Don’t Stress Mama: Good Behavior Progress is a Spiral

When working on obedience with your child, progress is a spiral. Good behavior comes in stages. Positive results from discipline happens incrementally.

Spiral staircase

As you walk up a spiral stair case, you might at times feel like you are moving further from your goal than closer to it.

Working toward getting your child to obey and implementing discipline strategies can be much the same way.

“…acquisition of new skills never proceeds in a straight line. Progress is more like movements along a spiral, which sometimes advances toward and sometimes recedes from the goal while oscillating upward until mastery is achieved…both [success and failure] are a part of the upward progression leading to mastery”.

On Becoming Pottywise page 86

Children are constantly testing their boundaries. One of my best friends also follows Babywise and has a son 9 months younger than Brayden. We were very interested to see that as our boys got older, they would be little angels, then start really testing boundaries and pushing the limits.

It is normal to have days (or stretches of days) where things just seem to have fallen apart. It happens over and over again in parenting, with everything from sleeping to discipline. You just have to be consistent and plug through. As you are consistent and show your child exactly where the boundaries are, your child will go back to his normal, happy self.

Why Children Disobey

There are a few reasons for this behavior.

  • You are allowing too many freedoms (click to read more on that) or too many choices (click to learn how many is too many). As I have said many times, misbehavior in your children is often really your fault. You are at the root of the problem. I know that sounds harsh, but as parents, we have to step back and recognize that. Once you change yourself, your child will follow suit. I think it happens because our child is being so good that we start to either relax our rules or offer more freedoms than our child is ready for. So first evaluate yourself.
  • Disobedience is often in conjunction with your child learning a new skill. Some skills bring with them a whole new world of options. Take crawling or walking. Your child has new mobility and can reach new heights. There are things neither of you have had to address yet because they have been non-issues. So you need to address them. Other skills can bring a degree of danger. Take climbing stairs. Boundaries need to be set for when your child may and may not climb the stairs. Your child wants to work on these new skills. You just need to take some time and effort setting the new boundaries.
  • It is just the way it is. People push the limit. For example, let’s examine the behavior of an adult driving. You want to get from A to Z as fast as possible. You start out driving the posted speed limit. After some time, you start going 5 mph over. Then you start to go 7. Then you push it up to 10. Then you might even get so you don’t even really have a regard for the posted speed limit. Then you get pulled over and pay a hefty fine. So you go back down to the posted speed limit. Many adults will find themselves soon pushing that limit again. It is in our nature as humans to push limits. That doesn’t mean it is what we should do or that we should accept the behavior from our kids, but it is what it is. It doesn’t mean your child is as terrible person or that you are an incompetent parent, it just means that is going to happen sometimes. Read here to know what to do when your child pushes limits

As those limits get pushed, it feels like our child is regressing in their discipline. In reality, it goes back to progress being a spiral (see Progress is a Spiral). It seems like you are moving away from your goal, but you are still moving up and toward it. Your child pushes the limits. You evaluate your behavior and the behavior of your child. You correct and get everyone back on the right track. You have moved up a step through this limit pushing. Learning has happened on the part of all parties and you are a little closer to your child being able to govern herself. So when your previously perfect angel child starts throwing fits or telling you no, remain calm and press forward. You will get past it and all will be stronger for it.

Do you need help implementing a discipline strategy? Read my post on Discipline: Step-By-Step Process. You can read all about my discipline methods in How I Discipline Without Spanking.

I am currently reading The House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne. To my surprise, progress is a spiral was mentioned by the character Clifford. I thought I would share:

“You are aware, my dear sir,–you must have observed it in your own experience,–that all human progress is in a circle; or, to use a more accurate and beautiful figure, in an ascending spiral curve. While we fancy ourselves going straight forward, and attaining, at every step, an entirely new position of affairs, we do actually return to something long ago tried and abandoned, but which we now find etherealized, refined, and perfected to its ideal.” (page 270)

Real-Life Illustration

I often hear “progress is a spiral” described as “one step forward, two back” or something similar. Progress with children can really seem that way, but I think the spiral is so much more accurate. The idea of the spiral is that you are moving up the spiral. As you move up, from your vantage point it can often look like you are moving further from your goal, but in reality, you are always moving toward it.

