First of all I want to be clear that manipulative kids are not bad kids. They are children who have learned inappropriate behavior to get the things that they want and need.
I just plugged “manipulate” into Google and the defintion I got was this:
1. handle or control (a tool, mechanism, etc.), typically in a skillful manner. “he manipulated the dials of the set” synonyms: operate, work;
2. control or influence (a person or situation) cleverly, unfairly, or unscrupulously. “the masses were deceived and manipulated by a tiny group” synonyms: control, influence, use/turn to one’s advantage, exploit, maneuver, engineer, steer, direct, gerrymander; twist someone around one’s little finger “the government tried to manipulate the situation”
All behavior serves a purpose. All behavior is a means to an end. We do things because we want things and because we need things. We need understanding. We need love. We need to express understanding and love. We also might want stuff like toys and new clothes and later bedtimes. As we get older, we become (one hopes) more skillful in using our ability to communicate and so less manipulative according to definition number two.
However getting to definition number one (handling in a skillful manner) necessitates a developmental trek through definition number two (turn to one’s advantage).
When I was 13 I started babysitting a little girl who was 2-years old. She used to cry when things didn’t go her way and I suspected she was making herself cry deliberately. So one day I asked her if she could make herself cry. Yes, she said and she proceeded to show me exactly how she did it.
“Do you ever make yourself cry to get cookies?” I asked. She affirmed that yes indeed she did. Aha! Busted! Only she wasn’t being sneaky at all; she was just doing what made sense to get cookies.
Kids are learning how the world works. They are not born with an instinctive understanding of subtle expectations and so they must learn our rules by trying them out and running up against them. We teach kids to say “please” to get cookies and they obediently say “please.” Sometimes, without meaning to, we also teach them to cry to get cookies and they obediently cry.
The 2-year old in my charge understood that crying got attention, which is a terrific and important developmental milestone and next she needed to learn the more subtle art of communicating appropriately. She didn’t know that crying — in the adult or the teen babysitter mind — is a last resort, a desperate measure. She didn’t know that we expected her to start using her words and to accept our limits. She was just beginning to learn that.
To learn that she needed to learn two things:
- Limits. We caregivers had to start sticking to “no” even in the face of her adorable, heart-melting tears.
- Empathy. She had to start the long journey of understanding that her needs and wants weren’t always going to take precedence.
If she didn’t understand those things, why would she stop? To her, crying — false or not — got her needs met. Why shouldn’t she want to get her needs met? Just as she happily said “please” so she happily scrunched up her face and sobbed. Both worked. How was she supposed to know that we really only approved of one?
So limits are super important.
But empathy is super important, too.
No child can put other people’s feelings above his own until he trusts that his needs will get met and until he believes that other people’s needs are just as important — and sometimes more important — than his own.
Those are really big lessons. Those are really hard lessons.
And there’s another thing, which is that until about four most kids don’t understand that we aren’t all part of the same thinking. If they want a cookie it doesn’t make sense to them that this want has anything to do with anyone but them. They don’t understand that parents want other things like kids to have room in their bellies for dinner. So when they whine to get their way they simply aren’t developmentally capable — they don’t have the brain capacity — to know that whining makes you crazy. They just know it works.
And as long as it works, kids will keep on whining or fake crying or telling fibs to get what they want. This is not because they’re awful people; it’s because they haven’t learned that other people’s feelings matter as much as their own. This is also not because their parents are awful people; it’s because this is all really hard stuff and it’s harder for some kids to learn than for others and it’s harder for some parents to teach than for others.
Let’s talk about the parent piece a little bit. A parent who is very sensitive to their child’s feelings or a parent who has had trouble getting his or her own needs met or a parent who is feeling overwhelmed because of other life situations may be especially vulnerable to this struggle.
When a parent uses the term “manipulative” to describe their child to me I know that this means that they’re getting frustrated, angry and discouraged. Manipulative is such a negative term that parents generally don’t use it with me until they’re at their wit’s end. Without needing to hear anything else I know this family needs help. I know the child needs help to build those empathy skills and I know the parent needs help feeling understood and supported.
Still need help? Give me a call. Or check to see which parenting classes are coming up in the next few months and see if any of them fit the bill for what you’re hoping to learn.
YouTube cut off the very first line of this clip and the first line is:
“You’re always telling me to love myself…”
OK, got it? Good.
Here’s the setup. That’s Rae (the young woman who starts the clip) and that’s Dr. Kester, her therapist. That’s all you need to know.
Now watch the clip, which is from My Mad Fat Diary (a UK show that’s pretty terrific). Remember the first line is, “You’re always telling me to love myself…”
Powerful, eh? This is something I’ve talked about with clients before and when I saw this episode I felt like it did a great job of illustrating this epiphany.
