Are Young Children Capable of Manipulating Us?

A parent asked me if young children are capable of manipulating us.  And if a toddler really thinks that by having a tantrum, he/she can break the parent’s will.

This is such a good question. Sadly, many people, especially Christians, think children are very manipulative from birth on. The fact is infants 12 months and younger absolutely do not have the brain capability to manipulate us. As children get older, they can’t actually plan on manipulating us. It just happens in the moment.  It takes abstract cognitive ability to scheme against us; something children cannot do until adolescence.

No, toddlers are not thinking, “Hmmm…If I throw a fit, Mommy will let me have a cookie.” Rather, it’s when they want a cookie and we say “After supper” that they may get upset and have a meltdown. If we give in to their meltdown, they’ll repeat a meltdown because it worked. But, toddlers are so in the moment that they’re not able to sit and plan a way to get us to do what they want.  And yes, they may want extra cuddles, more books read, and another drink of water at bedtime because they’re not quite ready to separate from us even if we co-sleep.  Very young children just love being with us.

It is very important for us to realize that the way we view children is how they will behave. Many Christians seem to view children as “sinners” and “manipulative.” For example, James Dobson calls children horrible degrading names in his books. This sets up an adversarial parent-child relationship. Yet, God calls children blessings in Psalm 127:3. I view children as little people in need of help, guidance, and discipline (teaching). When the focus is on cooperation instead of control, children cooperate. I’ve worked with some pretty difficult children and was able to get them to cooperate through positive discipline strategies such as modeling, child-proofing, validating feelings, fulfilling the child’s physical and emotional needs, setting realistic limits and boundaries, helping children comply, giving choices, and using natural and logical consequences with children. Children do better when we view them as God does.

Young school-aged children may have a bit more planning ability, but they tend to still be in the moment. They might ask Mom over Dad because Mom tends to be more agreeable, but I don’t believe they are capable of planning much in the future to manipulate.

I remember when I was in 3rd or 4th grade, I was all ready for school and my mom wheeled me out to the school bus.  Only there was a substitute bus driver who treated me like I was mentally disabled.  Well, I guess I was in no mood to deal with her that morning because I started crying and told my mom that my stomach hurt.  I got to stay home from school that day. It was totally unplanned by me.

Therefore, I’d say that it isn’t until between the ages of 10-12 that children actually set out to manipulate, lie, or sneak around unless they are punitively parented. Then, they do whatever it takes to stay out of trouble. Of course, every child is different.  Respectful parenting makes it less likely that our children will set out to manipulate us when they are truly capable of doing so.