Because he can; because she doesn't have to
I often say that parents really only have two questions for me:
"Dr. Knight, why does my child do this?"
"Dr. Knight, why doesn't my child do this?"
I hear some version of at least one of these questions from nearly every parent that walks into my office.
My answers are always pretty much the same:
"Because he can,"
"Because she doesn't have to."
Now, I'm not casting blame on anyone in answering that way. Rather, I'm trying to short-circuit attempts to locate the "real problem" in the past (hint: the behavior is happening now so whatever is keeping it going also has to be happening now) and attempts to locate the "real problem" in either the child or the parent. (Problems generally don't come from inside individuals. They emerge between us, for the most part. But more about that later.)
I'm trying to drive a wedge between the parent's frustrated, angry, anxious expectations (he ought/ought not to be doing this!) and the parent's cooler-headed observations (yeah, I can actually see that he's doing/not doing it).
And I'm trying to orient the parent to the fact that the parent has power here. Parent empowerment is very much the name of the game in my office. Of course, with great empowerment comes great ... uh ... en-responsibili...tizing. Or something. Anyway, you know what I mean.
See, I'm a behaviorist. I start from the understanding that behavior is a function of its environment. So if a kid is doing something she shouldn't, that just means the environment makes it possible to do and makes it a better option than other options (from the kid's point of view, which is the one that matters most here). The solution will involve reshaping the environment to make good behavior the best possible option (from the kid's point of view) and, if we can, to make bad behavior unreachable or harder to achieve. And parents usually control a whole lot of their kids' environments.
And if a kid is not doing something he should do, that just means the environment makes it possible to escape from, and/or makes other options better than the thing he's supposed to do. (Again: from the kid's point of view.) The solution will involve reshaping the environment to make good behavior the best possible option (from the kid's point of view) and, if we can, to make alternatives -- especially escape and avoidance -- unreachable or harder to achieve. And parents usually control a whole lot of their kids' environments.
None of this is to say that the child doesn't have any responsibility or any role to play. Much of the environment influencing the kid's behavior exists inside the kid, so there will be some work to do there. (Likewise inside the parents!) But the first, biggest, easiest levers to pull are gonna be located somewhere between the parents and the kid.
And that's almost always where we start our work.