The Manipulative Child

E.W. Swihart Jr., M.D., & Patrick Cotter, Ph.D., The Manipulative Child: How to Regain Control and Raise Resilient, Resourceful, and Independent Kids (New York, New York: Bantam Books, 1998) 254 pages.


From the back cover: “Manipulation is the behavior kids learn when their parents are reluctant or afraid to say no. Although it may seem easier to give in, allowing manipulative behavior will have serious long-term effects on a child’s self-esteem and his or her ability to successfully meet life’s challenges.” Authors Swihart and Cotter offer principles and techniques designed to help parents raise well-adjusted kids.

Discussion questions

  • What implications do the ideas in this book have for working with adults?
  • In what ways are leaders manipulated by the people they lead? Can you think of specific examples?
  • What assumptions about people in a home group might make a leader vulnerable to manipulation?
  • What fears might make a leader vulnerable to manipulation?


  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Manipulation: A Clue to the Mystery of Failure
  • Chapter 2: What is Manipulation?
  • Chapter 3: The Critical Factor: Temperament
  • Chapter 4: Healthy Kids: A Pediatricians’ Perspective
  • Chapter 5: Independence and Dependence: Development
  • Chapter 6: Becoming Manipulation-Proof
  • Chapter 7: Shutting Down Manipulation
  • Chapter 8: Raising Children that Believe in Themselves
  • Epilogue: Schools and Other Places
  • Appendix A: Milestones of Adaptive Development
  • Appendix B: Parenting Styles
  • Appendix C: Quick Review: rules for Stop, Pause, and Redirect


Observation: “Highly manipulative children and teenagers seem inevitably to develop poor self-esteem.” (xi)

The goal of this book: to explore the relationship between manipulation and self esteem and how to help kids develop healthy self-esteem.

The authors say their background caring for kids (Swihart is a pediatrician, Cotter is a child Psychologist) uniquely qualifies them to write this book. They’ve noticed a growing number of problems with children from affluent, well-educated, middle class families. The central cause of the problem: “well meaning… people are raising children who’ve learned to adapt to life in a dependent fashion.” (xiii)

If you are a parent, the authors want to “guide you in teaching your children to become strong, resilient, independent adults, capable of generating their own self-esteem and adapting to life as they find it rather than asking life to adapt to them.” (xiii)

Chapter 1: Manipulation: A Clue to the Mystery of Failure 

American kids are in trouble and nobody knows why or what to do about it. Parents lack confidence in their parenting skills. Often plagued by fear and guilt, their timid approach to childrearing isn’t working. These difficulties have historical roots (for more detail, see A Nation of Victims, by Charles Sykes):

  1. Freudian fears of damaging a child’s psyche shifted the parenting focus FROM knowing the difference between right and wrong, developing character, working hard, etc. TO minimizing the possibility of doing psychological damage to children.
  2. During the last century, parents began looking more to “experts” for advice that to family/community.
  3. Antiauthoritarianism in the 50’s and 60’s also made parents less willing to impose their idea of right and wrong on kids.

Fear of “stressing” students is also present in our schools. This has spawned a therapeutic approach to behavioral problems that does not improve behavior. Meanwhile, no one will take responsibility for poor student behavior and performance. Parents blame teachers, teachers blame parents, and kids blame everyone but themselves. Superficial fixes (like smaller class sizes) won’t improve the situation.

Most parenting approaches emphasize protecting kids from reality and stress vs. helping them adapt through character development and learning.

Labels like learning disabled and ADHD, while valid in some instances, are used to often as an excuse for poor behavior/performance. Families should teach that everyone is responsible for themselves. Kids should attribute failure to two things: “insufficient effort or an unreasonable goal.” (18) They need to learn how to distinguish between the two. They also need to know that patience and persistence are needed to succeed in life.

The authors claim that many of the problems we’re seeing in our children’s lives are ultimately due to manipulation. “Virtually every child with problems we studied was using manipulation as their primary problem-solving mechanism.” (21) The authors also believe that the healthy children they serve have inherently non-manipulative characteristics.

Parents want to develop healthy self-esteem in their children, but…

  • Self-esteem is self-generated.
  • It requires effort to maintain and expand.
  • It can’t be given to someone.
  • It is learned by successfully overcoming difficulties, not by getting people to do what you want.
  • “The more children manipulate, the less able they are to develop enduring self-esteem.” (23)

Chapter 2: What is Manipulation?

“Manipulation is behavior that, through dishonesty, threat or subterfuge directed toward other persons, allows the manipulator to delay, avoid, or escape aversive or uncomfortable circumstances.” (62) The essence of manipulation is deception. This is rarely planned. It’s usually instinctive. Good manipulators can persuade the people around them to create a false reality that justifies under performance, lack of self control, etc. All this is to avoid the truth.

The authors use Applied Behavioral Analysis (a systematic process of studying and modifying observable behavior through a manipulation of the environment) to define and describe manipulation.

