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Can Babies and Toddlers Manipulate Their Parents?

08/06/2016 16:30 | Updated 08 June 2016

"If you always pick him up when he cries he'll soon have you wrapped around his little finger".

"You have to ignore, or punish her tantrums, otherwise she'll learn to control you and think she can get anything she wants if she behaves like it in future".

Much of today's parenting advice focusses on the idea that children, right from birth, manipulate their parents. The advice encourages parents to keep control and never allow their children to 'get their own way'. It is a combative approach which not only believes children to effectively be the enemy, but also ones capable of scheming and plotting from the day they are born. The manipulation paranoia stems from an age of parenting with the belief that the power of any situation should always be with the adult and that children should respect their elders, but do not deserve the same back.

The dictionary definition of manipulate is as follows:

"control or influence (a person or situation) cleverly or unscrupulously."

The idea of children manipulating their parents via their behaviour, be that crying at night, or tantruming during the day, implies that not only are the children capable of such schemes, but that they also possess a degree of machiavellianism. In reality neither is true.

In order to manipulate their parents, babies, toddlers and even older children need the following skills:

  • Hypothetical Thinking
  • Critical and Rational Thinking
  • Empathy
  • Impulse Control

These cognitive skills lie in the domain of the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is one that is responsible for high functioning abilities. This area of the brain is what differentiates us from our mammalian cousins. This area of the brain is the very last to develop. Scientists believe that the final development of the prefrontal cortex does not occur until the child enters their twenties, or even until twenty five years of age.

Knowing this, it becomes blatantly clear that babies and toddlers are incapable of the complex thought processes that are necessary for manipulating the behaviour of others. In a sense those scared of creating demanding, manipulative little monsters are giving far more credit to young children than they deserve.

There is no possibility that a baby, laying alone in his cot at night, chooses to cry because he decides that he would rather be in the arms of his parent, even though he is perfectly fine where he is. This plotting and scheming would require the baby to plan and think through several responses that the parent may have. It requires him to indeed control his own behaviour too. For this all too happen we would be witnessing the birth of some sort of superhuman genius baby. Rather what is happening is the baby is crying because he cannot control his dominant response to fear and isolation, which is to cry. He cannot think hypothetically or critically. He cannot understand that he is in no danger despite the 'fight or flight' response occurring in his body. He cries because the primitive abilities of his brain allow him to do nothing else.

Similarly there is no possibility that a toddler, full of overwhelming emotions: sadness, anger, grief and fear, has chosen to tantrum on the floor of a supermarket because she wishes to embarrass her parent into buying her a chocolate bar. This manipulation would require far more sophisticated brain development than she has. All she knows at this present time is that her little body is full of adrenaline and she is scared, sad, mad and out of control. Can you imagine how scary it must be to lose control of yourself? And then to be ignored or punished by your parent? Why would she possibly choose to do that? Her brain is far too underdeveloped to plot and plan what outcomes her actions may have, even if she could do this the 'fight or flight' response her body is experiencing prohibits her from thinking so clearly. She tantrums because she is incapable of controlling her emotions, nothing else.

Believing that babies and young children can and do manipulate us predisposes to parent as two teams. Us against them. It predisposes us to punish and ignore, rather than connect and understand. Ironically this 'us and them' attitude and ignorance of a child's true needs is far more likely to create a manipulative child in the future. If we raise our children to know that their needs will be met, they will have no need to manipulate us in the future. If a baby cries, they need to be picked up, if a toddler tantrums they need us to calm them. The only thing we create when we respond is trust, and trust and manipulation are two very different things.

Sarah Ockwell-Smith is a mother of four and parenting author, her books include the bestselling 'The Gentle Sleep Book' and the recent release 'The Gentle Parenting Book'. She blogs at www.sarahockwell-smith.com

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