Saturday, November 15, 2014

What if a child is manipulative?

When compliance becomes an adult's ultimate goal with children, we will resort to, and justify, manipulation, which includes rewards, punishments, carrots, sticks, bribes and threats.

So what's the problem?

Show me a child who manipulates others, and I will show you a child who has grown up being manipulated.

Not only does the end not justify the means, but a well intentioned, but misdirected, means can ruin the end.

Here's what I mean.

Many years ago, I made a conscious decision to try and abolish rewards and punishments from my teaching and parenting tool box. (Here are all of my posts on rethinking discipline)

The inspiration for this move came from being a miserable teacher, looking for change. When I read Alfie Kohn's book The Schools Children Deserve, I came across a quote that would re-shape my mindset for working with children. The quote belongs to Jerome Bruner, but it has become my teaching and parenting mantra:
"Children should experience their successes and failures not as reward and punishment but as information."
There are many profound reasons to adopt such a mindset, but here's one of my favourite.

When my students or son and daughter try and manipulate me with bribes and threats or rewards and punishments to get me to do whatever they want me to do, I can turn to them and honestly say, "I don't use rewards and punishments on you, so don't you bribe and threaten me."

When I call children on their attempts to manipulate me, I don't get into power struggles or arguments because they know I don't use manipulation to get them to do what I want. They know that I don't do things to them to get what I want -- I work with them. I inspire them. I don't manipulate them.

So when they try and manipulate me, I have the best argument for rejecting their manipulation.

I don't manipulate them, so I won't tolerate them manipulating me.

And they know it.


  1. Dear Mr. Bower,
    My name is Heather Howton, and I am a student in EDM310 at the University of South Alabama. This post really spoke to me this week. I am going to be a high school English teacher, and I have had people ask me how I will get my students to respect me. I honestly was not sure. This makes so much sense! I never thought of rewards and punishments as manipulation, just as reinforcement; however, I can clearly see now that it is. I do not ever want to manipulate my students, and I feel as if this approach will keep a mutual respect between us. Thank you so much for this great post!
    --Heather Howton

  2. Mr. Bower, my name is Aimee Perkins and I also am a student in EDM310 at the University of South Alabama. I plan on teaching elementary students and currently my 8 year old nephew lives at my house with me. He has a bad habit of manipulating my sister to get what he wants and it works almost every time. It's my sisters own fault because she does the same thing to him which is a problem. Seeing that really makes me want to adopt your method in my future classrooms because we all know how manipulative kids can be.
    Aimee Perkins

  3. Hello, my name is Heather Trawick. I enjoyed reading your post but I do want to disagree a little, because I think sometimes there is nothing wrong with giving kids rewards for doing things right. It can be a inspiration to them to do better. But on the other hand I would not want to be manipulated either by children in a classroom. That should not be a way of learning, by bribing them to do something. I do believe that they are only doing what they are being taught at home or what they are seeing. This is there way of getting things at home so they think it should work at school too... Wrong! But anyway I liked reading your post because it opened my eyes a little because there is always another way of approaching children when trying to get them to do things.
    Heather Trawick

  4. Love your mantra BTW.... The word "manipulation", especially when looking at the definition, is hard for me to include in the same sentence when speaking or referring to children. Is it really that? Or is it as seen by adults. Or is it more simply put a child trying to survive in the world as he/she sees/perceives it to be? Learned behaviour will of course have something to do with that world. Rewards - think about it no adult (unless volunteering of course) is going to work without receiving compensation. Hmmmm - so let's re-think "rewards" in how you present them. Punishment - Just look at our penal systems - we don't want to go there and do they actually work?? Respect - is earned. Both ways. No adult should expect respect if not willing to give it. Becoming an adult is not an entitlement to respect - we have to earn respect too, something sometimes lost when looking at children.


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