Apparently the three of you have been born evil super-geniuses that will manipulate me at every given opportunity. And apparently that manipulation starts off with a simple cry that coerces me into picking you up and holding you when you are a baby.
“Don’t let him manipulate you like that.” is a common piece of sage wisdom passed on to parents that sets us up to get Really Really Angry at our kids when they attempt to manipulate us in many nefarious ways such as: asking for things, being disappointed when they don’t get what they want, trying to change a situation that they don’t like, and lacking the emotional maturity to cope with disappointment in a mature way.
I suppose that when your daddy has a headache and lets me know that his head hurts and asks me to get him some Tylenol for his headache he is “manipulating” me into giving him sympathy and comfort, and into retrieving medicine for him that he could very well learn to get for himself.
And I suppose that when I’m really upset that something didn’t go the way that I wanted it to, my crying while your daddy holds me and comforts me is manipulation as well.
I suppose that when Grampa lets me know that he is upset because I didn’t put his screwdriver back where he could find it, he is manipulating me.
It seems like a hopelessly paranoid and grouchy way to view the natural process that children go through as they come to emotional maturity and learn how to communicate their needs and their desires.
I’m supposed to “ignore”, “time out”, “show you who is boss”. Because we all learn from scorn and anger and isolation.
Don’t get me wrong, I recognize when you are attempting to manipulate me or the situation. I recognize the intelligence, the flash of delight that you get in your eye when you’re trying to get something past me. I like the cleverness. And I appreciate the teachable moment.
Daughter, you are four months old. As you get older you will learn that if you cry I will pick you up. I do not mind this at all. Comfort is free. Nearness is free. I want you to understand that you will always have a place in my arms and that I will always pick you up. I want you to understand that you do not need to manipulate me into something so simple as holding you. I do not believe you need to do anything more than ask if you want to be near.
Second-Son, you are two. You rail against the injustices of the world which include everything from my not being able to read your mind, to not wanting a nap even though you need one. Your objections come mainly in the form of yelling “NO”, occasionally trying to hit, testing our reactions to things, and Always Doing The Exact Opposite Of What You Were Asked. You have mastered the screechy tantrum. You are the perfect two year old. You are learning to communicate, you are eager to have your wishes be known, you are starting to develop the power of logic, and you are frustrated by the learning process, overwhelmed by the things that you feel deeply. I no longer pick you up when you cry because that simply makes you ANGRY and you will let me know when you want to be picked up or put down. Your space is yours. I understand. None of us like to be told what to do. And at two, you quite simply do not have the understanding of how to deal with it. We’re learning slowly. You’re learning how to tell me that you want me to respect your personal space. You’re learning the words to tell me that you’re angry, that you’re sad, that you’re frustrated, that you’re upset. That you want to do it AGAIN! I help you learn the words that you’re looking for so that you can use the words to tell me what it is that you want. Sometimes you will get the things that you want, and sometimes you will get an explanation as to why those things are not possible. It is not manipulation because your emotions don’t influence the situation beyond letting us know what your preference is. We do not suddenly decide that you can have ice cream for dinner or that we will forego bedtime for a Diego and Dora marathon. You are learning that we will listen to you so that you don’t have to scream. That we respect your emotions so you don’t have to pretend that they are worse or better than they are. And that the unchangeable will not be changed just because you don’t like it.. But that we will listen to you when you tell us that you are sad or angry because you don’t like it.
Eldest-Child, You are five and a half. You do try to manipulate us, as you have learned through the reactions of others that manipulation is possible. This is an inevitable lesson that each of you will learn, as we live in a society that views children as manipulative. I treat your emotions with the same respect that I treat the emotions of your younger siblings. And the things that will not change will not change, but I will always offer you comfort. Months ago I was frustrated by your efforts as it felt that everything I was trying to teach you was being undermined by people who railed against “being manipulated” but who at the same time allowed true manipulation to occur. I breathed deep and I started to treat you the way I treat your daddy when he’s trying to see if I’m listening to him by saying something ridiculous to see if I notice. When you try to change something by saying that something is different than it really is, I raise my eyebrow. It’s a game of being caught where the goal is to be caught. And when I don’t catch you you’re so disappointed that you call me on it. I know that when you cry you’re crying because you’re really upset. I know that when you are angry it is because you are angry.
Manipulation is something that happens when you allow yourself to be manipulated and then resent that. Or when you recognize someone’s attempt at changing something or their frustration with the unchangeable as manipulation rather than the emotional reaction that they are having to a situation that they cannot deal with.
Don’t manipulate me. Talk to me. Tell me. Let me comfort you. Let’s brainstorm over ideas about how we can change things, and see if they are change-able. These are life skills that will suit you far better than the skill of “shut up and deal”.
I may not change what we’re having for dinner, but together we can think of what might make it taste better. I may not let you sleep in bed with us since it’s already too crowded, but if you are upset because you’ve been having nightmares then we can figure out how to deal with them.
I want to raise you so that you’ll be comfortable going to authority figures in your adult life to discuss problems and brainstorm solutions rather than railing against injustices with your friends. I want to raise you so that you’ll look at your frustrations, your angers, your sadness, and feel as though you have some sort of say. I want to give you the power of owning your life.
If you goof up along the way, that’s fine. I’m thirty-two, I can deal with that and talk you down without anger of my own. Each moment is a teachable one. No child learns these things without being taught. I understand, and I am happy to be the one to be teaching you.
Don’t manipulate me. You don’t need to. I understand that you simply want to change something that you’re unhappy with. Let’s try together to come up with the ways that you can tell me what you’re feeling without making me the target of your anger and upset.