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Question  #2:  Is  the  Misbehavior   Unintentional  or  “On  Purpose”?

 “Yes” to any one of the following questions means it is PU behavior.


1.     Is this behavior the result of the child’s immaturity or developmental stage? 

  Style of Development: Children learn skills all-at-once or one-at-a-time. Trial-and-error or wait-and-do learners. 

•   Rate  of  Development:  Children  develop  at  their  own pace. 

2.    Is  this  behavior  part  of  the  child’s  personality? 

3.    Is this an accident or is a medical condition influencing the child’s self-control?

4.    Does  the  child  lack  the  information  to  know  better? 

    5.    Has the child not consistently shown that he or she has mastered the skills to behave properly in this situation? 

“Normal” isn’t an excuse. Don’t excuse behavior, teach skills that help them move through developmental stages, balance personality traits, or compensate for physical limitations.

When  in  doubt,  assume  it  is  PU.


Step A.    Prevent the problem by using the Prevention Toolbox, especially the Independence Toolset. “When people want ___, they (teach skills). You can (offer choices).”

Step B.    Acknowledge children’s feelings or perspective with the Child

Problem Toolbox,  “I  can  see  you  want/feel  ______.”

Step C1.  Set limits, using the Clear Communication Toolset. “…but (state limits in positive words).”


Step C2.  Redirect PU behavior. 

  When appropriate, ignore behavior. 

•  Offer an acceptable alternative. 

  Distract by changing the focus or subject. 

  Use Environmental Engineering to control situations, not the child. 

• Target PU behaviors, identify their triggers, and plan a strategy.

Permission for reader to reprint this page for personal use only granted by author, Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, The Parent’s Toolshop, © 2000.


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  A.   PU or PO? Each of the following behaviors can be either PU (unintentional, developmental, personality, lack of skills) or PO (on purpose). Read each explanation and write either “PU” or “PO” in the blank next to each description of the reason for the misbehavior. 
  1.   When Dad tries to play a game with Cassy, 4, and her siblings, Cassy often takes the game pieces and leaves the room.
  a.____ Cassy has a hard time sitting still for any length of time. She thinks the game pieces are interesting and carries them with her when she moves on to another activity.
  b.____ Cassy likes to play games and can sit still when she wants. When it’s her turn, the other kids tell her to “Hurry up,” so when it’s their turn, she sometimes takes the game pieces. She likes it when her Dad or sisters run after her to get them back. This is more exciting than the board game.
  2.   Susan, 9, has her friends visiting her house. When her parent asks her to do something, Susan gives a smart-aleck response.
  a.____ Normally, Susan is very cooperative. If she doesn’t like something, she is usually assertive, but respectful. She only answers this way when her friends are around, as though this might impress them. Is this PU or PO behavior?  
  b.____ Susan has always been outspoken, but since she entered sixth grade, her first year of middle school, she has been a real smart-mouth. It seems no matter how nicely her parent asks, Susan has a flip attitude. The parents have heard Susan’s friends talking to their parents the same way. Is this PU or PO behavior?  
  3.   John, 14, punched another young teen, Joe, who was harassing him on the school bus.
  a.____ John tried to be assertive with Joe and then tried to ignore him. John’s friends said, “Are you going to let him get away with treating you like that? If you don’t do something, he’s gonna keep bugging you.” John waited and his friends kept pressuring him, making clucking chicken sounds, and teasing him. So John got up, walked to Joe (who was now sitting and minding his own business), and tapped him on the shoulder. When Joe turned around, John sucker punched him. Is this PU or PO behavior?
  b.____ John’s father always tells him to stand up for himself and never let others get the first punch. When Joe bothered him, he told him to stop or he’d punch him. Joe continued to harass John, so he punched Joe. Is this PU or PO behavior?
  4.   Teri, 16, wears clothes that are unacceptable to her parents.
  a.____ Teri has chosen this style of clothing not just to be like her friends, but because she likes it, too. She knows her parents don’t like it, but she wants to be able to decide for herself what to wear.
  b.____ Teri wants to be accepted by her friends and wearing these clothes helps. She is tired of her parents nagging her about her clothes. On days when they make her change, she and a friend trade clothes when she gets to school. Now, she won’t go shopping with her parents, because they try to force her to change.
  B. PU Mutations. The way we respond to PU behavior can cause it to turn into PO behavior. In each of the following situations, identify whether the presenting problem is PU or PO behavior and choose an appropriate response. Depending on your answer, it might “mutate” or change into PO behavior. 


