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.