Key terms:

  • Appetitive stimulus: A pleasant or wanted event or stimulus that an individual will naturally try to approach. An appetitive stimulus increases the frequency of the behavior it follows.
  • Aversive stimuli: An event or stimulus that a person will usually avoid or escape from.
  • Reinforcement: An immediate response to a behavior that makes it more likely that the same behavior will occur in the future.
  • Positive reinforcement: Something that happens immediately following a behavior that is added. It could be any stimulus that, when presented following a behavior, increases the probability of that behavior. “Behavior learned and shaped by positive reinforcement is not very enduring; instead, it is very flexible and adaptable to situational change because the feedback changes.” (27)
  • Negative reinforcement: Something is subtracted from the system as an immediate result of a behavior. This often involves termination of an aversive stimulus following a behavior (e.g. cessation of shouting).
  • Punishment: A procedure for reducing undesired behavior through withdrawal of positive reinforcers or imposing aversive stimuli. Its effects don’t last if conditions are present where punishment is not likely to occur.
  • Escape and Avoidance: If someone experiences something unpleasant, they will learn to avoid situations where the unpleasant stimulus will occur again. It only takes a few negative experiences to start this behavior and this learned response may persist for years. We go to great lengths to avoid unpleasant situations. “Avoidance and escape responses are not rational and are not likely to be unlearned through reason.” (29)

Manipulative behavior is usually not positively reinforced. Escape and avoidance usually drive manipulative behavior.

“Successful” manipulation requires a manipulator and someone who cooperates with being manipulated.

Manipulators are aware of what their victim wants to avoid. They use this knowledge to get what they want.

“The manipulator has a keen awareness of what his target will avoid, and uses it as a ploy. Manipulation will not work if the person being manipulated will not avoid whatever the manipulator is trying to sidestep. Since the manipulator is also avoiding something, and will go to great lengths to succeed in his manipulation, the manipulative interaction is characterized by mutual avoidance.” (29)

“To manipulate, one must take advantage of another’s willingness to see things in a distorted fashion. To be manipulated, one must conveniently forget some of what one knows, believe blindly in a falsehood, or suspend one’s healthy skepticism.” (54)

Thinking the leads to manipulative behavior. False assumptions (in italics) that lead to being easily manipulated.
1. “Since manipulators work through others to control the situations they face, they avoid any situation in which their control is challenged.” (61) 1. The job of parents is to ensure the happiness of their children and protect them from the damaging effects of unpleasant emotions. Children are responsible to create their own happiness.
2. The goal of manipulative behavior is short term and rarely extends beyond the control of others. Manipulative interactions are guided by the expediency of the moment, not principles; they are opportunistic. 2. The job of parents is to provide material wealth and financial security for their children. This is true to some extent, but don’t substitute material goods for your love and attention. Don’t provide in this way without limits.
3. Self-esteem for the manipulator is subject to the cooperation of others. 3. Being worried about how your child makes you look in public.
  4. Unpleasant emotions are traumatic (possibly leading to malformed adults) and children should be always protected from experiencing these emotions.
  5. Working too much and feeling guilty about not spending enough time with your children.
  6. Doing drugs and drinking in excess. Obvious character flaws in your own life make you vulnerable when addressing the behavior of your children.
  7. Accepting popular explanations for your children’s poor behavior and shifting blame away from your child.

Outcomes of manipulation

  1. Manipulative interactions tend to maintain the status quo rather than serve a long-term goal.
  2. Independence is lost and dependence is strengthened in a manipulation.
  3. Manipulations can be justified, but the reasoning employed will not survive critical outside analysis.
  4. “Since manipulation is based on avoidance, the manipulator feels relief at the successful conclusion of his action.” (60)

Manipulation is often hard to detect. But there are indicators common to manipulative interactions:

  1. Mutual avoidance.
    • The person being manipulated may be avoiding embarrassment, an uncomfortable confrontation, perceived risk, loss of face, etc.
    • The manipulator may be avoiding anxiety associated with loss of control, hard work, etc.
  2. Long and loud protests.
  3. Self-deception is commonly present in both the manipulator and the manipulated.
  4. Controlling behavior.
  5. Keeping a scorecard of past offenses.
  6. Seeing the world in black and white (“Are you for me or against me?”).
  7. Threats, angry outbursts, and other crude forms of manipulation often follow a failed manipulation attempt. So do depression, drinking binges, substance abuse, etc.
  8. Confusion:
    • "If you can’t figure out what is going on, stop and examine the situation. When you’re arguing about nonsensical things, when the discussion is going nowhere, when you’re briefly baffled or buffaloed, think manipulation. The distortion of reality is a fundamental characteristic of a manipulation, confusion and bafflement the byproduct. A common way to handle this confusion is to suspect a ‘deeper problem’—something mysterious that only a competent, trained therapist can understand. Children are often referred to therapy on this pretext. Unfortunately, the outcome rarely justifies the trouble and expense. Worse, the therapist may actually concoct a fanciful and creative explanation for what’s going on, and others will uncritically buy into it, leaving the child saddled with a reason for misbehavior that removes any pressure to change." (48)
    • “Psychology, pop or professional, is rife with convenient explanations for inappropriate behavior that allow individuals to deny responsibility for their own mistakes, happiness or behavior.” (48)
  9. Asking “why, why, why?”
  10. Procrastination.
  11. Strong aversive statements… e.g. “I hate math.” “I hate Mr….”
  12. Being asked to keep a secret. Refuse to do this—tell them before they share their secret that you reserve the right to tell someone else if you deem it necessary.
  13. The creation of new values to fit the situation.

Beware: “Bright and learned manipulators are more difficult to discover and treat because of their subtlety and social sophistication.” (63)

Forms of manipulation:

The authors claim that people have various “manipulation styles” rooted in their temperament.

