You Say ‘Manipulative’ Like it’s a Bad Thing

Everybody has wants and needs.  Nothing wrong with that.  We are happy to meet our children’s needs and to teach them how to take care of their own needs.  We delight in recognizing the first inklings of individual desire in our babies.  “He wants the bunny!” we exclaim, thrilled to be understanding the baby’s grasping and cries.  Suppose a baby reaches out a grabs a bite of mom’s cookie.  We think the baby is brilliant!  No one criticizes babies for crying and fussing to get what they want.  No one thinks a baby is sneaky or manipulative.   What else should they do? Walk across the room and open the fridge and get their own cup of milk?  Clearly annunciate their desire in a polite and respectful manner with well-chosen words?  Of course not!  They are babies! They can’t do that!   Philosophers like to say that ‘ought implies can.’  That is, no one can be blamed for not doing that which they are incapable of doing. (I cannot be morally obligated to slam dunk, and a baby cannot be morally obligated to ask politely for a glass of milk).  We get that about babies.  Toddlers and other little kids, not so much.


We teach our children that it is a virtue to have their own wants and needs met in the world.  “Follow your dreams!”, “Go for it!” “Don’t give up!” we tell them.  And yet, it is surprising how often, when they do just that, we accuse them of being naughty, impertinent, or manipulative.  Suppose two-year-old Sally wants a cookie.  We all agree this is a fine thing to want, right?  (I, myself have been in a constant state of cookie-wanting for the entirety of my existence, minus a few days with the flu).  A few months ago, crying and pointing was very successful for her.    She knows words can save time, so she asks dad to give her a cookie.  He says no.  And yet, she still wants one.   She has been encouraged to get what she wants.  So, Sally tries to get a cookie herself.  This is apparently naughty.  How could she have known this?  Going to get her own stuffed giraffe when she wanted it was applauded.  Getting her own sippy cup is cheered.   Everyone else in the house deals with wanting cookies by walking into the kitchen and getting them.   So, getting what you want by yourself is great, unless it is very bad of you.  Sally is reprimanded for trying to get the cookie herself, and yet, she still wants the cookie.   Sally sees Mommy and asks for a cookie.  Daddy overhears and he and Mommy are both cross.  Sally is apparently trying to be sneaky.  She should have known that Daddy’s ‘no’ applied to both parents.  Odd considering how many story books she is read in which the hero goes from one character to another asking for the same thing.  Despite being told off for being sneaky, Sally still wants the cookie.  She remembers how successful crying has been in the past, and she is getting pretty frustrated by now, anyway.  She lets loose with a wail.  True, there are no tears, and her heart is not really in it.  She is not in agony, after all, she just wants a cookie, and nothing else has worked.   She continues the sobbing noises, with a few slow moans of ‘coooookie’ thrown in, with breaks to look around to see if parents are noticing.  They notice all right, and they are angry.  Sally now is being manipulative, apparently.   Trying to make them feel a certain way just to get what she wants. Poor little Sally.


What, exactly, would be the right thing for Sally to do?  Not want the cookie, I suppose, but that is not an option, really.   Surely, when we tell children we want them to pursue their own desires, we don’t really mean “pursue what I want you to want and nothing else”.  I’m not saying she should get the cookie.  Not just for asking nicely and not for trying herself or asking someone else or crying.   What I’m saying is, she should not be accused of being sneaky or naughty or manipulative for being a kid trying different strategies to get what she wants.   There is nothing immoral in this child’s behavior any more than it is immoral of her mom to ask for ice-cream from the server at the ice cream store, or go to another store if her favorite flavor is out at one store (is that sneaky?).   As far as Sally knows, she is doing the same thing when she cries for a cookie that her mom is doing when she makes a sad face at Sally and says, “It makes mommy very sad if you don’t eat your peas”.  


We all have needs and wants.  Pretty much everything children do is with the goal of meeting a need or want.  This is not wrong of them.  Some ways of getting what you want are more successful and more socially acceptable than others, but the rules are immensely complex and situation-dependent.  Our job is to facilitate that learning, with honesty and compassion.