As adults, and parents, we are in a perpetual balancing act — a tug of war for time and focus — of competing bids for our attention. Our work, children, homes, mates, friends, non-nuclear families, and an unending list of ‘grown-up’ responsibilities related to the management of every aspect of civilized life, all continually jockey for position in our minds, hearts and hours — forever derailing our concentration.
Not so for our children. They live in a relative Eden. When they are not engaged with schoolwork, they are at play (notwithstanding the oppressive regime of the tiger mom). And when they want or require something from us — our permission, or lack denying it, or chauffeuring, or anything that enables them to do less, or none, of what they don’t like, while doing more, or all, of what they do — they are laser-focused on parsing our expressions, words and actions as they relate to whether or not they will get their way.
As such, they are master interpreters of our every tic, twitch or utterance. It’s safe to say that no one in our lives will ever pay as much attention to us as our children, while simultaneously protesting — or pretending to ignore — all of it, in a highly engineered act of subterfuge.
That’s because their job, as it exists, is to rattle our cages in a prolonged, eighteen-plus-year siege, gaining beachheads, then territory, and high ground, with every raid — an ever-intensifying campaign for independence, on their way to adult self-rule.
It is in their blood. In this manner, they are no different from any other creature in the animal kingdom. Their collective path from helplessness to independence is full of lessons, and increasing sovereignty.
I believe our children shape our behaviors more than we shape theirs.
Or, more accurately, that early in their lives we are forever defending against their onslaught, however well-cloaked, whereas later in life, when they incur battles of their own — finding themselves suddenly part of the resistance, at the hand of their own Lilliputians, or colleagues — they revisit the playbook we left them with, as a result of their experiences living under our roofs. Eventually, they receive our lessons. But while they live with us, they have the decided upper hand.
In an article on empoweringparents.com, subtitled My Kids Are Too Smart for Their Own Good, a licensed mental health counselor named Debbie Pincus cuts to the chase:
“When we step way back, we can see that our kids can only manipulate us because we allow their behavior to be effective. Children are human — they want to get their way. (Who doesn’t?) But they’ve learned over time and through using some typical behaviors such as emotional blackmail, lying, tantrums, shutting down, negotiating relentlessly, dividing and conquering or playing the victim that they can get what they seek. Voila — it works! The danger is when those behaviors become a way of life.”
Then she appeals to the other besieged parent readers:
Remember, though, that kids can only manipulate us if we permit them to. It takes two to tango, but only one to change this pattern.”
The reason I thought about this topic is that I have recently found myself thrust into a well established, ongoing parenting dynamic ten years in the making. Before then, I spent just four years as a married co-parent of one; followed by ten more as a part-time guardian (so far), sharing custody after her mother and I divorced. Until I remarried into a single-parent family with two young children, my paternal responsibilities took the form of one-on-one time with my daughter. This particular form of relationship, I learned, is about the most enviable version of all: part dad, part unbridled adult, and the relative joy of one-on-one negotiations. Even so, I have been totally outmatched by my manipulative child, who wears me like a ring on her finger; but still: peace and quiet mostly rule, when it is just the two of us.
So just a few years back, I moved in amid a well-oiled war of shifting alliances between mother, daughter and son. I quickly garnered nicknames, like “Not my father”, “You don’t get it”, “Where’s mommy”, and “If you’re going to butt in and contradict me, then you deal with them.” Often, one of these nicknames is punctuated with a SLAM! That would be my new son. In those instances, I usually worry about the doorframe, as much as anything. Architect to the core… But they are very particular epithets, generously lavished. In the two-plus years we have now co-habited, I have mostly nibbled around the edges of the killing field, because of my outsider, late-to-the-game status. But over time, I have gained my own beachhead, of sorts: a solid 10–20% of the time, my name reverts to Anthony, and a cease-fire takes hold, while I get my words out. Sometimes, they sink in, resulting in a détente. This usually takes at least a day. My new family processes their feelings slowly. Note to self. But for the most part, for the time being, I am still mostly ‘other’ — a fourth combatant no one understands how to protect against just yet, or fight. This is very different from my adult relationship with my wife. She is abundantly clear how and where I transgress, and what to do about it.
But that’s a post for another day.