  1. Internal/External Untruth – lies you tell yourself to avoid something… e.g. “I can’t…,” I just don’t understand…,” etc.
  2. Shifting Responsibility and Blame.
    • “Misbehavior is typically impulsive, not planned or decided in advance, so asking a child WHY s/he did something only teaches the child to make up a plausible explanation [blame shift].” (35)
    • “Learning to accept responsibility for our actions and their consequences may be momentarily uncomfortable, but it is the essential step we must take to become self-directed—and nonmanipulative—in our lives.” (35)
    • Blame-shifting removes our chance to learn from our mistakes.
  3. Seduction and coercion.
    • Seduction: Offering something to the person being manipulated in exchange for favors. The offering may be sex, or behaving nicely, or promises to behave better, etc.
    • When seduction doesn’t work, manipulators often shift to anger/coercion (e.g. angry outbursts, violence, trying to elicit guilty feelings in the target, acting out in public, revealing private knowledge, threatening suicide, etc.).
    • Seductive/coercive manipulators can become trapped by their skill in seduction and coercion and often don’t find their way out until their life crashes.
  4. Changing the rules.
    • Some manipulators embrace and justify a flawed value system that allows them to do what they want.
  5. Open, planned dishonesty—lying to get what you want.
    • Those being manipulated cooperate with the manipulator by not challenging questions or seeking the true facts. Skepticism is your only defense against this type of manipulation.
  6. Honest manipulation—all parties involved know that deception is occurring. This kind of manipulation is a key part of games and can be healthy.

Chapter 3: The Critical Factor: Temperament

The authors recognize that neither genes nor environmental influences alone can explain personality/behavioral tendencies.

They do think that personality traits found in children are usually present in at least one of the parents.

As children mature, they can emphasize some inborn traits and restrain others depending on the situation they are in.

Implications for parents:

  1. Some kids will require more input and guidance than others.
  2. Your approach to each child should be unique, but rules and expectations should be value-based and consistent the same for everyone.
  3. Allowing kids to “reason” around a rule teaches them to cope by making the rules not apply to them—a bad strategy for coping with the real world.
  4. A child’s tendency to use certain manipulative styles is largely based on their temperament. These styles may include:
    1. becoming angry and abusive until someone capitulates
    2. withdrawal until others comply
    3. obvious demonstrations of unhappiness until attention is received
    4. doing everything perfectly
  5. “Parental temperament is critical, too. The anxious quick-to-react parent will be easily baited into a fit of anger, stalemating any effective action. The pensive parent often will not respond to a child’s temper tantrum, and though this child may be subject to quick anger, the child will not learn to use angry outbursts to control others. But this same parent may be easily guilted into agreement with the child’s wishes by sad or withdrawn behavior.” (76)

Chapter 4: Healthy Kids: A Pediatrician’s Perspective

The authors caution against being swept up in the latest parenting fads, especially those that embrace these false assumptions:

  1. It’s easy to damage a child psychologically.
  2. Trauma to the developing psyche is the principle cause of later maladjustment.
  3. Trauma is emotional; therefore some emotions can be dangerous.
  4. Undesirable behavior is caused by bad emotions.
  5. Good parents try to help their kids avoid bad feelings.
  6. Self-esteem is damaged by bad emotions.
  7. Self-esteem can be given to a child by being positive.
  8. People with healthy self-esteem show it by always being happy.
  9. Children are basically the same.
  10. We consciously decide and guide almost everything we do.

Swihart and Cotter argue instead that:

  1. “Becoming a victim, assuming victim status, will certainly perpetuate the problems people have.” (81)
  2. Self-esteem is developed by “allowing children to deal with their real-world difficulties in an environment of support, acceptance, love, and clear guidance.” (82)
  3. The best advice on parenting comes from other successful parents, not from “experts.”

What are healthy kids?

They are not... They are...
1. Perfect. 1. Inclined to take care of themselves.
2. Always obedient. 2. People with a distinct self-identity.
3. Always happy. 3. Resilient.
4. Willing to tell their parents everything. 4. Proactive.
5. Always following the rules. 5. Assertive without being aggressive.
6. Easily manipulated. 6. Able to have fun.
7. Always persistent in what others want them to do. 7. Willing to accept new challenges.
  8. In regular need of discipline.
  9. Aware of personal boundaries.
  10. Self controlled.
  11. Honest with themselves.
  12. Optimistic and humorous.
  13. Able to lead without controlling and accept compromise.
  14. Value-guided.

What produces a healthy, well-adapted child?

  1. Value-guided parenting
    • “The values held by a family are the most essential piece to the childrearing puzzle—they are the only thing that provides guidance and ensures long-term consistency in childrearing.” (89) These values shouldn’t change of the years.
    • “Authoritarian” parents impose their arbitrary will.
    • “Authoritative” parents are clearly in charge, but their decision making is guided by something higher—the family value system.
  2. Family vision and goals
    • Healthy families have a good idea where they are going—these goals keep everyone moving during tough times.
    • See the goal exercise on p. 90-91 to establish clear goals for your family.
  3. Caring rather than caretaking
    • Caring involves…
      • Loving your kids and being concerned about their lives.
      • Taking the time to clearly explain family values and goals.
    • Caretaking involves…
      • Doing for your child what they can do for themselves.
      • Adapting rules to keep your child comfortable.
  4. Setting boundaries
    • Healthy families have clear roles and responsibilities.
  5. Family leadership
    • “We know of no example in which a stable social group exists without establishment of a hierarchy.” (92)
    • “When lead (dominant) animals lose the ability to maintain their leadership, a social upheaval ensues until a new social order emerges and the group can function smoothly.” (93)
    • “The stability of a family depends on the clear establishment of a hierarchy.” (93)
    • Leadership should reside with parents, but they can’t lead effectively if they are in continual marital strife.
  6. Honoring differences
    • Accept and enjoy the different personalities in your family.
  7. Nonmanipulative parenting
    • Expect children to follow rules that are consistent with your values. Don’t manipulate them into compliance.
    • Don’t invent elaborate consequences for misbehavior.
  8. Having a strong family identity
    • Cultivate family history, goals, traditions, and stories.
  9. Child-to-child bonds
    • Avoid refereeing sibling squabbles and protecting one sibling from the other. “When parents are over involved, when parent-child boundaries are indistinct, children vie and compete for parental attention, destroying the close bonds they might have with one another.” (97)
  10. Family play and activities
    • Eat dinner together, clean together, and take vacations together. Participation together is the crucial element.
  11. Chores and family responsibilities
    • Everyone should have a job and do what they have to do before they do what they want to do.
  12. Effective parenting techniques
    • Don’t use incentives and rewards.
    • Don’t use warnings and threats.
    • Define limits calmly and consistently enforce them.
    • Don’t tolerate reasoned arguments from kids; simply reiterate core values.


