep down inside a volcano. We can observe only the expression or manifestation of those internal processes when they have erupted in some form of visible or audible behavior.

So it stands to reason that, just as with an active volcano, what you see on the outside (e.g., your child’s unacceptable behavior, like arguing, temper tantrums, hitting, kicking, biting) is not nearly the most important thing about that child at that moment. As bad as the behavior might be, what’s far and away more important is what’s motivating and determining it: the thoughts and feelings your child is having at that moment.

A Dozen Implications

I invite you now to think about the profound implications that flow from this “Volcano Theory.” As I said, this will change forever–and for the better–how you understand and act toward all of your child’s unacceptable behaviors.

1. Because my thoughts and feelings always determine my behavior, only I can control that behavior. Similarly, only you can control your behavior, and only your child can control her behavior. No one has a remote control into another person’s brain to make them think, feel, say, or do anything. Think about that: you can’t make anybody do anything–except yourself.

2. Ultimately, you always do what you want–not what I want–even if part of you does not want to do it. Your child always does what he wants–not what you want. So, in the moment your child acts, your thoughts, feelings, hopes and desires about his behavior are irrelevant. Certainly you hope and maybe even expect that he will do what you want, what you have told him or taught him to do in that situation. But those are just your hopes and desires. The fact remains, what you want or think or feel at the moment your child acts is irrelevant. It’s the child’s thoughts and feelings that determine what he does.

3. Thus, this profound truth: no parent can control their child’s behavior. It simply cannot be done. Once you realize and accept this reality, everything will change in terms of how you deal with your child.

4. Attempts at control of child behavior–like yelling, threatening, or punishing–are attempts at trying to do the impossible. Would you try to do the impossible, like flying, by jumping off the roof and flapping your arms? Of course not. Then why would you try to do the impossible–by trying to control your child’s behavior? If it’s impossible to do, why even attempt it? Sadly, parents try to do it all the time.

5. You might argue that you really can make your child do what you want by using certain “power and control” tactics, like yelling, threatening, or punishing. While it may seem like you’re “in control,” the truth is: that is a delusion, defined by Merrian-Webster as “a belief falsely held.” Your child may choose to do what you demand because she knows that after the theat there will probably come an unpleasant or painful punishment for not conforming. What may appear as “parental control” is really a delusion.

6. Worse yet, the use of power and control tactics by parents are not only attempts to do the impossible, but they are too often nothing other than futile and self-defeating invitations to trouble. If you have a strong-willed child, your attempts to control her behavior can be your one-way ticket to war. (Unless, of course, your tactics are so overwhelming that she allows them to scare or intimidate her into conforming with your wishes.) With strong-willed children power and control tactics actually invite exactly what you don’t want: resistance, disobedience, and maybe outright defiance, because no one likes to be bossed around. Not even a two-year-old likes to be treated like a slave or a robot. It can be assaultive, offensive. It can be insulting, disrespectful. It’s an attack on her sense of self-esteem and autonomy. Strong-willed children of all ages find myriad ways to resist and fight back.

7. Still, in spite of these self-evident realities, society pressures parents to be in control of their children’s behavior. Society, at times, even punishes parents for what their children do. This is ludicrous. It is insane. Why does it happen? Because society believes the impossible is in fact possible and even necessary. Society’s authority figures cannot control children either, so they wrongfully threaten parents in hopes that parents can do what they cannot.

8. Influence does not equal control. You have enormous influence, but you have absolutely no control over your child. And the child knows this. Hence the “terrible two’s.” Around two years old the child realizes (perhaps much more clearly than you do) that you cannot make her do anything. Toilet training is often cited as the first big battleground for power and control struggles. I like to say that as soon as the child learns to say “No!” (just like you do), she knows you cannot control her. And she’s telling you so. Has your child (of any age) ever said, “Make me”? She knows you cannot make her do anything. And she’s right.

9. The following invitations to trouble are bad habits that parents learned from their own parents, and then use to try to “make” their child do what they want:

  • Orders, commands, demands
  • Yelling, screaming, arguing
  • Lectures, logic, preaching, moralizing
  • Threats, punishments, restrictions, time-outs
  • Dismissing, criticizing, rejecting, crying, withdrawing
  • Hitting, slapping, spanking, whipping, beating, kicking.

10. While these invitations to trouble often are ineffective and self-defeating, and often make things worse because they are assaultive and disrespectful, they are not necessarily wrong or bad, with the exception of the last group. The others are age-old, primitive efforts to “control” child behavior and get kids to submit to the parent’s will. Most parents learned them very well from their own parents when they were kids themselves. That’s natural. If you were raised in an English-speaking family, you learned to speak English. If you lived with parents who yelled, threatened, and punished, you learned to yell, threaten, and punish. And you turned out okay, right? So those methods aren’t intrinsically bad. Children who are mild-mannered and compliant don’t seem to mind being bossed around–at least they may not outwardly fight it. But some do, and that’s where parents hit a wall.

11. Hitting, slapping, or spanking a child are always wrong or bad and should never be used, as they are the beginnings of physical violence. They teach entirely the wrong set of lessons, which can be summarized as “It’s okay to hurt someone physically to make them bend to your will.”

12. Believe it or not, the use of power and control tactics (invitations to trouble) can always be avoided. These tactics are totally unnecessary, because there are always better alternatives. (I am not speaking here of over-riding your two-year-old’s will by grabbing him to prevent him from running into the street.) In everyday parent-child interaction the alternatives to power and control are strong and positive methods of influence. They consist of relationship skills like modeling, listening, requests, I-messages, dialogue, and agreements, and you can learn how to use them effectively.

Conclusion: 3 Steps to Harmony

What I am presenting to you in all my writings, classes, and parent coaching is an alternative method of parenting based on the realities and implications of my Volcano Theory. This website contains more than 70 articles meant to teach new ways of thinking about and acting in the parent-child relationship. My forthcoming book and ebook (3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony) puts the ideas together, along with added detail and deeper treatment.

My entire effort is aimed at one thing: empowering parents to learn and/or enhance relationships skills that are a more sophisticated and loving alternative to attempts at power and control over children. These skills are grouped into three basic steps to achieving harmony in the parent-child relationship: 1) listening, 2) illustrating, and 3) disciplining. It is my firm belief, confirmed in the experience of hundreds of parents in my classes and coaching, that these alternatives to power and control can transform even the most contentious and hostile of parent-child relationships.


3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my book  that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model and the New School Parenting model.  Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.

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