Back to the kids. What I learned was that raising siblings is another story altogether. Gone is the one-on-one; gone is the quiet house. Gone is the illusion of targeted, unopposed appeals for reasonableness. Gone, mostly, is uninterrupted sleep. Gone are the nights when someone doesn’t do something that pushes bedtime out, or takes umbrage, or wakes us up in the middle of the night — as many times as it takes! — for a variety of reasons… all of which conspire to eviscerate both Deb’s and my time and patience. We even have a printed sign taped to the door now, listing every reason a knock will be tolerated, in lieu of a medieval reaction, during the hours I used to refer to as ‘adult time’.
Funny how wistful one can get in its absence.
More to the point of what happens when we double the child count, which mathematically correlates to a tenfold increase in household decibels, I cannot remember enjoying fifteen minutes of wakefulness at home when the quiet wasn’t pierced with one of the children screaming bloody murder at the other. This is when we see the little masters at work. Without fail, Deb or I — or both — drop whatever we’re doing, run into the fray to see what precipitated this particular battle, and get parental. (Such a dirty word.) Like clockwork, we react. Our voices, too, raise an octave, and double in volume. We make quick judgments about which one to scold, telling them to stop, issue threats, or demand compliance, and in doing all of it, we immediately find ourselves fighting a proxy war: advanced infantry for the other child. We yell; we punish; we insert ourselves into something that has nothing to do with us, except that we are the unwitting instruments of quasi-pubescent demons. Our marionette strings are pulled this way and that, as we pivot and dance, regurgitating one form or another of well-hashed assistance for the eventual child victor.
Of course they don’t listen. Of course they reflect, “There he/she goes again.” Of course they think “Gotcha!” And of course they pause, momentarily, while they look us dead in the eye and lie to our faces, telling us with convincing gusto that they understand what they did wrong, their voices temporarily lowered, like firearms in a cease-fire, until we are firmly out of sight, at which point the war resumes, right where it left off.
How the hell do they produce such convincing tears, on demand; then ‘zupp’ them back up as soon as we turn away, or as soon as they emerge, victorious?
Why the hell we even open our mouths, I have no idea.
Then, the excuses start: “But he was in my room.” “But she locked the door on me, again.” “But it was my turn at blah blah blah.” “No, I want to sit next to mommy.” “But I never get to ‘x’, and he always does.” “But I didn’t even touch her. I have no idea why she’s saying that.” “But I hate that kind of food.” (This last one is usually reserved for when one chooses our dinner menu, and the other, who on any other day is perfectly happy with the vittles, decides that they suddenly hate it, or won’t eat it, because it wasn’t MY choice.) Mealtime, it should be said, is a set of impossible, non-overlapping dietary orders, 99% of which fall on Deb to resolve. As I said, I often nibble around the edges, staying away from the thick of it. I know this doesn’t exactly reflect well on me. Maybe that’s what really happened to our adult time…
Parenting, sadly, is the world’s most effective contraceptive.
We are like circus monkeys, trained within an inch of our lives, while our children abuse every insight they have — and there are many — about how we will react to any given input, to their advantage. If they had the words and adequate prefrontal cortex development, they could diagnose their parents better than any PhD. My own brother put it best, just before exiting his own childhood, when he wrote my mother a letter that pledged, “I promise to do my best to continue pushing each and every one of your buttons, in the spirit of your personal growth.”
Indeed, Jordan. We all think it. You were simply the one child to come clean.
When we interact with our children, there are two things we need to realize. First, we are predictable, and our children know this. In fact, they know it far better than we do, because each of us has a blind spot when it comes to our own behavior. When we yell, they know we are going to yell. They know this before they do whatever it is that they know will elicit our anger — what will cultivate it. The reasons they want it that way are many. They can aim us at their perceived enemy — usually a sibling — as a proxy warrior. They can get us to lose our cool, knowing we will apologize later, as adults do, and then likely lavish them with some compensatory ‘I’m sorry’, like ice cream, a late bedtime, or extra snuggles. They can do it in order to wear us down, to the point where we capitulate, with a “Whatever. I don’t care anymore.” There’s a cringe-worthily accurate book for that: Go the F*ck To Sleep. And of course, they are experts in reconnaissance, examining our every psychological nook and cranny — every limit, or edge — in an advanced probe, for future use, or exploitation.
And that’s just for yelling. Every behavior we exhibit — rewards, admonishment, punishment, and decisions regarding food, technology, sugar, friends, vacations, chores, bedtime, their siblings, their school… all of it — is researched and catalogued to seed life lessons, and super-charge their attempts to bend us to their well.