You are still who you were way back when. You still deserve kindness.
(The show looks like it’s available on YouTube — both seasons. If you came of age in the 90s you might like it especially since it takes place in 1996.)
There are a lot of alarming news stories that power parental fears. You know, the kind of stories that trumpet:
Kids Who Eat Cupcakes More Likely to Fail Math
Not Having a Pet Makes Children Selfish
(Note: These are both fake headlines, of course but about eighteen years ago I read a ludicrous study that said that children who listen to musical theater are more likely to have premarital sex. This was before Hamilton became the number one soundtrack for teenagers so who’s to say how that skewed the numbers!)
Studies are tricky things. Take, for example, the infamous example that tied ice cream consumption to murder rates. Of course ice cream sales have absolutely nothing to do with violent crime but both things happen to increase during the summer for a host of reasons and efforts to tie the two together is a great reminder that correlation does not equal causation. So who’s to say, really, that your decision to let your preschooler eat a cupcake is actually going to have any impact on his 5th grade math scores?
Real life news stories like the silly examples above make us think that we have more control over the future than we really do. In reality kids are way too complicated and life is way too variable to make those kinds of direct ties. So when you read research about kids who “fail” and kids who “succeed” or any other mess of things, remember that they are not talking about your kid. Your child is not a statistic or a study; your child is a unique human being whose life isn’t so easily predicted.
I know that it’s hard to accept that we cannot dictate our children’s futures via the choices we make today. I would love to tell you that there is one great way to raise a great kid and that if we all follow it that we will have children who will grow into fine adults with no bad habits and a clear road to success. But there isn’t and there never will be. Our children are varied, our lives are varied, our options are varied and we all have to live with certain limits and realities.
On the other hand, if we can focus on the here and now of our parenting lives we can save ourselves a lot of guilt and worry. Right now you will make the best decisions you can with the information you have, in the context in which you and your child are living, and given the resources that are available to you. That’s all you can do. That’s all any of us can do. And frankly, that’s good enough.
I’m worried about our kids; they’re really afraid right now. I know, I know — many of us are really afraid but we’re grown ups and theoretically we’ve got more coping mechanisms. Our kids, though, especially the young ones, are counting on us to be their coping mechanisms.
While our kids are growing into the full people that they will someday be they rely on the adults in their lives to fill in the empty spaces. We keep them fed and clothed and we help them process the world around them.
Right now, whatever side you’re on politically, I think you’d have to agree that the world is pretty messy. And our kids are scared.
Even if you don’t talk politics in your house your children are not blind to what’s going on. It’s all over the media, on the front page of magazines in the check out line, humming from the parents on park benches while the kids swarm the climbers. If they go to school then they are talking about it there. (On the playground, in the lunchroom and for the older children, in class.) Some of them are repeating things they hear their parents say and some of them are repeating things they see the talking heads on TV say. Children who I know have felt threatened by the words of their peers. Children who have not been targets report that they’re worried for loved ones.
And children feel divided, too. I’ve talked to a number of kids and teens who have needed to process learning that someone they care about voted for the other side (whatever that side might be) and how that feels. There are arguments happening at lockers and in class and on the bus.
We are in a tough place. Many of us want to raise children who are socially aware and active. We want to take them to events and marches and protests and I think that’s great but we have to remember what they need most right now (what we all need most right now) is hope. How are you giving that to them?
Look at this video below. This is a father and his son at an event honoring the people who lost their lives in the Paris terror attack that occurred November 13, 2015. Go ahead and watch it (it’s short).
This little boy is so afraid and his father gives him hope. No, flowers don’t protect us from guns but we protect each other. We are not alone. This is what our children need to hear. Look at that little boy’s face and the calm that comes over him. It’s powerful, isn’t it?
We need to be thoughtful about how we’re instilling optimism in our children as we move through these tumultuous times. We need to build in opportunities to be hopeful (even when we feel hopeless). We can do this by showing our children the good things that are coming out of this and there is good if we look for it. We can also do it by making sure that we don’t just focus on the conflicts in history; we’ve made progress, too. I know many of us fear we’re sliding backwards but again, for our kids, we need to show them the ways that we’ve moved forward.
And if this inspires us to stay on the phones (and sign the postcards and show up at the events) for a while longer, that’s not a bad thing either.
We also need to remind the other adults in our children’s lives — particularly their educators and other leaders — to speak out against fear and expressly speak to their safety. Some leaders shy away from this for fear of getting political but fear does not have politics and anxious children have trouble learning. They need us to be strong for them and to be willing to wade into the muck to promise them that whatever happens, we are committed to their safety.
That’s a message every child needs to hear.
