How to talk so your kids will be manipulated

From the archives: Posted on 30th November, 1994

A poster wrote:

“One of the things that I have learned in parenting is that my needs are important, too. If my child won’t put her laundry away, then I just might not have the time or inclination to read her a story or help her set up an art project. If she doesn’t clear up after she makes a mess, we may clean up for her (and if we do, we may decide to put the stuff she wouldn’t clean up in deep storage for a while).”

I don’t look at these things as being coercive. I have needs, too. If she won’t shoulder her responsibility, then I either have to shoulder it or let the work pile up. Either way, there are natural consequences – some of them involving my feelings.

There are natural consequences, and I suppose that it is true that some of them might involve the parent’s feelings, but one has to remember that one’s feelings about a situation are very largely conditioned by what one thinks of it. For instance, you might think it natural to feel put upon if your child leaves her laundry about, yet if the child involves you in ten times as much work by being ill, you wouldn’t feel put upon. Sometimes it is merely a matter of one’s interpretation of the child.

Some feelings have nothing to do with your interpretation of the child. For instance, if the child destroys some work of yours, you will feel upset, regardless of whether you think the child is at fault or not. If the child becomes ill and is sick all over your work, obviously it is not the child’s fault, but you will still feel bad about losing the work.

The poster is saying that there are natural consequences, which may be so, but the statement that “I don’t look at these things as being coercive. I have needs, too.” is a non sequitur. It does not follow that if you have needs, what you do out of that need can’t be coercive. If you are in a court of law and you prove that you were acting out of an ineradicable human need, you’ll get off. That does not mean that the person you killed will be alive. He will still be dead. Similarly, when a parent acts out of ineradicable human need, it will still harm the child. But in any case, I don’t think that an ineradicable human need is likely to arise out of a bit of laundry piling up. That seems more to do with interpretation of the child’s behaviour.

“I’ve found that the Faber/Mazlish (How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk) ideas for dealing with children can be very effective.”

These books remind me very much of Rousseau in the moments in which he genuinely believes himself to be offering examples of “natural consequences” of a child’s actions: we in 1994 can see plainly that these “natural consequences” are no such thing. I suggest that the same will be true of the Faber/Mazlish books in years to come.

“Wow, you put all your laundry away all by yourself. I’m glad because now we have time for an extra story.”

This is one reason I loathed the How to Talk So Kids Will Listen books. Quite simply, the statement quoted here is a lie. This is horrible manipulation. In telling her child that there is time for an extra story, the author is pretending that her time is scheduled down to the nearest five minutes of each day. Schedules are not that tightly planned. Such an exercise might itself take several hours a day. What the author really means is that she chooses different priorities from her child’s wishes, with the intention of using operant conditioning to train her child to do that which she has already decided must be done.

“You sure got dressed quickly this morning. Now you have time to paint before lunch.”

Well in that case, the child would have even more time if she did not bother dressing at all, wouldn’t she? But that would not fit in with the Behaviourist plans of the authors of that book at all (despite its undoubted practicality for such a messy activity).

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1994, ‘How to talk so your kids will be manipulated’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/how-to-talk-so-your-kids-will-be-manipulated/