“Healthy children don’t just happen. They come from families in which optimism prevails, from families that believe in their children.” (100)

Chapter 5: Independence and Dependence: Development

“Most of the distressed parents we see experience difficulty establishing behavioral boundaries for their children …these same parents have difficulty empowering their children to generate and maintain their own self esteem.” (103)

“Children must learn and be taught how to adapt to the world… we do them no good by screening and shaping their surroundings to shield them from the difficulties and distresses of real life.” (103)

Don’t intervene and change the rules to suit your child. Don’t reward your child’s temper tantrums by complying with his/her wishes.

There are two styles of adapting to life:

Dependent Independent
manipulate others to supply their immediate wants function within a well-developed set of ethical standards
avoid difficult or unpleasant tasks observe the rules and values of their parents, schools, teams, clubs, and even informal peer relationships
shift blame and responsibility for mishaps take responsibility for their own actions
explain and justify their failures perceive the rules of a situation quickly and operate within them
feel good only when they are in control of others accept the rules of a situation without imposing their personal modifications or reinterpreting those rules for personal convenience
feel anxious or angry when they have lost control of others be capable of leadership as well as participation
ignore their values when following them is inconvenient  
arrange modification of the rules in situations to suit their own interests  
interpret reality selectively  

What is independence?

“To many people, independence means the freedom to do whatever you want, anywhere, anytime, anyplace. But under close scrutiny, we discover that just the reverse is true. Independence is the ability to set and pursue personal goals without requiring the help of others. It is the ability to function effectively within the rules that govern situations.” (106) Independent people don’t expect others to make their life OK.

Developing children into independent adults

Children show either independent or dependent patterns in each stage of their development. Different outcomes are due to the social/family environment the child is in. Their environment is shaped by basic assumptions about people held by the family. Children will become dependent or independent “based on the consistency and effectiveness of the limit setting they’ve received from their parents.” (115)

Here are symptoms of dependent and independent adaptation at different stages of development:

  1. Infancy and preschool
    • Dependent:
      • Parents and other caregivers focus on helping the child avoid stress, trauma, mistakes and unhappiness.
      • The child depends on (manipulates) adult co-conspirators to adapt the world to his liking.
    • Independent:
      • Parents show confidence in their child’s innate competency.
      • Parents make clear and enduring rules and consistently enforce them.
  2. School age:
    • Dependent:
      • “The child learns to control teachers, friends, coaches, or others by whatever means he has learned at home.” (112)
      • The child finds a way around the rules and expectations that are placed on him.
    • Independent:
      • The child “quickly learns to play by the rules and excel within the limits of the rules in a variety of situations.
      • Improved self-esteem.
  3. Adolescence
    • Dependent:
      • Angry rebellion due the awareness that (1) life will no longer do his bidding (2) he doesn’t have skills to adapt.
      • Defeat and disappointment will eventually lead to adaptation to the real world.
      • Talented/attractive kids may not have to adapt until much later in life.
    • Independent
      • Demonstrates self-confident in his ability to survive.
      • Demonstrates self-guidance based on a rich background of his own experience and his own unique code of ethics.

Limit-setting, Discipline, and Punishment

“Limit-setting is not based on punishment.” (115)

“Our contribution to their adaptation consists of defining the rules at home clearly, consistently, and nonpunitively over time so that [our kids] acquire the skills necessary to adapt in the real world.” (116)

Behaviors are learned only through practice. “Conscious guidance and analysis of the behavior may foster the initial acquisition of a new behavior, but refinement of the behavior occurs only with practice.” (108)

Chapter 6: Becoming Manipulation Proof

“Behaviors contributing to the development of self-esteem and independence are inherently nonmanipulative.” (117)

How to become manipulation proof:

  1. Create a chart like the one shown below and begin to make observations related to problem situations (review p. 118 for examples). Observe your children for a day or two, making notes in each category. Make observations immediately after problem interactions.
    Problem Situation (Describe the situation that led to the problem) What My Child Did (often Child Avoidance Behaviors) My Response (often Parental Avoidance Behaviors) What I was Avoiding (Blindsides - thoughts, feelings, beliefs)

