Courtesy of Kimmie Fink
9 Things That Are Definitely Not “Problem Behaviors”

by Kimmie Fink

As a society we're in the unfortunate habit of labeling children instead of behaviors, essentially classifying normal conduct as problematic. We also live in an era of excessive judgment and pressure to raise "perfect" children. When combined, those two factors can cause parents to worry unnecessarily and intervene to extinguish a behavior when it's probably better to let it run its course. As a mom, I definitely get worked up about stuff my kid does, but I've learned to distinguish between what really needs addressing and the things kids do that are definitely not "problem behaviors."

Everyone has their line in the sand, of course. For example, I'm not going to ignore hitting or biting, but if my kid only eats rice at dinner, I let that go. I've realized that, for adults, attempts to eliminate unwanted behaviors are often more about us than they are about our children. We're bothered or embarrassed by our kids' habits, so we try and "fix" them when they don't necessarily need fixing at all. We often create more of a problem with our overreactions. The excessive attention reinforces the unwanted behavior and causes our children to retreat into it and become further entrenched.

There are plenty of behaviors that we're best served by ignoring. This is not to say that behavioral and communication disorders aren't real. Parents of children with attention deficit disorder (with or without hyperactivity), oppositional defiant disorder, autism, etc. are in a much different situation. What I'm referring to here are typical childhood behaviors that generally go away on their own. Of course, at a certain age and in their extreme manifestations, they can be indicative of a larger problem. If you're concerned, listen to your instincts and seek advice from a medical professional.


My daughter never took to a pacifier and, instead, always seemed to prefer her thumb. She's now 2 years old and sucks her thumb on the regular. Other people have actually pulled it out of her mouth in my presence, and it's infuriating because, honestly, I'm just not that worried about it.

The conventional wisdom about thumb-sucking isn't all that wise (or even conventional). It does not affect tooth alignment until the permanent teeth come in. According to the Mayo Clinic, most children quit on their own between the age of 2 and 4 anyway, and peer pressure can usually do the trick for older kids. Thumb-sucking also doesn't cause delays in language development. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, it has no long-term emotional or physical effect and treatment should be limited to children over 5.

Stranger Anxiety

During her first year of life, my daughter was held by virtually every person in my life, from my former students to my 80-year-old grandma. She was always happy to go to anyone, so it was a real surprise for me when she developed stranger anxiety after she turned 1. This coincided with her debut as a flower girl at her aunt's wedding. Let's just say there was no walking down the aisle for my little one.

The clinging is annoying, yes, but it's also a natural phase in your child's development. Stranger anxiety is actually an essential milestone in their emotional and cognitive development because it shows they can distinguish between the known and the unknown. Parenting describes it as a healthy protective mechanism that is demonstrative of your baby's secure bond to you. While stranger anxiety is nothing to worry about, the University of Pittsburgh's Office of Child Development advises parents to seek professional help for extreme stranger terror.


My toddler has had tantrums anywhere and everywhere about anything and everything. She once threw a fit at home because I ran out of peanuts. When leaving preschool, she frequently sits down and howls in the middle of the parking lot because I make her hold my hand. On our beach vacation, she freaked out when it was time to get out of the water.

There's nothing like a tantrum to make you feel like an utter failure, but the fact is, they are a hallmark of toddlerhood. Not only are tantrums normal, they're an important part of development. KidsHealth points out that without the language skills to express their feelings, tantrums are the way young children show that they're upset or frustrated. There are, however and according to WebMD, certain tantrum red flags to watch for that may indicate an underlying problem.


Like most toddlers, my daughter loves to pull all her toys out of the baskets and all her books off the shelves. I have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and tidiness is a big deal to me. However, I can't constantly pick up pretend canned food all day, and my child shouldn't have to make concessions for my issues. So we do a once a day clean up before bedtime, and we do it together.