This is my son when he was about nine months old. I try not to share too many pics of my kids on the internet but I figure no one can recognize him from this one so his privacy remains protected.
Today is my son’s 20th birthday, which means I’ve been a mom for two decades. That feels like a very long time and it also doesn’t feel like any time at all. Here’s what I’ve learned from being a mom for twenty whole years.
- Nothing can prepare you for being a parent so when you are waiting and you worry that you’re not ready? There’s no such thing as being ready. It’s OK. You’ll do fine.
- Being a parent is kinda like finding a room in your house that you didn’t know you had and it’s full of stuff you didn’t know you were keeping. You will discover lots of things about yourself, much of it surprising and some of it less than flattering.
- You will make mistakes and the first time you do it will feel devastating. Fortunately babies and children are pretty darn resilient because mistakes are inevitable. Practice self-forgiveness; it will come in handy.
- Our children are who they are and we can certainly influence who they are but we can’t change it. It’s far easier to work with a child’s temperament than to fight it.
- Children are people not projects. It’s nice when they do things we get to brag about but pleasing us or justifying our decisions is not their purpose on the planet.
- Parenting is humbling work. Every parent is eventually that mom or dad in public that we all swore we’d never be. Every parent says things they regret to their kids. Like my boss used to tell me when I was complaining about a challenge at work, “What an opportunity for growth!” You will do a lot of growing.
- Curiosity is an underrated tool in parenting. Be curious about who your child is and about who you are. Be curious about what might work and when something doesn’t work — that sleep training plan or that homework routine — be curious about why it didn’t work and what you can learn from it. Being curious will help you feel like a scientist trying to figure things out instead of like a bewildered parent flailing away at a problem.
- Parenting is not something you can do alone. I’m not talking about a partner (although a partner is a nice thing to have), I’m talking about your village. You will need help because we all need help. We will need someone who can take the kid off of our hands when we’ve had it and we will also need people who can listen to us rant or rail or cry when we’ve had it. Your village should be full of people who will build you up, not tear you down. Parenting is hard work and uninvited criticism makes it a lot harder.
- Parenting will bring up stuff you didn’t know you had and you will have to watch for it. Sometimes you won’t have to watch for it because it will bonk you over your head. Expect your kids to push all of your buttons and hit all of your weak spots. It happens to every one of us and that’s when it’s a good time to lean on your village (see #8).
- But being a parent is also the ultimate do-over. You will get to right a lot of your wrongs if you are willing to face those wrongs. Being a parent may be triggering but it can also be very healing.
- There are a whole lot of books about parenting and they all say different things. Read the ones you like and don’t worry about the rest. There is one exception: I do think everyone needs a copy of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and How to Listen So Kids Will Talk.
- Our children are supposed to grow up and leave us, which means that we will always love them more than they love us. At the beginning they need us more than we need them so it can be confusing when their loyalty shifts but that gradual turning out and away from us is a good thing. Celebrate it with them and then you can always go to your village for some hugs when you’re missing them.
- That said, don’t mistake that turning away as an indicator that your work is done. Your teen needs you just as much as your toddler did — sometimes even more. Their demands for your attention just tend to be less consistent.
- Legally your child may belong to you but in reality they belong to themselves. They will like things you hate, hate things you love, and have their own strong opinions. Be interested instead of offended and you’ll all be much happier.
- Expect to have a lot of very deep, very heavy conversations while driving. Facing the back of your head is a lot easier than facing your face so you can expect your child to ask you the very hardest questions when you’re trying to merge onto the freeway during rush hour. Plan accordingly.
- There is a whole genre of books and movies about parents who run away from their families. This is because we all want to run away sometimes. This doesn’t make you a bad parent; it makes you overwhelmed or exhausted or both. See what I mean about self-forgiveness coming in handy?
- You won’t always like your kids because they will not always be likable. They will not always like you either. This is called being human and sharing your life with other humans.
- It’s very powerful to let a child know that even if you don’t like them and even if they don’t like you that you will always love them. Let them know that your love and commitment is big enough to cover both of you.
- You know that guilt-inducing poem that says, “[Q]uiet down, cobwebs. Dust, go to sleep./I’m rocking my baby. Babies don’t keep“? It’s true but it’s also true that someone has to clean the house. Make sure you have days where you get to just gaze into each other’s eyes, sure, but don’t feel bad when you put them down to vacuum.
- To be a parent is to agree to give part of yourself over to nostalgia the instant you take that child into your arms. You will miss them forever but the more you accept that and accept that this is yours and not theirs to carry, the more you will enjoy the ever-growing person in front of you.
Much love to my son (and to his sister) for teaching me so much every single day and for being such good company while I’m learning!