My two-year-old learned early on that screaming, hitting, kicking, and biting generally don’t make her father and me do what she wants. So she invented a more powerful strategy: she crawls into my lap, cradles my cheeks in her hands, presses her nose right up against mine, opens her eyes very wide, and very softly, very sweetly asks for what she wants. If I’m engrossed in a conversation with my husband, she’ll say, “You no talk Daddy,” or puffing warm breath onto my face, she’ll croon, “You take me for walk. See the marsh?” These attempts seem most common when I’m on the phone or trying to read the newspaper!
I know what she’s doing, and I know I must resist. And, honestly, most of the time I can steel myself against this cascade of cuteness. But I can’t help admiring her resourcefulness in finding the softest part of my psyche. She’s still knee-high to a grown-up, but she knows belligerent behavior leaves me cold, while sweetness makes me melt.
In fact, learning to manipulate adults is a normal part of every child’s intellectual growth. “Once children move beyond just crying or saying, ‘I want, I want,’ they begin to manipulate us in more clever ways,” says Paul Coleman, PsyD, author of How to Say It to Your Kids. “It’s a sign of more sophisticated cognitive development. That’s not terrible. Parents can use these moments to teach about values and proper etiquette.”
Of course, we can only do that if we recognize the behavior for what it is—an attempt to push our buttons, and if we can quell the urge to respond in not so skillful ways, such as hurling the toy the child is whining for out the window.
Here are some of the top ways our kids manipulate us and the experts’ suggestions for dealing with them.
Babies cry for milk, and we rush to aid them. Preschoolers shriek for the cup with the lions on it, and the adrenaline blasts through our systems. “My four-year-old daughter screams at the least little thing,” says mother Sheila O’Connor. “I know she does it because it’s loud in our house with three kids, and that’s the only way she can be heard. But I’m still compelled to run to her. It’s like an extension of her as a baby.”
Christine has hit on a good strategy for getting her mother’s attention. But rescuing her when she yells is not the best way to get her to stop. “The better approach would be to make a game of teaching her alternative ways of dealing with the situation,” Coleman suggests. “You could say, ‘Let’s pretend right now that your brothers are bugging you and you feel like yelling. What are three things you could do?’
“At first Christine may suggest she could yell or cry. After all, that’s worked in the past. But with coaching, she can learn that she can come to you and politely ask for help, she can stand up and leave the room quietly, or she can firmly and clearly ask her brothers to stop, without resorting to high-volume speech or violence.
“Then you show her how you’d respond to those methods, so she understands they work as well as the old ones,” Coleman says. “But it’s crucial that parents of yellers really pay attention when the child uses a more reasonable voice. Otherwise she’ll just shrug her shoulders and go back to what worked before.”
August Franzen, a three-and-a-half- year-old, takes a more lawyerly approach. When he really wants something, he tries to wear his parents down by “splitting hairs,” says his mother, Mary. “He’ll ask for a box of cookies at dinner, and when I say he can’t eat them right then, he’ll say, ‘Oh I won’t eat them! I’ll just put them by my plate.’ But then, of course, he does eat them. It’s enough to drive me mad.”
The worst thing you can do with a little negotiator is to negotiate back. Instead, “Try feeding back what the child is telling you,” says Kate Cohen-Posey, a counselor and author of Brief Therapy Client Handouts. That is, repeat back to the child what he’s trying to say, whether it’s “You really want those cookies now, don’t you?” or “You just don’t want to get in that car seat.” Your child feels understood. But then lay down the law: “But we don’t eat cookies before dinner.” Notes Cohen-Posey, “The trick is to acknowledge the child’s feelings, but stay firm about the rules.”
My own daughter, though young, already knows I don’t let her do some things that her babysitter does— such as sitting on the dining-room table or eating potato chips before noon. “Eva does it, Mommy,” she’ll say very earnestly, even as I patiently explain that I do not allow it, and that when one is in Mommy’s care, one does what Mommy says.
Early comparisons of rules probably have less to do with manipulation than confusion or curiosity about differences, Coleman notes. But by the age of five or six, most children have learned to pit caretakers against each other. “Caretakers usually have slightly different rules,” he says, “which children learn quickly.” A father might not let a child get away with eating only a few bites for dinner, for instance, while a mother might think the child will learn it isn’t enough when she gets hungry.
What’s the cure for, “But Mommy lets me do it”? “Couples need to agree on how to handle certain situations,” he says. “But in the moment, the best thing is to explain that some people have different rules and that children need to adapt.”
Of course, firmly saying No to some kids can result in rapid escalation from mild frustration to screaming, hitting, and alarming guttural noises. And that can make parents give in just to ease the child’s hysterics— or the parent’s pounding headache. Take the case of 18-month-old Megan Rivera, who, when thwarted, “runs around the house flapping her arms and yelling,” says her mother, Annie. “It’s funny, because she’s so small and so furious, but I know I shouldn’t laugh.”
Experts dole out plenty of advice on tantrums, from holding the child tightly to walking out of the room. But they all agree that laughing isn’t helpful. Child psychologist Dr. J. C. Elbert likes to distinguish between age-appropriate tantrums— those that happen between 12 and 24 months because the child has no other way to express frustration— and older tantrums thrown on purpose. “Natural tantrums express powerlessness,” she explains. “Older tantrums get others to do what you want.”