  2. Group the problem situations into categories:
    • Compliance – failing to do what they have been asked to do. “Most noncompliant behavior is manipulative.” (119)
    • Persistence – failing to continue to do what they have been asked to do. This is only an issue after compliance has occurred.
    • Obeying Household Rules, Responsibilities, and Values – Either failing to do what is generally expected (flush the toilet) or doing something that is forbidden (lying when confronted).
    • Emotion-provoking situations – meltdowns, temper tantrums, sulking, etc. Be aware that strong emotions frequently expressed by your children are often manipulative.
  3. Identify the avoidance behaviors of the child and parent.
    • See the table on p. 122-123 for detailed summary of various behaviors that children use for avoidance.
    • Parental avoidance behaviors include:
      1. Acting in a way that reduces the child’s unpleasant emotions (e.g. anxiety, frustration).
      2. Allowing a child to delay engaging in something unpleasant.
      3. Acting in a way that eliminates a difficult situation facing a child that is likely to produce unpleasant avoidance behavior in a child.
        “It’s likely that any parental response that results in the child manipulating the situation is based on something you were trying to avoid.” (123)
  4. Identify your blind sides
    • Learn to recognize your own “blind sides,” which make you vulnerable to being manipulated. Blind sides are “those thoughts, biases, feelings, and beliefs that you possess… that your child discovers and uses to manipulate you.” (117)
    • Typical blindsides include:
      1. Fear of losing a child’s love: This is generally ill-founded. “But when manipulative behavior becomes a way of life, you will ultimately lose your child’s respect and, very possibly, love, permanently. First strive to earn your child’s respect, and love will usually follow—not the other way around.” (126) Manipulative children often later wish that their parents had made them follow rules. In the long-term, children maintain a loving relationships with parents who set limits.
        “Teach them to respect your strength and character, and love will take care of itself.” (127)
      2. Inconvenient times and places: Kids tend to misbehave at inconvenient times and in inconvenient places. Use of elaborate strategies to get kids to behave in a certain way is a sign there is a problem. “Suffering a few minutes of embarrassment in the supermarket, telling someone you’ll call them back, or being late to work are excellent investments that pay incredible dividends over the time you are raising your children.” (128)
      3. Parental feelings triggered by the child’s emotions: A child’s emotions can often make parents feel bad. To counter this, ask yourself, “If I fail to deal with this problem now, if I bail my child out of the situation, what will be the long-term effect?” (129) “Don’t sacrifice what you know to be right and proper for the sake of the child’s momentary happiness.” (130)
      4. Fear of angrily losing control: Some parents feel they may lose control and harm their child. “If you feel you are at risk of losing control and doing something to harm your child, please get someone to assist you.” (130) Avoid the “leave alone… zap” approach. Putting off dealing with manipulative behavior too long will raise your anger to the boiling point.
      5. Lack of confidence: Parents who lack confidence are prime candidates for manipulation. “One small mistake will not scar your child for life… but allowing a child to manipulate freely over the years because you lack confidence does.” (131)
      6. Parental overload: Being overwhelmed with a difficult schedule makes it harder to deal with manipulative behavior. Adjust your priorities so that you have time to properly discipline your kids.
      7. False beliefs:
        • “It’s my job to make sure my child is happy.”
        • “This misbehavior is just a ‘stage.’”
        • “I must overcompensate for the deficiencies of my childhood.”
      8. Guilt over children’s stress: You may feel guilty when your child is going through a stressful situation. Parents often respond by lowering expectations and modifying rules, which allows the child to manipulate.
      9. Conflict between parents: “Often, parents have sharp differences in their expectations about the child’s behavior or in their opinions on how a behavior is to be handled. Such a rift between parents provides fertile ground for manipulation by the child.” (136)
    • Parents should work out their differences and support each other’s attempts to discipline. Maintain a united front. If you disagree, for example, with something your spouse tells your child to do, support them in the moment and confer with them alone after the event and share your concerns. “Sometimes children will attempt to use one parent to intercede with the other over some rule or decision. You will demonstrate your respect for the other parent’s decision and your united front by telling the child to deal with the parent who made the decision, no matter how you feel about it.” (137)
  5. Protect against your blindsides
    1. Carefully review your observation chart and focus on your blind sides—the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that caused you to justify the child’s manipulative behavior. You must first deal with your own anxiety, guilt, anger, beliefs before anything will change.
    2. Look your emotions in the eye—face them, experience them, and don’t avoid them. Tell yourself “I can handle it,” “I can hang in there,” “If I give in, it will just get worse,” etc. Do something physical to relieve the built up tension you feel.
    3. Refute the false beliefs you hold that allow manipulation to occur and replace them with “empowering assumptions” like these:
      1. Children are innately and fundamentally competent.
      2. Children are tough, adaptable survivors.
      3. Children’s emotions are their own and they can handle their emotions on their own. Listen to them, support them, and comfort them—that’s it. Avoid intervention when your child is having difficulty with something.
    4. Reject “positive parenting” (an approach to childrearing that emphasizes protecting a child from emotional trauma). Positive parenting is based on pessimistic assumptions (children can’t find their own happiness, hold their own with others, set goals, handle negative emotions due to limit setting, live with the results of their mistakes, etc.).
    5. Remember that your role as a parent is to prepare your child to adapt to the world, NOT to prepare the world to adapt to your child!

After you have taken steps 1-5 above, you are ready to shut down manipulation.

Chapter 7: Shutting Down Manipulation

We must be able to stop manipulation when it occurs, because when avoidance works, avoidance behaviors will persist. “On the other hand, if you consistently react in a way that requires a child to deal with something he doesn’t want to face, then his attempts to manipulate around the situation will fade and finally disappear.” (153)

“Parents should never take lightly a child’s attempts to manipulate, although a light-hearted approach to the problem is almost always helpful.” (154)

Techniques for shutting down manipulation:

