On New Year’s Day, my husband and I tried to take our boy to a party — but he was not having it. We arrived at the home hosting the party and, immediately after we walked in, our son yelled and cried so loudly that everyone inside stared.
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He screamed, “I want to go home now!” When we tried to coax him with food, cookies and even my iPhone, he cried even louder. Finally, we gave up and carried our screaming child over our shoulders out the door and headed home.
When I checked in with someone at the party later, she boldly said, “You’re letting your child manipulate you.” I’ve heard that m-word used many times before to describe kids when they act up, and I really don’t get it.
Are our kids that sinister and sophisticated that they have the ability to play mind games with us? Maybe they just have simple needs and desires, and want to navigate their own life. Of course, that sometimes kills our party plans.
When I posted this thought and question on a women’s forum, I noticed that I wasn’t alone in my reaction to the cringe-worthy phrase, “Don’t let your child manipulate you.”
Mom Christen said that when people say this to her, it rubs her the wrong way. She writes, “Kids have very little control over their lives, their schedules, their food and even what they wear. Of course, they are going to try to ‘manipulate’ to get their wants and needs met. But calling it that seems like putting a moral judgment on little humans acting biologically normal in a world that isn’t set up for them.”
“No. Kids don’t manipulate, especially young kids,” another mom Jenny writes. “They need help and tools and love and support and do not always know how to communicate that. I wish this manipulation myth would die.”
Mom Rose agrees. “Nope nope nope. This is about adults trying to assign adult motivations to children,” she says.
Judith adds, “Whenever anybody tells me my kids are manipulating me, what I hear is, ‘You aren’t an authoritative enough parent,’ which is none of their damned business (i.e., a disagreement about parenting styles, I guess.)”
Swati says, “When I hear adults say things like that, [it sends up] huge red flags. They have some interpersonal issues to resolve (where they felt manipulated/harmed) and they don’t understand child development! Sorry!”
I checked in with licensed psychologist Dr. Emily W. King, who works with children. “Children do not have the capacity to manipulate us in the way that we think about manipulating — getting us to do something we don’t want to do,” she says. “Children are using the skills they have and the interactions they’ve noticed to get their needs met.” (Note: Dr. King also wrote this piece about the 3 Phrases We Must Stop Using to Describe Children, and guess which word is listed?)
Still, there are some moms, dads and definitely old-school grandparents who actually believe their children are being manipulative, along with some experts in the field. In a piece written by therapist James Lehman, he says, “Kids manipulate their parents. It’s part of their normal routine. They learn to use their charms and strengths to get their way and negotiate more power in the family.”
OK, my child did tell me he would brush his teeth tonight after I read him three books, and then he conveniently fell asleep midway through the third story — and he does this just about every night! Am I being manipulated? Maybe. But I still won’t use that word or think about his motives in that way.
I also checked in with therapist Dan Fellows, who treats kids alongside his wife, Ashley, at their practice called Hudson LCSW Group in White Plains, New York. “Manipulation has such a negative connotation,” he said. “However, if you think about skillfully trying to control a situation to meet one’s needs, it is necessary for survival, and you would hope your child is able to navigate a challenging situation this way.”
He goes on to say, “When a baby cries to be held or fed, that is your child communicating their needs the only way they know how. Communicating your needs grows more complex as your child grows and wide ranges of emotions emerge. Many children have a difficult time expressing themselves, and their ‘manipulating’ behavior is one way to meet their needs without knowing how to tell you how they feel and what they want.”
OK, so it turns out our kids aren’t intentionally trying to manipulate us. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t want to stop or change this behavior. Luckily, Dan and Ashley Fellows had some additional advice for parents:
Have A Conversation
“Parents are likely not bothered by their child advocating to meet their own needs. However, if you are feeling manipulated or feel taken advantage of by your child, talk to them! Tell them how you are feeling and ask them what they are experiencing. We want to teach our children to not manipulate others to meet their needs, but to be open and honest about how they are feeling and what they want.”
“An easy way to teach them to express themselves is to fill in the blanks. For example: ‘I feel x when y. Please, can I z?’ They first tell you how they are feeling, then why they are feeling this way and lastly what they want in order to address this feeling. Try this simple approach to teach your child to express how they feel and how to fix or de-escalate the situation.”
Parenting is harder than anything we could have imagined. And in our tired and overwhelmed moments, we may see our kids as possessed, manipulating maniacs. But let’s remember: They are just little human beings without fully formed brains trying to meet their own needs and live their best life. Who can blame them?
In the end, my husband and I went back to that New Year’s party separately for a few hours, and we both had a great time. Those “manipulative” kids sometimes have a way shaping our days for the better.
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