I have recently come to a realisation, which as it happens I inadvertantly touched upon, tangentially, in my taggy post yesterday.

Introductory remarks

Small children frequently do or try or want something that is not allowed – and they get told “No!” Opening the kitchen cupboards, for example, or climbing up the back of the sofa in order to plummet onto a marble floor, or reaching for just one more chocolate Santa…

Small children, thus frustrated, understandably get upset about it.

They don’t necessarily understand why they are being thwarted because they cannot necessarily grasp an explaantion. How can they really understand how much it will hurt if they fall onto a marble floor from a great height, or why it would be a good idea to save just a teeny weeny bit of appetite for some vegetables later on? Sometimes they do not understand the reason beacuse nobody troubles to explain: the “Because I Said So” approach.

And if they don’t understand, they just feel thwarted and frustrated and angry and upset. They cry. Sometimes they wail. It’s just not fair, and I’m so sad and cross.

It is very easy to interpret this wailing over seemingly trivial frustrations as an attempt at manipulation. The sophisticated intelligence of an older person can easily see the logic of doing something unpleasant and/or putting on a show of inordinate distress in order to try and get the authority-figure to “give in” and change their mind, to let you do whatever it was you wanted to do.

But small children do not have this sophistication.

If nobody has ever changed their mind just because you wailed, why would you think that the particular person you are wailing at now will change her mind just because you are wailing? How could it occur to you to “use” false wailing as a “tactic” to achieve an end that you have never seen wailing achieve, even when it is real wailing? Manipulation is a learned behaviour, learned from seeing that it works. If a small, unsophisticated mind has never seen a big authority-figure mind changed by wailing (real or faked) it would never in a million years occur to that small person to put on false wailing purely as a manipulation tactic.

Small children are not manipulative until they have learned this behaviour.

How should we respond to the frustrated, wailing child? Well that’s something we all have to work out for ourselves. This post was not intended to be a discussion of how we should respond, but of the responses to avoid.

Personally, when Ariel is wailing with frustration, I try to comfort her, to explain if possible, to distract her if possible and generally to cheer her up without having to “give in” and go back on the decision that provoked the wailing. If it becomes obvious that my original decision was wrong, I try to at least change it in a subtle enough way that Ariel won’t catch on to the fact that her strongly negative reaction swayed my actions in any way. If I absolutely have to openly change my original decision, then I apologise, explaining why I got it wrong in the first place, and what if anything she can do differently in future to stop me making the same mistake next time – pretty advanced stuff for little Ariel but sometimes she seems to understand!

(But, as I said, this is not what I really wanted to talk about today…!)

Getting to the point

I believe pretty strongly in not allowing the wailing to change the original decision. That is the one sure way to teach a child the art of manipulation, in my view – I try to keep “giving in” as an emergency measure for when I really have to do it, and I try to remember to explain that I have changed my mind for some reason wholly unrelated to the wailing.

Just as I believe “giving in” to the wailing is a risky tactic, I think there is another one which is less obviously damaging. The other tactic I really, really want to avoid is that of ignoring the child, or telling her off, when she cries about being told “no”.

It is VERY easy to react by ignoring / telling off, if you think the crying is caused by manipulation.

But once you realise that the child is NOT being manipulative, and that she is only expressing how she feels on being thwarted, then it becomes not only much easier to respond in a loving way but also much more obvious that an authoritarian response is likely to be harmful.

Imagine being told: NO you cannot have that thing you dearly want more than anything in the world; NO I’m not going to even try and tell you why you cannot have it, you just have to accept my word without question or justification; SHUT UP whinging, you should not even be unhappy about this because my word is law and you must be happy to obey my whims; and you cannot expect any sympathy or comfort if you are stupid / wrong enough not to like what I say.

That’s going to suck even once you are an adult. But imagine the effect it will have, especially if it is repeated day-in-day-out, by one or both of the two most important people in your life, on the impressionable heart and mind of a small child who is not even two years old. Constantly frustrated, and not even allowed to express how upset you feel about that, totally alone with these huge, scary emotions that you can neither understand nor deal with.

Maybe, if it happened to you, you would build a coping strategy around locking up your emotions, cutting off connections, and using total self-control as a weapon. You might learn to wear a mask of outward balance in order to cover up the seething mass of Undealtwith Nasty Stuff inside: that Undealtwith Nasty Stuff is bad, wrong and stupid, so let’s all pretend it isn’t there. Right?

Maybe, if it happened to you, you would find yourself writing – a quarter of a century later – something like this:

One knock, one trip, one slip, one little push of the right little button and my equilibrium can be just – gone. The lid comes off and there’s some seriously nasty stuff in there. Keep the lid on, keep practising, keep a straight face. Maybe nobody will see what’s really inside.

My dad is pretty amazing and wonderful in so many ways that I cannot count them, but like everyone else, he is imperfect. And when I saw him responding to Ariel’s “tantrums” by raising his voice and telling her not to be manipulative and that “No Means No”… and silently disapproving when I comforted her… it gave me an insight into my own childhood and the effect it has had on me. And now that I acknowledge that insight, I start to heal. I stop blaming myself.

Even the best parents can screw you up. There is no way that we can not screw our children up. All we can do, I think, is to learn what we can, as quickly as we can, and to act on it as best we can. And to face what has gone wrong in our own lives.