  1. Stop, Pause, and Redirect (SPRd)
    • SPRd is a method for interrupting avoidance behavior.
    • General tips:
      • This method isn’t punishment, just limit setting. “Warnings, reminders, second chances, or threats will render this process ineffective.” (157)
      • This method must be used immediately after the misbehavior has occurred.
        >> Realizing that parents won’t always be around to observe misbehavior, the authors recommend that they teach coaches and school playground supervisors how to administer an SPRd to their child. Is this practical or desirable? It strikes me as a prime example of adapting the world to your child (see top of p. 165), the very thing they want readers to avoid.
      • The more dramatic you are, the less effective this will be.
      • Your manner should be firm. Insist they follow the rules.
      • You must be consistent in the application of this method over a long period of time. Don’t slack off when you begin to see improved behavior.
      • SPRd’s should be quiet, undramatic, and frequent.
      • When using this method with your kids, allow for lots of time. Don’t use SPRd in a public place until it’s working at home. Once your child has adapted and you have become practiced, you can use SPRd in public effectively.
      • SPRd can be used with an adolescent with some modifications (see p. 166), but this method is best introduced very early (prior to 18 months). See page 166 for tips on using SPRd with very young children.
    • STOP
      1. Before you react to misbehavior in any way, you must first stop the misbehavior. Ignoring this rule renders your effort useless. “Park” the child somewhere close, convenient, and unentertaining. The child’s bad behavior must stop before you do or say anything else. “Any commentary—warnings included—that takes place between the occurrence of the offending behavior and the imposition of the PAUSE phase of the procedure automatically reduces its effectiveness.” (157)
      2. Misbehavior is anything the child is doing that you have decided you don’t want him to do. This may be behavior you’ve dealt with before, behavior that is entirely new, or any behavior other than what you’ve asked the child to do.
      3. Never use an SPRd after the fact. It is not a punishment.
    • PAUSE
      1. During the Paul phase, the child must settle himself before any further interaction takes place. Do not respond anything the child does except to bring him back physically to where he was originally placed. Do not interact with your child until they are quiet and settled for a brief period (15-30 seconds at most). Interaction before the child has settled himself down merely pushes the reset button and wastes your effort.
      2. The pause is not a punishment. It lasts as long as it takes for the child to settle himself. Longer is not better, but if it takes forty-five minutes for him to compose himself, that’s how long it lasts.
      3. With practice, your child will learn to settle down quickly and quietly, and the whole procedure will be very brief and quiet, even surreptitious. This is the goal you should strive for; the more times you do it, the earlier you’ll reach this goal. Practice makes perfect.
      1. Make your redirect short and direct. Do not harangue the child; merely state, if you want, what he did wrong, and send him off to do whatever it is that you want him to be doing: “Go play,” “Go pick up your toys,” “Go apologize to your brother,” and so forth. Long-winded redirects don’t make the procedure more effective. Explanations of the reasons behind your actions don’t help and should be avoided. Send your child off to do what they should be doing.
      2. Remember, this is training about behavioral limits. It is not supposed to elicit unpleasant emotions, though sometimes, when you are just beginning to use it, it will. Success is obtained through frequent use, not more elaborate methods.
      3. If you want to talk to your child about his behavior, to discuss rules, values, reasons, and so on, do it at a different time—never in the heat of the battle. (Most of this text on SPRD is in the appendix – p. 241 – 243)
    • What about consequences punishment?
      • “Generally speaking, delayed consequences don’t produce desirable or predictable behavior change…” (163)
      • The authors do recommend the imposition of consequences designed to correct a problem or right a wrong. These consequences may or may not change behavior. They are based on values and are simply the right thing to do.
    • Other tips:
      • Don’t ignore misbehavior.
      • Use humor, but don’t be sarcastic or put your child down.
  2. Extinction of negative reinforcement
    • This method is designed to block your child’s attempts to avoid an unpleasant situation. “If parents block a child’s escape from or avoidance of an unpleasant situation or task, requiring that she face what she fears or despises, the parents are eliminating negative reinforcement.” (168) Children often find what they’re trying to avoid isn’t so bad after all. Overcoming unpleasant circumstances like this is critical to your child’s development. The goal of Extinction is to raise your child’s confidence in his/her ability to survive.
    • General tips:
      • Do this in a quiet, confident and insistent manner.
      • Comfort your child, but don’t fix the problem.
      • Let them come up with their own solution.
  3. Positive reinforcement
    • Remember that just affirming good behavior isn’t enough. You must set limits through SPRd and Extinction.
    • To be effective, positive reinforcement must be immediate (a wink, a pat on the back, a quick word of encouragement).
    • Avoid exaggerated praise. If you do this, children will “often develop the feeling that what their parent is doing is trying to ‘nice’ them into behaving.” (172) Even worse, “they may grow up believing they are the best, the greatest, only to find the world doesn’t agree.” (172)
    • Once behavior is mastered, discontinue positive reinforcement. “Continued use of positive reinforcement once the child has learned the behavior only serves to teach dependency.” (173)
  4. Positive Practice:
    • This is a useful way to teach new behavior. It…
      • It works well with limit-setting tools like SPRd.
      • Relies on a cue to trigger a sequence of desired behaviors.
        e.g. potty training: a full bladder cues stopping an activity and going to the bathroom, which cues undressing, voiding, flushing, dressing and resuming whatever activity was interrupted)
      • Works well with routine/automatic behaviors.
    • How to do it
      • Walk the child repeatedly through the desired behavior (like a rehearsal). Seek their input on the sequence of behaviors, if necessary. Model each step while describing the action. (174)
      • Next, have the child duplicate the sequence 10 or 15 times. Be lighthearted about it, not punitive.
      • Use verbal and physical prompts (looking, pointing) when necessary and be encouraging.
      • Use SPRd if you meet resistance.
      • Each day the child successfully carries out the desired sequence of behaviors, no more practice is required.
      • If they fail, have them do several positive practices.
      • Always practice the behavior exactly the same way.
  • Applying these techniques to different kinds of children
    • The oppositional child “will argue about requests and commands, frequently becoming vehement and angry or complaining bitterly.” (176) It’s never their fault, etc.
      • Parents typically nag a kid like this when he/she lacks persistence (stalling, dawdling, etc.) and say nothing when he/she stays on task. This rewards misbehavior with attention and fails to reinforce desired behavior! Better to administer an SPRd when a child is disobeying and to use touch or verbal affirmation to reinforce compliance.
    • The dishonest child uses lying as an avoidance behavior. Dishonesty is almost universal in manipulative children.
      • Parents need to become comfortable with “being a bit arbitrary, relying on their gut instincts, doubts, and suspicions about the child’s veracity.” (183)
      • Use SPRd when suspicious. Even if the child is telling the truth, this won’t discourage future truth telling. Better to err on this side, because if “lying goes unchallenged, dishonest behavior will increase dramatically.” (183)
      • Don’t ask “why did you lie?” That’s just an opportunity for more lying.
      • When necessary, ask children to takes steps to redress damage caused by their lies (e.g. apologizing, paying someone back).
    • The household rule breaker won’t accept no for an answer, breaks household rules, and won’t stop doing something when asked.
      • If they are roughhousing, for example, ask them to settle down. Use an SPRd if they fail to comply. Use positive practice if they consistently neglect important tasks, like putting on their seatbelt.
    • The victimized child allows himself to be bullied or teased by other kids.
      • Don’t intervene to help them. Remind them that emotional outbursts are an invitation for more teasing. If ignoring a teaser doesn’t work, help them playact a different response, like smiling, agreeing, and exaggerating the put-down. Follow up with a self reminder that the remark is untrue. Practice teasing them so they can practice responding. The goal is to help your child’s emotions be independent of her peers.
    • The anxious and fearful child tries to cope “with their anxiety by controlling everything and everyone around them.” (190) Kids like this are often perfectionists and averse to disruptions in routine.
      • Use all of the techniques above to make it “impossible to avoid or escape anxiety-provoking situations while supporting the child through the process. Through repeated exposure to the feared, anxiety-provoking situation, the child learns to quell the anxious response and discovers new coping skills that have wide application.” (191)
      • Don’t reward undesired behavior with outbursts or prolonged debates that give them attention. If they say there are afraid, let them know you understand that they are afraid and insist that they act anyhow—comfort and redirect.
      • Tell teachers to ignore an unsocial child and to verbally reward him/her when she engages with other kids.
  • Methods that don’t work:
    • Rewards, threats, bribes, and punishment (removal of a privilege, physical consequences) don’t work. They just teach children how to operate in a manipulative environment. They never will overcome avoidance behavior. Threats are only effective when the threat is in place.
    • On physical punishment: “Physical punishment appears to have worked well years ago because it produced avoidance behavior and empowered parents to be heard and taken seriously by their children. It worked well because it was used within the framework of strict conditions: Rules were simple, clear, and consistently enforced. It was not used by parents as a frustrated, angry last resort, but as the procedure of first choice. But like all forms of punishment, it was often used inappropriately and to excess. We, however, do not advocate the use of physical—or any form—of punishment as a method of managing behavior simply because it doesn’t work in the long run. We’ve found that parents can get results with equally good success, without having to resort to punishment.” (198)
      • >> Isn’t the phrase “equally good success” an admission that physical punishment, when administered appropriately, can be successful?

