Children Of Today And Their Struggle For Power - Part I
In other articles I have often discussed how important it is for parents to examine their values and to transmit those values to their children by setting limits for them. Many parents begin with good intentions in this regard, only to find that children of today are very clever at negotiating, manipulating and wheedling their way out of those very limits. In the end, the children wind up behaving in the way they'd like, and the parents wind up bewildered and helpless, at a loss to explain how they ended up "giving in" once again.
One of the most common manipulative styles is the child who tugs at his parent's heartstrings after they've set a limit. The "heartstrings puller" is a child who, sure of his parents' love and aware of their need to be loved by him, will pull out all the emotional stops to get what he wants. Let me give you an example:
Teddy had gotten into the habit of playing Nintendo every afternoon after school, in spite of the fact that his parents wanted him to do his homework first. Initially, Teddy insisted that he'd adhere to a time limit with Nintendo and get his homework afterwards. Gradually, however, it was clear that homework was taking a back seat to the game playing. Teddy would delay homework as long as possible, then rush through it, making mistakes and ultimately handing in very sloppy work. His mother and father valued a good education and wanted Teddy to do his best, so they told him that unless he could adhere to the original time limit, they would take Nintendo away during the week. The following day, Teddy again procrastinated about his homework, and became overly absorbed in his Nintendo game. His parents, amid loud protests from Teddy, took the game away and hid it. Teddy was immediately contrite. His eyes filled with tears as he exclaimed "I'm so sorry. You were absolutely right to take the game away. I didn't adhere to the time limit, and it was all my fault. I'll never go against my word again." With that, he threw his arms around his parents, declaring "I love you. You still love me, right?" Well, his parents hearts melted on the spot! Digging the Nintendo back out of it's hiding place, they returned it to Teddy, reassuring him that they did indeed still love him, and wasn't he a good boy to have learned his lesson so quickly. While Teddy finished up his homework that night before playing Nintendo, the next day he was back to his old style of doing things once again.
Teddy's parents made a common mistake. Wanting to believe that young Teddy had learned his lesson, and feeling concerned that he might think they didn't love him, they took back his consequence too soon. Rather than Teddy having to earn the right to play Nintendo by taking responsibility for his homework, all he had to do was show remorse, act contrite, and tug a few heartstrings to get his privilege restored. Teddy learned a couple of things from this. First, he learned that his parents didn't value education enough to stick by their word. Second, Teddy learned that love is a bargaining tool, and a show of contriteness (sincere or not) allows you to take back your choices. Later, when the choices Teddy is making have consequences outside of his parents control (for example, if Teddy chooses to have unprotected sex or to do drugs) and should those choices have unpleasant consequences, Teddy is likely to adopt a victim role. He might wonder why these things "always happen to him," and why is it that he has the worst luck. He won't understand that feeling sorry about your choice doesn't save you from it's consequences.
It's important to understand that Teddy's parents are not "bad" parents. In fact, they're parents who clearly care about him, and want him to feel loved. They also want to give him the benefit of the doubt and believe that he's learned his lesson. These are good qualities for parents to have. I might suggest, however, a different way of handling it so that this "heartstrings puller" will still feel loved and trusted, and yet his parents will remain in charge and be able to communicate their values about education to him.
When Teddy began to tug at his parents heartstrings, it would be appropriate for them to believe that he's contrite about breaking the rules. They could communicate this to Teddy by saying something like "We love you too, Teddy, and we're glad you understand our point of view. We do value education, and want you to do your best." After saying this, there's no need for further discussion about Nintendo. Remember, the original limit was that if it interfered with his homework, he would only be able to play it on weekends. If Teddy tried to reengage his parents, requesting another chance and reiterating that he's learned his lesson, Mom and Dad should remain firm, and emphasize that it was Teddy's choice to break the rules, and therefore his choice to have Nintendo put away during the week. If he began to bargain with love again, maybe even claiming "You must not love me. If you did, you'd trust me. You'd know that I mean it and I'll never do it again" his parents could say "I'm sorry you're feeling unloved right now. We understand how hard it can be to live with the consequences of your choices. We're sure you'll find a way to make a choice that you feel better about next time."
If your child is a "heartstrings puller" like Teddy, remember too that children feel the most loved when their parents refuse to allow love to be a negotiation tool. Love isn't something you can bargain with, it's something that's ever present.