Messiness is not a moral failing, and it's not abnormal on the part of your child. When a sloppiness becomes hazardous (e.g. grandma might trip on that block) or unsanitary (e.g. rancid milk in an abandoned sippy cup), that should be addressed. But in general, we can respect our child's messy room as a display of autonomy and be comforted by the fact that, for most people, it's just a stage.

Refusing To Share

My daughter's favorite word is "mine." Diaper? "Mine." Doggie? "Mine." Mommy's cell phone? "Mine." We're working on sharing toys (and communal spaces) because I think it's an essential life skill, but there are certain things I'm content to have be only hers. Her tea party/bedtime friends Minnie Mouse, Bunny, and Coco are special, and she doesn't have to share them.

When your kid snatches a book out of another child's hands, it can appear greedy or selfish. It's an unflattering behavior, sure, but it's to be expected. What To Expect reminds parents that toddlers are egotistical by nature, and the concept of ownership is new to them. Furthermore, refusing to share can be an important lesson for a child in how to say "no" when it's for your own wellbeing. Rest assured that with modeling and maturity will come genuine generosity, cooperation, and respect for the rights of others.

Gender Creativity

My daughter doesn't talk in full sentences yet, so she can't express her gender identity. I do know that she loves playing with her baby doll as much as her toy cars, she adores Elmo and Minnie Mouse, and she can throw a football like a boss. In my household, we let toys be toys, books be books, and clothes be clothes, so that my child knows that she will be accepted and loved for whoever she is and whatever she wants to be: princess or pirate, painter or pilot.

Gender creativity is not deviant behavior. We have to let go of the idea that there is a "right" way to be a boy or a girl. The gender binary is a limiting concept. When gender expansive children push against that outdated construct, it can make people uncomfortable. But there's nothing wrong with gender non-conforming children. In fact, if we prevent them from living authentically, we cause more harm than good.

Needing To Move Constantly

Just watching my daughter is exhausting. I think about how much effort it takes for her to go up the stairs or how many more strides she takes to equal my one step, and I'm amazed. She's constantly climbing all over me, jumping from ottoman to couch, or pushing her lawnmower all over the house. The movement is nonstop, and she flits from one activity to another in the blink of an eye.

It isn't reasonable to expect your child to sit still. In fact, it may not even be developmentally appropriate. Healthy kids are active, busy, and learn through experience. For young children, a short attention span is the norm. If you have an on-the-go toddler, you're in good company. Constant movement is pretty normal, although excessive and involuntary movement may warrant a trip to the pediatrician.

Picky Eating

I'm lucky in that my kid is a pretty adventurous eater. Still, she goes through phases where she'll reject a certain food (it's currently asparagus, which she used to devour) or she'll ask to get down from the table when she hasn't eaten much. I'm OK with all of this because she's learning to listen to her body. I keep offering a variety of foods at regular intervals throughout the day. As long as she's growing steadily, I'm happy.

Six magic words that can eliminate fights at the dinner table are "You don't have to eat it." We must honor children's bodily autonomy in deciding how much and whether to eat, while we as parents determine what's served. A typically developing child is not going to starve themselves or make themselves sick, but note that picky eaters are not the same as problem feeders.

Late Talking

I'm raising my child bilingually, and I was really worried when my daughter didn't meet her 18-month language milestones. She didn't have a dozen words (unless you counted animal sounds), she didn't refer to herself by name, and she certainly wasn't stringing two words together. An acquaintance who was a speech language assistant suggested that I get her evaluated, and I really freaked out. I needn't have worried. My 2-year-old toddler is a veritable chatterbox and says everything from, "Ven, Mami," to "Get it! Thank you."

When it comes to language development, comparison is not your friend. It's hard when you watch your child's peer proudly announce "all gone milk" when yours barely says "mama," but remember that there is a broad range of normal. By kindergarten, they may very well be indistinguishable. If your late talker doesn't seem to "catch up," it may be time to consult a speech-language pathologist.