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Attitude Makeover: Manipulative

Antidote: Truthfulness, Integrity, Trustworthiness
"If you give it to me, I'll be your best friend!"
Dear Dr. Borba,
We have an absolutely charming eleven year old. He's intelligent, good looking, and a fabulous athlete. Our concern is that he's so darn manipulative about trying to get his way. Every issue turns into a battle of wits, and it's us against him: he twists our words, pretends he's helpless, blames others, and basically wears us down until he wins. He's so good at coming up with excuses that we can't figure out when he's telling the truth. We're beginning to feel as if we're on one of those reality survival shows, and we're losing! Any tips?

– Manuel B., a father from Phoenix, Arizona

"Dad said I could." "The teacher didn't tell me." "You don't love me." "I promise I'll do it tomorrow." "My stomach hurts: I can't go to school." Manipulative kids have only one objective: to get things to go their way. And they will stop at almost nothing to maintain their candidacy in the Big Brat Factor Hall of Fame. Excusing, blaming, fibbing, threatening, and guilt tripping are just a few of the devices they resort to. And can they wear you out!

But what's really going on here? Are these manipulative critters just young psychopaths in the making? At times you may think so. But do keep in mind one key point: these kids were not born scheming, plotting, lying, and strategizing. They learned those devices as ways to get what they want. And once their ploy succeeds, look out! It is stored in their growing arsenal of manipulative tactics with almost one certain guarantee: it will be used again . . . and again . . . and again – but only, only, only if you allow it to.

Learning the craft of manipulation is never acquired overnight, and a manipulator's tactics do not start out so cunning, sophisticated, and devious. In fact, first attempts are often quite crude and usually unintentional. They pretend to be sick, they claim to be helpless, or they hold out for some unreasonable reward – and much to their surprise, it works! Through trial and error, even the youngest cherub learns what buttons to push on each loved one and figures out who are the easy marks.

For instance, a three year old learns that meltdowns are amazingly effective in getting Mom to buy her a toy. A five year old quickly recognizes that affectionate embraces and sugarcoated charm work wonders to get Dad to say yes. A seven year old realizes that comments like "You don't love me" slung just at the right moment are fabulous for spinning Mom's parental guilt into acquiescence. They beg Dad to please, please, please do their science project, and what do you know, he does it. So their little fibs become bigger lies; off-the-cuff excuses turn into devious explanations; blame games become more elaborate; and the web of deception grows bigger and wider. Meanwhile, the kid becomes better skilled and proficient as a con artist. Ah, just what you always dreamed of raising.

In fact, let's give these kids some credit: manipulators are very ingenious at finding ways to get what they want. They alter rules to go their way, bend values to fit their schema, take advantage of situations to meet their needs, and depend on you or anyone else to take on their responsibilities. They can stop at nothing to make the world turn the way they want it to, and so they are also selfish, rude, and very self-centered.

These kids are difficult and tough to live with. They can turn your words into mush, exhaust you to tears, and make you wonder if there's an ounce of intelligence left in your head. They're that good in their manipulative ways! But letting them win is disastrous, and for a number of reasons. For starters, manipulative attitudes squelch kids' ability to manage life's ups and downs. That's because they take great pains to avoid whatever ails them (be it frustrations, fear, work, relationships). So instead of learning ways to cope, they take the easier path and shirk their troubles. Doing so stifles their potential for developing self-reliance, resilience, and self-esteem. Nor do devious, dishonest, scheming tactics enhance kids' ethical development. In fact, manipulative attitudes are absolutely lethal to a kid's character. Each deception rips a little more from their conscience and moral growth. Finally, there's the obvious: a manipulative kid can destroy family harmony, a parent's trust, and everyone's peace of mind.

Where is this behavior coming from? Start by looking at your own reaction to your child. You may have brought up your kid to depend on bribes, assume you'll jump in to do all the heavy lifting, blame everyone else when something goes wrong. He may also have observed your own manipulative behavior, like breaking promises to him or acting in an insincere or devious way yourself. Or he may have watched family friends and peers being manipulative at home, in school, or at work. Or it may even arise from his deep feelings of insecurity, distrust, shame, or fear of failure.

So stop being manipulated. In fact, what are you waiting for? Begin the campaign to replace this bad attitude with truthfulness, integrity, and trustworthiness. Start this makeover now.

Next: Diagnosis >>
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From Don't Give Me That Attitude by Michele Borba, Ed.D. Copyright © 2004 by Michele Borba. All rights reserved. Used by arrangement with John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Buy the book at www.amazon.com.


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