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  1.   A toddler is touching a glass clown figurine on Grandma’s coffee table.
Is this behavior PU or PO?
Which response is most appropriate?

  1. Rush to the toddler. In a loud voice, that emphasizes the danger of this action, yell “No!” Then slap the toddler’s hand. Leave the clown there and repeat this response until the child stops touching the clown when visiting.
  2. Kneel next to the child and acknowledge how pretty the clown is. Hold the clown and let the toddler touch it, saying, “This can break. You can touch it now, but then we only look at it when we visit.” Then put the clown up on a shelf out of the toddler’s reach.

If you chose response “a,” the toddler now looks at you before touching the glass clown that is still sitting on the coffee table. You’ve said “no” and slapped the toddler’s hand several times now. When you are talking to your mother, the toddler tries to get your attention by interrupting you. You ignore the toddler. The toddler goes to the glass clown, picks it up and holds it, looking at you. Now, is this behavior PU or PO?

  2.   A child, age 7, is supposed to be cleaning the toy room, which is littered with toys. The child is sitting in the middle of the floor playing with the toys and occasionally tossing a toy or two into the toy box.
Is this behavior PU or PO?
Which response is most appropriate?

  1. Stand over the child, hands on hips, and say, “You’re supposed to be cleaning up the toys, not playing. Now get back to work.” The child complains that there are too many toys. You pick up a few toys to help. The child isn’t helping, so you say, “I’m not going to help you if you aren’t lifting a finger! You can clean it yourself.” Then leave.
  2. Kneel next to the child and say, “Wow. There sure are a lot of toys!” The child complains that there are too many toys. Say, “Sometimes it helps if you can make a game of it. Would you like to play a song while you clean? You can see how many books you can put in the bookshelf by the end of the first song. Then you could gather some of the kitchen toys during the next song. Would you like to try that?”
If you chose “a,” the child is now angry and crying. The child starts throwing the toys into the toy box—and against the door you slammed, and against the wall. Now, is this behavior PU or PO? 
  3.   A teenager asks for a later curfew on Saturday night, to attend a party.
Is this behavior PU or PO?
Which response is most appropriate?

  1. You say, “No, I don’t want you going to a party. There will probably be kids drinking there.” Your teen says, “My friends don’t drink!” You say, “Well, even so, you shouldn’t be out that late.” Your teen protests even louder, “But . . .” You interrupt, saying, “My answer is final! Now quit arguing!”
  2. You say, “I worry about parties where there might be drinking and then riding home with another teen late at night.” The teen says, “But my friends don’t drink!” You say, “I know you want to be with your friends. And I trust you and the friends I know. Might there be other teens there I don’t know who might bring alcohol?” The teen says “Maybe, but I still wouldn’t be drinking!” You ask, “How would you respond if they offered you alcohol and tried to pressure you to drink?” The teen explains. “Well, you probably would handle the situation well, but I still worry about those teens being on the road when you are riding home late at night. Is there any other way you can get together with your friends at a safer location or an earlier time?” You explore other possibilities with the teen. 


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If you chose “a,” the teen is angry about missing the party and goes to bed. When you check the teen’s bedroom at 11 o’clock, you find the window open. The teen has sneaked to go to the party anyway. Now, is this behavior PU or PO?

Activity  for  Home

List problem behaviors you are experiencing with your child. For each, consider the five diagnosis statements. If the misbehavior is PO, we will learn how to redirect the behavior in the next chapter. If it’s PU, answer the questions below for each behavior and apply the PASRR formula to each.

  1. Describe the behavior.
Is it PU or PO? Why?
If it’s PU, can you Prevent it?
When it happens, how can you respond? (Acknowledge feelings, Set limits, Redirect misbehavior.)

Detailed  Answers

  A.   PU or PO?
  1.   When Dad tries to play a game with Cassy, 4, and her siblings, Cassy often takes the game pieces and leaves the room.

  1. PU. It is normal for a four-year-old to be antsy, play with objects, and forget she is carrying them. She is simply “in her own world.”
  2. PO. The fact that Cassy is capable of sitting still on a consistent basis is one clue this is intentional behavior. The other clue is that she behaves this way when she feels hurt by criticism and is making a game of taking the pieces.
  2.   Susan, 9, has her friends visiting her house. When her parent asks her to do something, Susan gives a smart-aleck response.

