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.
Today I drove my daughter to one of her summer camps and we were talking about friendships both general and specific and it got me thinking about having the same conversation with other middle school aged kids, which got me thinking about remarkably similar conversations I’m having with adults, too.
We encourage children to have boundless compassion for other people and in theory that’s a wonderful thing but in real life we’d be better served if we were raised to have bounded compassion, which is compassion with clear boundaries.
In our efforts to build empathy and understanding we may unintentionally teach kids to put aside their own needs even though empathy and understanding grow best when we are able to protect ourselves. After all, what’s compassion for others if we can’t hold it for ourselves?
My daughter had a picture book that she loved when she was little. (She took the dust cover off and taped it to her door when she was five.) It’s called Best Best Friends. It’s about two little girls at daycare who are (you guessed it) best best friends. Then one day Mary is having a birthday and she gets a crown and she gets some preschool privileges and Claire is jealous. In her jealousy, Claire snaps at Mary and insults her (she tells her she doesn’t like pink, which is Mary’s favorite color). The two girls decide they are NOT friends and go play with other people.
Then after a restorative nap, Claire comes and apologizes and Mary shares her birthday spoils.
Mary appears to be a compassionate person but she’s no door mat. Claire crosses a line but when she’s able to make amends Mary is able to welcome her back. (If you scroll down, I’m including a video of someone reading the book.)
Mary doesn’t go away from Claire to teach her a lesson. She doesn’t put aside her own birthday happiness to attend to her friend’s jealousy. She moves on, she plays. She has a happy birthday anyway. She didn’t share before she was ready because she wasn’t ready. She’s a little kid, and already she’s mastered the ability to say, “I like you but I don’t like this so I’m setting my boundary.”
If we don’t get it in preschool (and let’s face it, even if we do get it in the rarefied protective air of an excellent early childhood environment, it takes repeated practice) we will need to learn that understanding someone doesn’t mean we have to excuse them. Because boundaries are not about the other person; they’re about the person setting them. In other words, boundaries are not about teaching someone a lesson or a passive aggressive way to communicate. Boundaries are about having compassion for our selves and tending to our own needs.
It’s understandable that a friend might act poorly because she’s jealous (or tired or having a hard time) and we can look at that friend with compassion and understanding but it doesn’t mean we have to share our birthday crown before we’re ready.
“But wait,” you say. “What if I’m just being a jerk? I mean, it’s a crown. What’s the big deal?”
That’s where it gets tricky, right? Because sometimes we are being jerks. Sometimes we aren’t sharing when we probably should. And that’s where we have to accept that the dance of friendship is a step forward and a step back, it’s a relationship we create with that other person.
And this is something else about this book. The girls go and play with other kids. Mary plays with Caitlin and Claire plays with Ben. Let’s say that the next day Caitlin wants to play with Mary again and Mary shuts her down because she’s got her best best friend back and she doesn’t need Caitlin anymore. Mary gets to do that and Caitlin gets to decide whether or not this is OK with her. She can condemn this behavior (fair weather friendships) and decide whether or not she wants to say yes the next time Mary and Claire have a fight and Mary wants to play again. Caitlin gets to decide how she feels about that behavior and how she wants to engage (or not) with it. Caitlin can understand why Mary only wants to play with her sometimes but she’s still the one who can choose whether or not that’s the kind of friendship she wants to have.
This is where we need help processing, trying to figure out in the murky friendships where we find ourselves having to stretch or contort to maintain the relationship. Is this really what we want? Is the trade-off worth it? It’s one thing to stretch a bit but it’s another thing to twist ourselves into knots of compassion.
We don’t really get to decide how other people behave or even how they treat us. We do get to decide how we feel about it and whether or not we’ll participate. We can absolutely hold someone in empathy and understanding and still maintain our boundaries. That’s bounded compassion — loving but firm, limitless in theory but limited in practice.
We do not raise children to go out into the world and be perfect and build perfect relationships with perfect people. That would be impossible. We raise children to be good enough to build good enough relationships with other good enough people. Therefore, good parents are, by definition, not perfect. It’s our imperfections — deftly handled — that will help our children to grow up and handle other people’s imperfections with compassion, understanding and good boundaries.
With that in mind, these are some of the pervading myths of good parents.
Myth: Good Parents Don’t Get Angry.
Actually good parents do get angry. Sometimes they even yell and stomp around. But good parents work hard to manage their anger appropriately, apologize when they handle it inappropriately and work to get help if their anger feels out of control or truly scary. Good parents need to know that their children are going to deal with people who get angry (otherwise known as: everybody) for their entire lives. They also know that their children are learning how to handle their own anger so they learn to see the everyday challenges of living as learning opportunities for all of us.
Myth: Good Parents Always Enjoy Their Kids.
No. they don’t because the children of good parents are not always enjoyable. ‘Nuff said.
Myth: Good Parents Have it All Figured Out.
Actually good parents get that this parenting thing is a process and it’s changing all the dang time as kids move from one developmental stage to another. Good parents may feel great about parenting a 3-year old and absolutely lousy about parenting a 13-year old or vice versa because those are totally different kinds of parenting, which take a totally different skill set. Good parents get help (books, friends, therapists) when they feel stuck and most good parents will eventually feel stuck because parenting is hard.
Myth: Good Parents are Fair.
Nope, good parents try to be just but they are not always strictly fair. That might mean different bedtimes, different chore expectations or different privileges for different kids. Sure, sometimes good parents take the easy way out and just buy everyone the same pack of gum — no arguing! — and other times they wearily wade into explaining yet again that just because your sister gets to go to a birthday party doesn’t mean that you get to go to Kroger’s to pick out a cupcake. Good parents learn to withstand tears and sorrow with sympathy but without giving in. Sometimes they don’t because, remember, good parents are imperfect.
