Are children manipulating adults when they ask for help?
In a wonderful Facebook conversation, a fellow writer, or as she describes herself, an information and peace-seeking mom, pointed me to a blog post written by another mom. It is titled “Please Don’t Help My Kids.”
In the blog post, the mother (not the friend that I mention above) writes this:
Please do not lift my daughters to the top of the ladder, especially after you’ve just heard me tell them I wasn’t going to do it for them and encourage them to try it themselves.
I am not sitting here, 15 whole feet away from my kids, because I am too lazy to get up. I am sitting here because I didn’t bring them to the park so they could learn how to manipulate others into doing the hard work for them. I brought them here so they could learn to do it themselves.
I was struck by the language in the post about kids “learning to manipulate others into doing the hard work for them.”
Manipulation is commonly associated with children in our culture.
If a child is struggling with her feelings, she is throwing a “temper tantrum” to manipulate others into doing what she wants them to do. If a child is doing his best to communicate, but it sounds to an adult as though he is “whining,” the child is manipulating to get his way.
Ask a simple question, get a simple answer
What was written in the blog post reminded me of a poignant, but brief, conversation I had with one of the children in my life.
Feeling frustration rising up within me one evening about being asked to pick up a plate, bring food, get a drink, or cook something…multiple times, I remember stopping myself and doing some deep breathing.
I was breathing deep because I realized in that moment that some days I absolutely love to do things for the children in my life. Other days, I am quite annoyed.
“Why is that?” I asked myself.
Well, I didn’t come up with the answer in that moment.
But the answer that came to me just a few minutes later changed my entire perspective about what it means to ask for help and receive it.
After finishing my round of deep breathing, I realized I had no idea why a child would ask me to do something that they could do themself.
Any reason I might come up with would just be conjecture.
So instead of making up some reason, or labeling him “manipulative” and “lazy,” I decided to simply ask.
And the answer they gave me bowled me over with its simplicity and purity.
“Mom, I feel loved when you bring me food or take my plate when I’m done. It feels special.”
His answer hit me like a bolt of lighting.
Even now as I write this, I am taken back to how I felt that night when he said this.
“Yes!” I thought to myself. I’ve felt this too. When someone cooks me a special meal or goes out of their way to do something for me, it feels loving and special.
I was still wearing cultural blinders that allowed me to accept that children are “lazy.” When a child can do something, shouldn’t I push him or her to do it?
Even though I had challenged myself around this idea, it still had some hold over the ways I interpreted a child’s behavior. I had to admit that I still believed that children are manipulators, even just a little bit.
Asking for what you want
The other challenge is that in our mainstream culture, children are discouraged, even punished, for asking for what they want or need. They are called selfish or ungrateful if they express a desire that is not deemed appropriate by the adults around them. They are supposed to do what they are told and not argue about it.
When children are punished for bothering adults or asking for help, they might learn self-reliance. But they might also learn that their needs are not important.
We carry this belief into adulthood and are afraid to be open about what we need and want.
Instead of asking for what we need or want, we push those needs down because we don’t want to risk bothering someone.
Instead of expressing our desires or preferences, we might defer to others because we learned that what we needed or wanted wasn’t important.
Would you say this about an adult friend?
Another aspect of this belief that children are manipulative when they ask for help is that we rarely refer to adults this way.
Yes, we might have one or two adults in our lives that use manipulation to get what they need. Perhaps they learned to do this because no one took their needs seriously as children.
But the truth is, there are some days when I am perfectly capable of doing something, but, I may be feeling overwhelmed.
Perhaps the task that seemed easy yesterday feels incredibly daunting today. So I might ask for help to do something I could do myself. I’m not manipulating someone to do the hard work for me.
When a friend calls or e-mails needing help, I don’t assume she needs to learn a lesson on self-reliance or triumphing over adversity. I don’t refuse to help her because I know she can do it herself. And yet in our culture adults routinely do this to children.
It’s not about “do’s” and “don’ts”
I am not advocating for jumping in to help a child all the time. Some may assume what I write implies we should do everything for children. This isn’t about rules of behavior for adults. I am not saying “do this” or “don’t do that” as a parent.
It is about being willing to question how we frame a child’s behavior or request for help.
It is about realizing that how we see a child’s behavior is consciously and unconsciously influenced by our childhood experiences.
We learn about the world and create a world-view or frame-of-reference from the ways we were treated as children.
If the adults, the institutions, and the broader society around us constructed a view of children as manipulative, we carry that frame-of-reference into our current relationships with children.
We need to be willing to question what is considered natural and expected.
We need to question the belief that children are manipulative and adults must use their greater power to ensure children do not manipulate others to “do the hard work for them.”
We can choose to see children through a different lens
This can be a lens of openness, trust, and respect.
We can ask questions instead of assuming we know the answers about why they do something.
We can unlearn what we learned about children so that the children in our lives aren’t forced to live in a frame-of-reference that comes from our childhoods.
If we are willing to set aside our assumptions, we might find answers that teach us much more than we thought we knew about the children in our lives.
We might also find that we are more willing to accept our own needs as legitimate and begin to treat ourselves with the respect and trust we didn’t get in childhood.