“You don’t love me! If you did, you’d let me stay up and watch TV.”

This blatant attempt at manipulation will be familiar to parents. The lack of subtlety indicates that the child knows she hasn’t a chance. But the remark will still hit home, and many parents will react angrily.

Such maneuvers are quite normal within the parent-child relationship, and not all that insidious, unless parents overreact.

Parents should remember that they, too, try to influence their children’s behavior — with rewards, praise, bribes and threats. Children soon learn to model themselves on their parents.

During research at a child-care center, we noticed that 4-month-old babies never became very invested in the caregivers or in play. They smiled and vocalized politely to the caregiver when she talked to them, but they rarely wiggled as they talked. We realized they were conserving their emotional energy.

However, when the mothers (or, in some cases, the fathers) came to get their babies at the end of the workday, each baby looked at her parent hungrily for the first few seconds and immediately started wailing.

She would sob uncontrollably until her mother picked her up. When she got into her mother’s arms, she’d squirm as if she were uncomfortable and turn her head away when her mother tried to kiss her. Each mother said the same thing: “She’s angry that I left her all day.”

Sensitive and sophisticated caregivers point out to mothers that their babies have saved up their strong feelings. Now that they feel safe and loved, they can dare to let these feelings out.

The babies could feel the strong emotions they were generating. Babies and small children need to explore the limits of their power: “Can I get away with this — or not? How far can I go? Look how red in the face she gets when I tell her I don’t want to wash my hands. Will Daddy get angry every time he comes home and finds my shoes in the front hall?”

Such teasing is a way of testing the strength and importance of each parental expectation.

Children also manipulate parents into struggles with each other. Thus they test who’s boss and where to go for indulgence.

“Mommy said I could. Why don’t you? Why is she so nice and you’re so mean?”

If the result of this test is an argument between the parents, and the stricter one is not backed up, a lesson has been learned. The child has discovered that her parents would rather fight than back each other’s decisions. She realizes she can often get her own way if she ignites a disagreement.

A child tests her powers in almost every part of her day. At bedtime, routines about another glass of water or “I’ve got to go to the bathroom again” are not very convincing, but they can serve the purpose of prolonging bedtime.

What is accomplished by such maneuvers? They represent a necessary exploration, on the part of both parent and child, into the limits of each other’s power. When I ask parents why they don’t put a stop to the endless bedtime dramas, some admit that they hate to end the day, to give up the child to sleep.

Unconsciously, each is dodging the pain of separation, fearful of the future, when even greater separations will be necessary. It seems so long ago that my own children called for one more glass of water. I miss it even now.

When we as parents manipulate, we risk undermining trust, which detracts from the child’s ability to live up to the situation. When parents are direct and honest in their expectations for a child, she has the experience of being trusted and empowered. A child can then make her own choice and realize the reward of achievement when she lives up to it. At the same time, parents are modeling for the child an alternative to emotional manipulation.


• Before problems arise, discuss the issues. Openly present the choices and the way you’d like the child to behave.

• Respect her capacity to make the choices you offer. Gear them to her age and ability to maintain control.

• Remember that provocative behavior is the child’s way of testing parents and learning limits.

• Examine your own tolerance for the child’s misbehavior. Perhaps certain activities make you overreact.

• When possible, help her see that your requirements are in everyone’s best interest. This gives you both a sense of communicating with each other, and helps prevent power struggles.

• If you want a child to do something, never ask, “Will you?” Instead, say, “Now it’s time.”

• Praise her after cooperation is achieved.

Questions or comments should be addressed to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and Dr. Joshua Sparrow, care of The New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th Floor, New York, NY 10018. Questions may also be sent by email to: [email protected]