No matter what the age, “you can’t negotiate with someone in the throes of a tantrum,” Dr. Elbert says, “and ignoring them is an ugly concept.” Instead, allow young tantrum throwers “to get through the wracking emotions and then, when it’s all over, see if she can talk about what happened. Empathize by saying, ‘Wow, that must have been awful.’ ”
For older tantrums, “you must never give in,” Elbert counsels. “If you do, you’ll get more tantrums in the future. Instead, wait until it’s over and remind the child they can use words and ask you for help.” But stay connected and empathetic throughout the episode. It helps children to know they’re loved, even when they “lose it.”
Now that so many parents are teaching their kids to express emotions, they’re developing “higher orders of manipulation,” says Elbert, “based on the very words we’re giving them.”
Perhaps your three-year-old says, “You hurt my feelings,” every time you use even a firm tone of voice. Or maybe your five-year-old hangs his head and says, “I’m quite disappointed” when you refuse to give him a scooter.
“Obviously if the child looks sad, you need to address the real sadness,” Elbert counsels. “But some kids say, ‘You’ve hurt my feelings’ or ‘I’m very, very sad’ just for effect. Whatever you do, don’t give in, because the behavior will continue in the future.”
Instead, simply say, “Yes, it’s hard to not get what you want,” and leave it at that. And give the child plenty of permission to keep crying if he’s still sad or keep pouting if she’s still angry. The basic point of allowing a child to experience and express emotions is still valid.
For Marie, the last straw was her five-year-old’s endless request for the arrival time of her cousins. “I was rushing around cleaning up,” Marie says, “and my daughter kept saying, ‘When are they coming?’ Finally, I whipped around and shouted, ‘If you don’t stop asking me that question I’ll call them and tell them not to come at all!’ My daughter started sobbing. I felt horrible.”
Marie was embarrassed by her own response. But few parents can patiently respond to 17 requests for information or help without yelling or yielding—which is why kids do it, and which proves to the child that he or she can get your attention.
“If a kid keeps up a behavior, it’s usually because it’s been rewarded at some point in the past,” Coleman notes. That’s a hard pattern to break. In fact, parents should be forewarned that the strategy may get worse before it gets better. But to stop the endless request cycle, they should first consider whether the child has a legitimate complaint, such as whether he or she is thirsty. If it is legitimate, satisfy it. If they’re unable to satisfy it—for example, they don’t have the apple juice with the dinosaurs on it—empathize with the child’s feelings. Say, “I can tell you really want that juice, but we don’t have any.” Help her or him to think up a solution—perhaps, drinking water instead—and then move on to another activity.
Later, in a calmer moment, teach the child how to ask for what he or she wants in a different tone of voice. Explain that whining hurts your ears and makes you angry. Model ways he could ask for things and help him practice. When he tries it in real situations, point out how impressed you are that he’s trying.
Iginoring and Defiance
Three-year-old Emma Osksasky has already learned that sometimes the best way to get what she wants is to simply ignore the entreaties of her mother, Sandy. “Emma will pick up my lipstick and start to write on her body with it,” Sandy says. “I’ll say, ‘No Emma, the lipstick is just for our lips.’ But she’ll go right on putting it on her leg. She won’t stop until I take it away.”
Defiance is a powerful tool because it’s often easier to let the child keep doing what they’re doing than to take action that might result in a tantrum. Defiance is also hard because for some parents it feels like disrespect. However, in young children, defiance can sometimes be attributed to something else, such as fear, a sense of powerlessness, stress, or an inability to make transitions smoothly.
For transition problems—such as picking up toys or leaving a playground— providing a time frame can often help. “Give them some time warnings, like, ‘In five minutes we’ll pick up toys,’ ” says Sal Severe, PhD and author of How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too. “Then make it a joint effort and make it fun. You can get a basket and you can both pick up toys. Or sing a silly song while you do it.”
At first, lipstick on the legs “is probably experimentation and not disobedience,” Severe says. “The girl is trying to learn what happens when she puts lipstick on her body and what happens when she ignores her mother. The simple approach is to teach the right behavior—‘lipstick goes on the lips’—but not make too big a deal of it.”
But if it begins to seem like she’s deliberately ignoring you or enjoying your mounting desperation, her defiance is probably a bid for more power, which is why you may start to feel threatened, angry, or even downright autocratic about making her stop.
Here’s the good news: you can give your child more power without ceding control simply by offering choices. Try saying, “Would you like to put that lipstick on my lips or your lips now?” or “Would you like to try the pink lipstick or the red lipstick on your mouth?” If that fails, the fair choice is simply, “Would you like to give me that lipstick now, or would you like me to take it from you?”
Back to Cute
And how can you deal with your own child’s very seductive charm? “It’s good that she has learned that charm works better than screaming,” Severe says. “And right now she’s too young, cognitively, to reason with. Just be firm and say, ‘I’ll read to you in a few minutes. Why don’t you pick out a book?’
“Whining, tantrums, even being cute are just part of being a child,” he adds. “It’s not actually misconduct, because they’re not deliberately trying to upset you. Children take time. You need to spend time with and plan ahead for their behaviors.”
Of course, the other solace every parent can take is in knowing that every manipulation strategy—be it lawyerly negotiations from your three-year-old or a declaration of a broken heart from your five-year-old— won’t last forever.
Children tend to experiment with ways of getting their way, and once a certain strategy doesn’t work, most will abandon it pretty quickly. The goal is a child who clearly and politely asks for what he or she wants. Sometimes that just takes coaching—and a little growing up.