Chapter 8: Raising Children Who Believe in Themselves

Definition of self esteem: “a realistic and enduring set of beliefs about oneself that, on the whole, offers a positive view of one’s worth and competence in the world.” (199)

Other observations about of self-esteem

  • People with a healthy self-esteem are independent and pursue their own goals even against great odds.
  • People acquire self-esteem through experiences that present real threats and that have a clear risk of failure. Overcoming these obstacles without assistance builds self-esteem.
  • “A steady diet of easy successes will destroy self esteem.” (202) “Patronizing of children breeds dependence and a weak sense of self.” (202) The implicit message (I’m praising you for little because you’re not capable of much) has a powerful effect on a child.
  • Sometimes explicit negative messages (e.g. “you’re too little to play racquetball”) are profoundly motivating for children.
  • Manipulators often have low self-esteem. “As avoidance and manipulation become entrenched, as children break the values held by their family, dishonesty with self and others becomes more common and self-esteem deteriorates.” (204)
  • Self-esteem is commonly confused with feeling good.

The role of parents in building self-esteem

  1. Establishing boundaries
    • “Placing boundaries on your role as a parent is vitally important.” (207)
    • Focus on providing things for your children they “cannot provide for themselves, but little more.” (207)
  2. Developing a vision for your child
    • You should have a clear vision for the values you want to instill in your children and stick with those values. Without long term commitment to your values and a vision of what it looks like for your children to live consistently with those values, a moral vacuum will form in your child’s life. That vacuum will be filled by peers, TV, social pressures, etc.
  3. Providing opportunities
    • Parents can provide children with opportunities to acquire life skills by “arranging for their children’s participation in organized activities like art classes, music lessons, sports, and boy’s and girl’s clubs, or through family activities and hobbies.” (209)
    • Don’t fall into the habit of doing chores your children are fully capable of doing.
    • “When seeking opportunities for a child, parents should look not just for those that appeal because of the child’s familiarity or strength, but those that will be challenging, particularly in an area of weakness.” (210)
    • Don’t let your child’s complaints keep you from putting him/her into a challenging situation.
    • Your child should engage in opportunities that are consistent with the family value system.
  4. Allowing your child to fail
    • “Failure is essential to the development of self-esteem and independence. Failure tells us what we need to work on, helps us correct what we do, and tells us that we’re up against difficulties worthy of our continual effort.” (212)
    • When we let our children figure it out on their own, they learn more from their experiences. Don’t teach or encourage your kids to shift blame for their failure. Resist the temptation to rescue them.