As my husband and I are preparing to welcome our next little baby (McKenna) into our home, I am naturally experiencing major nesting instinct. This is when you feel like you must deep clean and organize every square inch of your home. One Saturday not long ago, our house was all clean. We decided to pull out some totes we have stored in our garage and go through them. My husband loves to de-clutter and takes full advantage of nesting instinct time.

We pulled the totes out and then pulled every item out of the totes. We then made piles of keep, throw away, give to charity, and undecided. Soon, our family room was a mess. As we discussed the mess and how it was necessary to have it in order to reach our goal of re-organizing the totes, it occurred to me that this was an excellent illustration of how progress is a spiral.

Your end goal is to organize your totes. In order to do so, you must pull everything out and make several piles around your room. Your room soon looks like a disaster. It can seem like your desire for cleanliness and organization is farther away than ever. In reality, however, this mess you have created is moving you closer to your end goal. You will soon re-pack the tote, throw away items, and take items to good will. The room will be back to clean and your totes will be freshly organized.

While parenting, you often will feel like you are only moving backwards or treading water at best. Always remember that progress is a spiral. Sometimes it takes a mess to get you closer to your end goal.

When working on obedience with your child, progress is a spiral. Good behavior comes in stages. Positive results from discipline happens incrementally.

8 thoughts on “Don’t Stress Mama: Good Behavior Progress is a Spiral”

  1. Hi again! I have a 14 month old boy, who is usually a great napper. We have been traveling lately, and he slept/napped GREAT on the road. Since we’ve been home, he’s done some crying at the beginning of naptime, but that has tapered off. Now we are dealing with something we haven’t seen since about 4 months. He is waking up after only about 45 min to an hour and crying. He usually wakes up extremely happy. Any ideas why this might be happening???Thanks! ~Sarah

  2. Hello! I’m dealing with something similar with my 9 month old daughter. We recently returned from a two week vacation where we traveled a lot and had many adjustments. We’re back home now, and she is doing a lot of crying when we put her down for naps. Not usually at bedtime, just naptime. And she’s also only sleeping between 45 minutes to an hour. Not enough. She is exhausted by the end of the day. Any advice on helping her get back to a happy napper?

  3. Me again, I also wanted to add that she seems to have adopted an attitude that came out of nowhere. She fusses a lot during feeding time, and when I’m changing her or washing her face. I really appreciate your blog. As a first time mom I have so many questions. Many of which your blog has been helpful in answering. I guess I’m just unsure how to deal with this new development in her behavior. I also am unsure how much she understands and how much I should expect her to know and learn at this point. Thank you for your help and wisdom. God bless, Jaci

  4. Sarah,My guess is that is overly tired. He might need more sleep while he rests up from his vacation, just like most of us! It can often take a couple of weeks for things to get back to normal. Just be consistent and he will get back to where he was. Also, be sure he is eating all that he needs to in the day.

  5. JaclynSame advice to you. Try shorter waketimes. I just got back from a trip. I felt fine until I got home, then crashed with a 3 hour nap. I am not a napper. Just traveling can take it out of you.

  6. I am struggling to understand “to much freedoms”. Firstly my lo is turning 9 months. She is really acting up these days, not wanting to eat properly , sleep properly. She is teething. And she is still standing in her crib for naps after 2 months. So I read this blog and you mention that they might have too much freedoms. I put her down in the living room, and she starts crawling all over and playing with toys on the floor, standing up against the wall, table etc. I remove her from places I don’t want her to be and tell her tahts a no and give her something else to do instead of that.How do I limit her freedoms? do I teach her to sit still and play? Please can you give some advise?she has this little fits when I don’t give her food fast enough but does not seem to want to learn any sign language, the fit only gets bigger when I want to let her sign.Thank you.

  7. C-lee, to understand this concept better, be sure to review the label “freedoms” and also “funnel.”You can try blanket time for her to learn boundaries (see the label “blanket time”). Sometimes it is okay for her to move around, other times you will tell her to stay in a confined space. Other times, she can move around but will have certain things off limits to her. With the fits and food, what I would do is cheefully reply, “oh, would you like some more? Tell Mommy ‘more’ ” Then show her the sign, then take her hands and sign it for her “good girl. Now you may have more.” If the cheeful approach doesn’t work, look at her and tell her “you don’t throw a fit when you want more. You ask for more. Tell Mommy ‘more.'” and show her the sign and then sign it for her, tell her good girl etc. and give her more. This will train her in the right action and will show her what actions give her her desired response.


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