I know I’m presenting this like warfare. In a way, it is. It’s warfare the way war games are played by governments: safe, but instructive nonetheless.
Want proof that we are manipulated? No matter how well intended we are, or how insistent we are that this time, we won’t lose our sh*t, we do. We nearly always do. The only hope we have of winning is by teaming up with a co-parent and avoiding the classic trap of breaking total alignment. This is one of the core benefits of being a relatively recent arrival in my new children’s lives: they’re not quite sure where my edges are yet, or how exactly their mother and I will co-parent them on any particular topic. Often, Deb and I succeed in countering their attack. At the same time, I’m not kidding myself in thinking that it’ll be that way forever.
They’re smart little f*ckers.
Still, if I wanted anyone on my side here, it’d be Deb. She’s a master tactician, even if the same things we all do, when it comes to child rearing, trip her up, as well. She and I are smart enough that on occasion, we can employ a new tactic, and find the gap in our kids’ phalanx, forcing our way through and leaving them confused as to how we just made them break ranks. Sometimes, this leads to a period of adjustment on their part, affording us precious minutes of auditory reprieve, and on occasion, even some adult time.
Second, we cannot teach them anything by telling them how they need to act. The only effective way I know to reach them — and there’s no guarantee this works, at all — is by being close to how we wish them to act, consistently enough that when we do lose our cool, or act in a manner that’s inconsistent with our messaging, it’s perceived as an aberration, not as fodder for manipulation, or worse, normalization, and emulation. Just as we are ever under their watchful eye for purposes of dominion, they are constantly dissecting our behaviors in order to determine who we are, how much of it they like, or appreciate, and whether or not they should do as we do, or the opposite.
The stakes are extremely high.
As I wrote on June 5, “If we are smokers, there is a 300% increase in likelihood that our children will try smoking, and a 200% increase that they will become nicotine-dependent. Moreover, one third of children who are abused in childhood will themselves become abusers, in adulthood, tragically. When the ‘adult in the room’ is flaunting the social contract, they are sending a clear message that this is what is to be expected and accepted. Except that they are adding, “Do as I say, not as I do.”
“As a parent of three children, I will tell you that the ‘Do as I say’ strategy has never worked. ‘Where do you think I learned it?’ is a too-frequent response in my house. Usually, it’s the sentence that makes me consider my own actions, and the example I’m setting. And the science about smoking and child abuse, among other less catastrophic but equally telling data points, support that conclusion.”
Since I arrived in my new kids’ lives, I have had one very visible impact on them. They now swear like sailors. When I met them, they were polite little children. Now, all of a sudden, they’re truck drivers. All manner of expletives roll off their tongues regularly, in spite of my wide-eyed admonition thereof. “But you do it,” is all they need to say, for me to retreat into my shell, promising myself hollowly that I’ll do better next time.
There may be a few good things, too. There’s lots of talk about architecture and art these days — professions and hobbies that never really played into my wife’s family story. My love of building things and gardening are now shared activities, to a degree. And for the first time in their lives, in good times and bad, they now have two parents to watch, dissect, and learn from.
So here’s the dirty little secret: beyond playing us like marionettes, beyond dismantling our complexity and rewiring us the way they want us to be, the final way our children train — or teach — us is by making us better people. I know we lose our cool too often. I know we say things we wish we hadn’t, and aren’t perfect. Far from it. I know we can’t always ‘act the part’, because we, too, need to drop our guards sometimes at home, and be our messy selves. But that’s the point: who we really are is what will invariably come to light. And with children watching constantly, we need to monitor our behaviors, because they will find our buttons and push them ’til they jam; they will figure us out while we remain blissfully ignorant of who we really are, in action, not our heads; and they will turn out more than a little bit like us. And because of it, we are forced to choose whether to phone it in, or be the best people we can be, more often than we’d like, or have the energy for; because we are being watched; and the consequences are dire.
And so we suck it up; we continue trying, even when we are tired, or fed up, or need some nurture of our own. As Deb said on Sunday, when I had just tried a shock-and-awe tactic on our son, in order to illustrate the pain he had just unwittingly inflicted — on me — “Don’t expect a thank you for the next 20 years.”
But do it we do, because while they’re better at pushing our buttons than anyone, or at playing us against one another—and their siblings—they’re also awesome little f*ckers. And they’re worth it.
Play on, sensei. Teach me how to be a better father… I’m all ears. And yes, you can have a second dessert.