Myth: Good Parents are Patient.
In fact, sometimes good parents are patient and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes good parents don’t have the energy to be patient or they’re having bad days. Good parents learn to bring this experience to build empathy with their own impatient kids.
Myth: Good Parents Have Clean Houses, Lots of Home-Cooked Meals and Amazing Holiday Traditions.
Ummm, sometimes? Sometimes not. Good parents do some things really well and other things not so great. Good parents may be terrific softball coaches with filthy kitchens. Good parents may know how to make a mean pot roast but can’t make cookies to save their lives. Good parents don’t always remember to buy pumpkins in time for Halloween or advent calendars in time for Christmas. Good parents don’t always have money for the tooth fairy. Good parents sometimes don’t notice their kids have grown out of their tennis shoes until they notice them limping across the playground. Good parents forget to pack the diaper bag.
Myth: Good Parents are Confident.
Sure, sometimes good parents look at a parenting challenge and say smugly to themselves, “Yeah, I got this.” But lots of other times good parents lie in their beds wondering if that decision they made about homework or screen time or dessert was the right one after all. They work hard to model the great grand work of self improvement, understanding and relationships. They live complex lives that sometimes create challenges they hoped their children would never have to face — divorce or death or depression. They struggle and worry and fret. They move forward because they have to, not always because they’re sure.
Myth: Good Parents are Consistent.
This is one of the things every parenting book says: Be Consistent. And it’s true that consistency will save you a lot of trouble in the long run. If you always say no to the candy aisle in the grocery check out line your kid won’t necessarily stop asking (or whining) but they’ll learn that when you say no, you mean it, which will come in handy when they’re teenagers. But sometimes the candy seems like a good idea because you’ve got such a headache that you’ll say yes to anything to get them to shut up. Good parents sometimes make short term decisions just to cope because life is like that.
Myth: Good Parents are Born, Not Made.
No way. Most of us have to work hard — ongoing — to be good parents just like we have to work on our skills to do anything else well (play tennis, bake yeast breads, create killer TED-inspired presentations, etc.). Good parents sometimes get tired of all of the self-growth and effort that being a good parent takes, particularly when they look at the 2-year old wailing on the floor or contemplate the disaster-area of an 11-year old’s room or note that the 16-year old is missing curfew. Then those good parents reach out to friends for a night out or call a therapist for help or reread How to Talk So Kids Will Listen again. Sheesh, says the good parent to herself, when am I gonna get it? But the good parent keeps trying.
Do you want support in the hard work of parenting? Contact me. I’m a big fan of helping parents (and the kids who love them).
When I was teaching parenting classes in Portland nearly two decades ago I had one parent in the class who was there because she’d been mandated by child protective services. I don’t know the whole story but I knew that she didn’t want to be there. She made it clear that she resented having to sit there listening to a youngster many years her junior (me) who didn’t even have any kids yet.
I can’t say that I blamed her.
Fortunately the other parents in the class were there to help her process the information in a loving, respectful way that she could hear.
At one point we were talking about how children have their own experiences in the day beyond what we might witness. I don’t know how she got the message — I think another parent was telling a story about her child in school — but she burst into tears and said, “I had no idea, I had no idea. I never thought that maybe she could have her own bad day or be in her own bad mood.”
It was such a powerful moment.
From that point of the class on she was able to talk about her children’s experiences with compassion and empathy. The class was not easy for her — she was away from her kids and she was confronting a lot of things she wished she’d done differently — but I hope that what she learned there she was able to bring back to her relationships with her children.
It can be difficult to remember what it’s like to be small or even smallish. It’s especially hard to do if we weren’t allowed the full scope of our feelings. If we were treated harshly, we may have stuffed some feelings down so deep that we don’t know how to remember what it’s like to be scared or sad or to feel hopelessly overwhelmed by the big wide world and our small place in it. If we have that extra challenge then we can practice imagining. We can picture what it must be like to worry that we will suffocate if we fall asleep with a stuffy nose. Or to not have the experience to know that one lost book report won’t derail our scholastic dreams.
When we remember or can imagine what it feels like to be a child, it’s easier to know how to react with the firm and loving support that our children need.
About twenty years ago I went to a training at the Legacy Emanuel Hospital in Portland presented by CARES Northwest about interviewing children as part of a sexual abuse assessment. During the second half of our day we watched videos of the practitioners interviewing the kids. I remember one child’s story in particular because it was a very hard story and because at the end, for the first time, you see one of the interviewers crack. The boy, who was about ten, asked her about what would happen at the end of the day, what would happen to the interviewer. The woman conducting his assessment started to choke up. We could hear the tears in her voice as she told him that at the end of the day she opened up all of the windows in that room and let the wind blow away all of the fear and sadness so that the space could become peaceful again and ready for the other children who would come there and need to tell her their stories.
That’s stuck with me over the last two decades.
Once a client said something to me that wasn’t so bad but to her it felt very bad to say it and after she said it her eyes got wide and she clapped her hands over her mouth.
“I can’t believe I said that,” she said behind her hands.
“But you did,” I answered.
“I did,” she said. Then she put her hands in her lap and we spent some time talking about saying it before we talked about what she said. But she left it at the office that day. That’s where she left it to be considered and examined and she did not feel the need to pick it back up again in her everyday life.
I think of my office as sacred space and as safe space. I want my clients to know that they can say whatever they need to say — whatever they’re most afraid to say — and they can leave it there. If they need to, they can leave it there and pick it back up at our next session or they can leave it there and let it go. I will hold it safe for them until the fear and the shame and the sadness are no longer so powerful and then they can set it free and know this secret — whatever it is — is no longer more powerful than they are.