When children tell untruths, cry without tears, laugh or say, “I don’t care” when you dole out a threat or consequence, you may see this behavior as a manipulation and then react accordingly. If I think this child is manipulating me, I am naturally going to feel angry, put-upon and even trapped. These types of emotions logically lead me to some form of controlling behavior. In other words, I will manipulate my child with threats, consequences, anger or withdrawal of love in order to get the behavior to change.
Isn’t that what children are trying to do with us? They want a different response from us than they usually get or expect. So they protect themselves from getting in trouble, they express outrage, and they behave defensively to ward off judgments and attacks. They do what they know how to stop the onslaught of nagging, criticism, blame, and endless questions. One mother wrote me that when she asked her son why he kept lying to her, he said, “If you don’t want me to lie, stop asking so many questions.”
From the get-go, we manipulate our children all day long. Often we have to in order to get them to do what we want. The truth is, child’s absolutely normal developmentally appropriate intention is to get what he wants when he wants it. If we expect different — he should listen to me and do what I say because I know best, she should stop ignoring me and listen — we are off down a rabbit hole of unrealistic expectations. We will feel forced to use coercion to get the child to do what we think he should be doing — more manipulation.
We are our children’s best teachers and models. If we don’t want them doing to us what we do to them, then we’d better take some responsibility for our behavior. I tried to always ask myself, How would I like hearing what I’m saying right now? It kept me aware of my tone and responsible for my words.
“You’re not the boss of me”, “I don’t have to”, “I’m not doing that”, “I did so brush my teeth”, are all signals that your child is willing to risk confrontation to stop being manipulated, told what to do, bossed around. When I perceive this behavior as manipulative, I will, of course, react and compound the problem.
It may feel counter-intuitive, but the best course of action is to go in the opposite direction. That often means responding very differently than what you were used to hearing as a child. It’s like learning a foreign language for most of us.
Can you respond to “You’re not the boss of me” with “You are absolutely right. You are the boss of you and I am the boss of me. Neither of us like to be bossed around by anybody else.” To “I don’t have to”, can you say, “No, you don’t. I’m asking you to go to bed because it’s my job, not yours, to make sure that you get enough sleep to stay bright and healthy. I don’t expect you to know what that involves.” When children are spoken to with respect and consideration for their feelings, they are likely to respond in kind — at least eventually.
In order to respond this way, you need a different perspective. One that reminds you that your child’s words and behavior need to be interpreted instead of taken personally. When your child is resisting or not listening, it likely means that she doesn’t like hearing what is coming at her. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t have to go to bed, etc., it means that it’s time to take a look at how you’re saying it and how she is hearing it and try again. Instead of threatening (read: manipulating), “If you don’t do what I tell you, there will be no TV for the rest of the week”, try “As soon as you’re ready for bed, we can get cozy and read books. Call me when you’re ready for my help” and then leave the room.
You know how it feels when you think you’re being manipulated or used. Why do you think it feels any different to your child? You threaten or dole out a consequence because it often “works” to get what you want. It’s a quick fix when you are exhausted at the end of a long day and have had it with the endless noise and demands of your children. But be careful. In the long run, you are setting your children up to imitate you when they want you to do what they want.