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Lessons from the Childrearing Trenches: Children are Strategic, Not Manipulative

At least once a week, parents enter my office complaining that their child is manipulating them. More than a few have used the term “fascist dictator”. So, today’s newsletter focuses on what’s really going on when kids angle to get their way in the world.
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Our three-year-old, Cassie, is pushing the limits around bedtime—it’s never enough. When we tell her she can choose between 2 books and a lullaby, or 3 books and no lullaby, she responds: “I don’t like the choices your choicing me!” We say we’ll lie down with her for 5 minutes, but then she insists on “just one more minute” which turns into one more, then one more, and soon it’s 20. When we finally leave an hour after our “supposed” bedtime, she keeps coming out of her room to complain about a litany of problems she needs us to fix: her blankets are messed up or the animals on her shelf aren’t positioned correctly. When we tell her that she needs to go to sleep, she starts shouting that she can’t because she doesn’t feel safe without her blankies on the right way. She gets us right in the jugular! How in the world can a 3-year-old already be so manipulative? She’s totally playing us.

Children are driven to get what they want and will use any tools at their disposal that help them reach their goal. They are not purposefully trying to drive you crazy. If protests or threats result in extra iPad time, a later bedtime, or simply getting more of your attention, your toddler is putting two and two together and making an important assessment: “Excellent strategy! Note to self – negotiation and threats get results.” This is not manipulation, it is strategic and smart. Your child has cleverly figured out the “system”, which means you are raising a really competent kid! She is assessing the situation and figuring out successful ways to get what she wants—a skill that will serve her well in life.

How to respond? The first order of business is a mindset shift. You have to keep reminding yourself that you cannot control your child, nor is it your job to do so. You can’t make her do anything—eat, sleep, pee, poop, be kind or respectful. What you do have control over is how you respond to your child, which is what guides and shapes her behavior. You can’t make her sleep, but you can put up a gate to provide a boundary to prevent her from repeatedly coming out of her room to delay bedtime. You can’t stop your child from saying nasty things to you when she doesn’t get her way (like the child who recently told her dad he was a “poopy person” for not letting her go back outside after dinner to play with friends), but you can ignore the provocation and address the underlying issue, instead: “I know you don’t like my decision. That’s okay.” And move on. Remember, any big reaction to unwanted behavior is reinforcing; and, your job is not to convince your child of the fairness of your limit. (See previous newsletter for more on that subject.)

In the case of Cassie, Chris and Sabine established a clear, consistent and loving routine that includes a 5-minute period before lights-out when Cassie can put everything into place the way she likes it. This concludes with her parents tucking her in with her 4(!) blankets organized “just so”. They make it clear that after they say goodnight, they will not come back in. If she chooses to get up, then she needs to rearrange the blankets herself. (They had her practice how to do this so she could experience that she was fully capable of this task.) Here’s what happened: the first night was very stressful. Cassie protested vehemently. She screamed that she would never fall asleep if they didn't get the blankets back on her “to make me feel safe!” (Kids are unbelievably adept at getting their parents in the jugular.) But Chris and Sabine held firm, and by the third night Cassie had adapted. Bedtime became much more joyful, especially because her parents felt much less tense with worry about what storm lay ahead.  And, Cassie now falls asleep much more quickly and easily.
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Claire Lerner, LCSW-C is a licensed clinical social worker and child development specialist. She served as the Director of Parenting Resources at ZERO TO THREE for more than 18 years, where she oversaw the development of all parenting educational content. 

Claire has been a practicing clinician for over 30 years, partnering with parents to understand the behavior and development of their young children. In addition, she provides consultation and training to local preschools and pediatric residents.

Claire is also the author of numerous parenting
publications, curricula and articles in addition to a podcast and video series for parents and professionals. Claire writes a column for PBSkids.org and has also written columns for Parents Magazine. She has been a source on early childhood development for NPR and numerous national daily newspapers such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today.
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