Young Children are Strategic, Not Manipulative (and not purposefully trying to drive you crazy!)

Three-year-old Cassie is pushing the limits around bedtime, demanding an increasing number of books and songs, and then calling out that she is hungry after her moms have said goodnight, which draws them right back in—bringing her food after lights out.  Cassie’s moms are concerned that things have gotten out of control– that Cassie is calling all the shots– but they don’t know how to turn it around. This morning, however, they realized they had to do something when Cassie woke up and announced to them, “I just want you to know, that tonight after you put me to bed, I am going to be reeeally hungry.

Children are driven to get what they want, and will use any tools at their disposal that help them reach their goal—they are not purposefully trying to drive you crazy. If throwing a tantrum results in extra iPad time, a later bedtime, or simply getting more of your attention, your toddler is putting 2 and 2 together, making an important assessment: “Excellent strategy! Put that one in the win column.” This is not manipulation, it is strategic. Your child has cleverly figured out the “system”, which means you are raising a really competent kid. He is assessing the situation and figuring out successful ways to get what he wants, which is a skill that will serve him well in life. It is our job as the adults helping to shape children’s development in positive ways to teach them which strategies are effective and which aren’t (which is why you don’t want tantrums to be successful as then they become a useful tactic that they continue to rely on.)

And keep in mind that you can’t actually make your child do anything—eat, sleep, pee, poop, or stop having a tantrum. What you do have control over is how you respond to your child, which is what guides and shapes her behavior.  In the case of Cassie above, her moms established a clear, consistent and loving routine that they stuck to, confident that even if Cassie didn’t like it, it was good for her. (That’s why kids have parents—because we do know better!) This routine included offering a small, healthy snack during book-reading time, which they made clear was the last chance for food until breakfast. Naturally, Cassie tested this limit; on the first night of the new plan, she refused the snack, saying she wasn’t hungry, but then cried out that she was starving just 10 minutes later, after her moms had said goodnight. When her parents stood firm, she ultimately adapted, accepting the book-time snack and no more demanding food after lights-out.