Putting it All to Work

The steps below must be taken to implement all of the advice given so far:

  1. Adopt positive assumptions about your children. Identify and reject pessimistic assumptions. Believe in your child’s ability to survive, adapt, and care for himself.
  2. Identify your core values. The content of your values is not as important as having clearly defined values. Families who base decision making on a shared set of values do better in the long run than families who lack defined values. The table below contrasts families that are value-guided with those that are expediency-guided (influenced primarily by conditions that exist at the moment):
    Value-Guided Expediency-Guided
    The behavior of each family member, including Mom and Dad, is evaluated by the family’s beliefs and values. Decisions and rules are based on the convenience of the moment.
    The family code of ethics is more important than convenience, conflict avoidance, etc. There is a limited vision of the family.
    Conversations contain frequent reference to family standards. Family experiences don’t reflect family beliefs.
    Children see themselves as representatives of the family in the world. Social position, inconvenience, and other temporary measures of importance are used to evaluate behavior.
    Parents have vision for children and are goal-oriented. References to the family value system are infrequent or absent altogether.
    Children are treated in a consistent way over time. Parenting is not seen as training.
      Parents tend to seek quick solutions to problems and hope their solutions are permanent.

    Chart assembled from text on pp. 216-219.

  3. Follow these steps to becoming a value guided family. Each must be done well.
    1. Each partner should create a statement of his/her own personal values. Identify values that might conflict with each other (e.g. being honest vs. not hurting others) and decide how to uphold them in practice (e.g. we will model tactful communication of the truth in a caring way without sacrificing honesty).
    2. Reconcile the differences between each partner’s values.
    3. Draft a family statement of values.
    4. Present the values to the family. Illustrate the meaning of each value statement with stories.
    5. Begin enforcing the family values. The values must apply to children and adults.
    6. Review your family value statements periodically.
    7. Use every opportunity to teach the family values.
  4. Don’t pay too much attention to your children. Give them space to pursue their own interests.
  5. Set clear limits by using SPRd as described above.
  6. Persevere… don’t look for short cuts.
  7. Provide value-based guidance.


  • A comparison of pre- and post-WWI books on success reveals a shift in emphasis:
    • Pre-WWI books emphasize development of character and integrating ethics into daily life
    • Post-WWI books emphasize development of personality traits, improving appearance, positive thinking, enhancing communication skills, etc.
  • The authors believe that the pre-WWI emphasis is what truly leads to healthy, happy families.

“Define your job as a parent this way: Love your children without condition; provide them with the things they can’t really provide for themselves; don’t let them avoid worthwhile experiences out of fear or because work is involved; set limits on their behavior clearly and persistently; and teach them the values that guide your family’s life. With all this, they will find their way and their character will be secured.” (226)

Epilogue: Schools and Other Places

The techniques in this book work well as long as the parent is in control of the child’s environment. Don’t try them in public until you have mastered them in private.

Tips on working with teachers, coaches, and day care providers:

  • If you can get a coach or teacher to use SPRd, go for it. Fully support them in their use of SPRd. But “if things are not going well and the person is not going to change his or her approach, it may be best to arrange a change of teacher or coach, if possible.” (228)
  • Try to find preschools and day care providers where teachers and caregivers are clearly in charge, where efforts to manage student behavior do not eclipse academic goals.
  • Regarding homework…
    • Homework should be a teacher-pupil arrangement. Don’t let teachers rely on you to ensure that your child is doing his homework. Refuse to be an intermediary between your child and his/her teacher.
    • You many need to get involved in your child’s homework for a short time to put in motion healthy habits. But focus on setting up helpful routines. Make a house rule like this: “Homework first, then other activities.” (230)
    • Tie the importance of homework to your family values.
  • Regarding discipline problems at school...
    • Don’t punish your child for misbehavior at school. Tell teachers you support whatever they decide to do to discipline your child.
    • Introduce moral consequences (e.g. paying for damages, apologizing, etc.) when necessary.
    • Don’t ask your child to explain why he did what he did. Don’t accept excuses.
    • If you are asked to attend an intervention meeting for your child, ask to see the agenda beforehand. Don’t allow teachers/administrators to blame you for your child’s difficulties at school. Don’t let the meeting conclude with “you (the parent) must do something about this.” Seek out parent advocacy organizations if the school is unresponsive and be persistent.
    • “Sometimes the only way to manage a child who is having behavioral difficulty in school is to put the child in a different school, especially a private or parochial school.” (234)
      >> This advice seems to go against their earlier warnings that parents shouldn’t try to adapt the world to suit their children.
  • Regarding rewards and punishments…
    • Try to discourage the use of rewards and punishments with your child. Getting involved in parent-teacher organizations may allow you to impact policy at the school regarding how kids are disciplined.

Appendix A: Milestones of Adaptive Development

This appendix describes key tasks that children must master at different stages in their development (0-6, school age, adolescent, young adult). Symptoms of success or failure in each area are also described.

Appendix B: Parenting Styles

Appendix B has a table comparing two parenting styles: Incentive-Punishment and Guidance with Limits.

Appendix C: Quick Review: Rules for Stop, Pause, and Redirect

This is a review of SPRd rules with an example and a challenge to use the method precisely and consistently.