  1. PO. Susan normally isn’t  disrespectful, only around her friends, to impress them.
  2. PU. Being outspoken is part of Susan’s personality, most preteens go through a stage where they test limits and act smart-alecky, which is shown by her friends’ behavior. Although it’s “normal,” Susan’s parents should not ignore, accept, or excuse her behavior. They can assertively respond and redirect it.
  3.   John, 14, punched another young teen, Joe, who was harassing him on the school bus.

  1. PO. John showed he had better conflict-resolution skills, but buckled under pressure to please his friends.
  2. PU. John’s father has taught him that he is supposed to respond to harassment by  fighting.
  4.   Teri, 16, wears   clothes that are unacceptable to her parents.

  1. PU. Teri is trying to assert her individuality, which is normal for a teen. She chooses these clothes because she likes them, not just to get attention from her friends or to aggravate her parents. As long as her parents don’t make an issue out of it or only have bottom-line limits of decency, Teri will probably try other styles, never using clothes as a weapon to control or hurt her parents.
  2. PO. Teri is rebelling against her parents’ attempts to control her. She is using clothes, an area her parents can’t control, to prove she has power. When they “make her” conform, she complies only until she is out of their sight, then she defies their orders.
  B.   PU Mutations. In each situation, the original presenting problem was PU. The ineffective response (always Option a), either escalated the situation or gave the child a payoff. Then, the situation turned into a PO problem, with the child using a similar behavior later, on purpose.


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  1. If we let children look at items or maybe touch them very carefully while we explain the danger of it breaking, we satisfy their curiosity and give them information. They are less  likely to be obsessed with touching the item, because they already have. It is no longer forbidden territory. If we forbid them from even exploring them safely, they are even more curious about the item. They might try to touch it when they can’t get caught. Or, knowing they can get the parents reaction, they might touch it to get the parent’s attention. In this case, the same touching behavior is PO.
  2. Cleaning huge messes is overwhelming for everyone, especially children who haven’t mastered an efficient cleaning system. If we help, we want to teach skills or use fun ways to get the job done. If we simply do the job for them, they have little reason to help. If we use the chore as punishment, they are even less motivated to help. Punishment breeds anger and resentment, which often lead to revenge.
  3. Being invited to a party makes teens feel accepted, even if they don’t know or like everyone who will be there. It is natural for teens to want to go out alone with friends and occasionally stay out later than usual. Parent/teen problem solving does not always result in parents giving permission. Sometimes it helps teens plan for unexpected situations they might face. Other times it results in a plan that meets the teen’s needs and the parent’s concerns. Even when parents’ limits must stand, they can use empathy and effective communication tools to prevent the situation from escalating into power or revenge cycles. If teens try the honest approach, asking permission and trying to reassure parents, but they never get a chance to prove them-selves trustworthy, they become discouraged. If they know the answer will always be “no,” they may stop asking permission and find other, less acceptable, ways to get the freedom they desire. These ways are usually more dangerous than what they originally asked to do.


As we better understand the causes of PU behavior, we more quickly identify it and redirect it. We avoid unhelpful gut reactions that can cause PU behavior to mutate into PO problems.

Chapter 12, “PO Toolset (‘On purpose’ misbehavior),” explores the purpose behind intentional misbehavior and ways to redirect it. Once we identify a behavior as “on purpose,” this toolset helps us answer the next question: “What is the purpose?” We learn the four types of purposeful misbehavior and how to redirect each type, using specific tools from previous toolsets. We also learn the motives behind lying and how we can use the PO Toolset in adult relationships. Chapter 12 ties together everything we’ve learned so far and shows how we can use the Universal Blueprint in any relationship.



  1   ADHD diagnostic criteria comes from the American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Association, 1994. (pp. 83–85). Underlined emphasis on certain words was added by this author.

Diagnostic criteria is reprinted with permission from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. Copyright 1994 American Psychiatric Association.

  2   Based on Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory, which dozens of other author’s have used and written about.
  3   Welcome Home, a monthly publication of original, inspirational stories. Published by Mothers at Home, Inc., 8310A Old Courthouse Rd., Vienna, VA, 22182. Phone: 703-827-5903, Fax: 703-534-7858, Web site: http://www.mah.org