Many parents feel uncomfortable about the idea of manipulation. They get upset when their children manipulate them, and feel uncomfortable about manipulating them in return. But I think it’s a valuable parenting tool.
The word “manipulation” has negative connotations and implies bad intentions. But in most cases, we don’t manipulate others to harm them. Quite the opposite.
In my parenting programs, I’m amazed by how many parents don’t think they have the right to make their children think or do some things. These parents don’t seem to understand their role.
I believe our job as parents is to manipulate our children into believing they are happy, friendly, healthy, awesome, kind, strong, courageous, caring, smart, talented, confident, authentic, curious, successful, or whatever it is you want for your kids.
Sure we do. When we hug our children, we manipulate them. When we feed them, we manipulate them. And when we teach them to ride a bike, we manipulate them.
We are programmed to manipulate the world to work to our advantage
When I discuss with parents what manipulation is, they find it somewhat uncomfortable, regardless the manipulator – child or parent. If children manipulate, or if parents manipulate, it seems like a power struggle. But it doesn’t have to be.
In a power struggle, like in a war, there are no winners, only losers. Some lose less and others lose more. Either way, it’s a lose-lose situation.
What is manipulation?
There are several definitions of manipulation. I believe that in parenting, we must consider manipulation
The use of action or inaction to affect our surroundings in order to improve physical or emotional state. An action or inaction to suit our needs.
Every baby is born a manipulator. As soon as we come into this world, we start to use our first major manipulating tool – crying.
Babies use crying to make the world give them what they need. They’re born completely helpless, and must make the world feed and protect them, or they’ll die, plain and simple.
No one gets (too) upset about babies crying, so why should you be upset when children do it? Or when grownups do it?
I guess when babies manipulate us, they have “the cute factor”, so we don’t make a big fuss. But as they grow up, the cute factor fades, and we start rejecting the crying as pressure.
No matter what happens, though, we always do whatever we can to make the world work to our benefit. The focus is on “our benefit”. No evil is involved. No bad intentions. It’s a survival mechanism, not a conscious act.
It’s OK when children do it, and it’s OK when parents do it. In fact, if your children do it, you’ve prepared them well to survive in the world. I would be worried otherwise.
Teach your kids conscious manipulation
If your children understand that it’s their “job” to manipulate the world around them, and shape it to their advantage, they can understand why they do what they do. Instead of operating on instinct, they can manipulate their world better by making active choices.
Everything we do in life is meant to support us and help us improve our position in some way. Having high emotional intelligence means recognizing our feelings and managing them. Successfully manipulating the world to manage our emotions better proves we have high emotional intelligence.
If we can support ourselves and manipulate well, great! That means we can fulfill our own needs. But if we don’t know how to do it effectively, people start to see our manipulation for what it is. And no one likes to feel manipulated.
Manipulation isn’t bad. It’s normal. We just have to do it well. I tell all the parents I coach, “You do it anyway, so you might as well be good at it”.
Manipulating without force
Manipulation is good when we do it intentionally, and we don’t hurt people in the process. Think of it like overtaking other cars on the road.
You’re driving a car and you want to overtake to improve your position. You’re going to manipulate the car and the way you drive so you can be in a different position than the one you’re in now.
You can do it with respect to others, or you can do it abruptly and with force. You can do it with grace, or with aggression.
If you do it with respect, you’re considered a responsible driver. You look in the mirrors, adjust your speed, consider the other cars on the road, and then slide around the car that’s in your way. Everyone’s happy.
If you do it with force, you honk like crazy and sit on the other car’s tail until its driver feels pressured to move to the side to avoid a crash. You force the other car to move to suit your needs. Everyone’s upset.
In both scenarios, you manipulate your surroundings to suit your needs (getting to your destination faster, for example). One way gets you to your destination faster, while the other puts you and the other drivers (who are upset by your aggressive driving) in a worse position than you were before.
Your feelings can tell you if you’re manipulating well or not. If you do it in a calm and relaxed way, you’re doing it well. If you’re angry or upset, it means you’re using force. As soon as this happens, you’re not manipulating well and you’re losing. As simple as that.
Using force is a sign of weakness. If you weren’t weak, why would you need to use force? Strong, confident people behave gently and considerately towards others, because they know things will work out for them.
This is very especially important in parenting. Children have some form of trust in their parents. It’s a kind of emotional umbilical cord that gives them the belief that everything Mom and Dad do is for their advantage.
This confidence goes out the window when we do something out of weakness. It means that we can’t navigate the world to suit our needs, so we use force to reshape it. Kids get scared when this happens.
I’ve had many discussions with parents about my book Motivating Kids. They’ve asked, “How do you know if you’re motivating or pushing your kids?”
The answer is clear. If you support your kids in doing something they want, you’re motivating. If you support them in doing something you want, but they don’t, you’re pushing.
You’re manipulating in both cases. But motivating builds the relationship between you and your kids, while pushing damages their trust in you in one way or another.
Manipulation is part of the job description
Being a parent is not just about having children, providing for them, or making sure they don’t die. It’s about supporting them on their life journey.
Manipulation is a big part of a parent’s job description.
If you believe that being friendly improves your children’s position in life, your job is to manipulate them into thinking they’re friendly and to give them the tools to become friendly. Your job is to convince them that being friendly is a better position in life.
This is the same for all the things you want your kids to think, believe, or be able to do, and you should feel no guilt about it. Do it with pride.
For example, I want my children to be kind to themselves and others. So, I consciously manipulate them into thinking this attitude will improve their position in life.
Firstly, I manipulate my kids by being a role model. I’m kind to myself and to others, so that they will mirror me.
I manipulate them by rewarding them when they’re kind to themselves or to others. I thank them when they’re kind to me and say to them they must be proud of themselves when they act kindly. I help them connect their kindness to other people caring for them.
I encourage them to show kindness to others. I suggest they share their lunch or offer to give a helping hand.
I set a good example for my children and create opportunities for their kindness. I offer to drive their friends home from parties. I take them with me to charity events and community volunteering functions.
Everything we do to promote something in our children is manipulation. It’s a good and necessary thing to do.
Remember, you do it anyway, so you might as well do it well!