testing, spoiling, and manipulating: parenting language and how it affects us

Seriously Mama … what DO you mean by “don’t climb the stairs”?

“She’s just testing you.”

“You can’t spoil a baby.”

“She’s using that behavior to manipulate you.”

We have to be careful with our words.


A couple years ago, I was struggling with my oldest child’s misbehavior.  She was just an innocent toddler, doing innocent toddler things that drove me nuts.  She would hit me, pull my hair, kick me during diaper changes; I struggled not to take it personally.  And whatever I asked or told her to do, she would usually do the opposite.  I heard from friends and family, and read in parenting books: “She’s just testing the boundaries.”  Or, “She’s just testing you to see what you’ll do.”

Friends, family, and parenting books were all just trying to clue me in to my child’s development, to remind me that this was perfectly normal for her age; but eventually I realized, the phrasing of it – how they described the behavior – made me just as frustrated as the behavior itself.  Testing me to see what I’ll do?  What an irritating thing to do.

At some point, I read a parenting book that described it differently, and finally it clicked for me.  “Testing the boundaries” was actually a morally neutral activity.  The child was literally trying to learn what the boundary was.  If I told her not to climb the stairs, and she went straight to the stairs and started climbing, she wasn’t trying to get my goat – she was trying to understand what “don’t climb the stairs” means.  Does it mean don’t go to the top of the stairs?  Or does it mean don’t touch any of the stairs?  Why does Mama look mad just because I’m crawling over to the stairs – does “don’t climb the stairs” mean “stay ten feet away from them?”

Thinking about that developmental phase differently made a world of difference in how I felt about it.  I still got frustrated when she would – proverbially – climb the stairs, but gradually I became frustrated at myself for not giving her clear enough directions.  And instead of dead-ending at being frustrated with the child, I could move past the frustration with myself to work on communicating with her more effectively.


“You can’t spoil a baby.”  This idea was taught to me by many of the attachment-parenting sources that I was tuned into when my first child was an infant.  The idea was that you couldn’t hold a baby too much, or nurse her too much, or respond to quickly to a baby’s cry.  The idea of “manipulation” was specifically addressed and refuted: a baby doesn’t cry to “manipulate” her parents.  She cries to communicate her needs; it’s not wrong for her to communicate those needs, and it’s not wrong for parents to answer those needs.  “You can’t spoil a child” made sense to me, and I acted accordingly, but found myself confused and disappointed months later when, in some ways, my child did seem spoiled – did seem to want or need an inordinate amount of nursing and holding.

So what was the right way to think about it – can you or can you not spoil a baby?  Eventually I realized that the language of “spoiling” was both too emotional and too vague.  What exactly did someone mean if they said I was “spoiling” my baby?  Was it really the same thing that the attachment-parenting folks meant when they asserted it wasn’t possible?

Once I ditched the term “spoil,” the issue looked clearer to me.  If I nursed my child whenever she fussed, and held her for long periods of time, would she come to expect nursing & holding?  Yes.  Was that problematic?  That was actually for me to answer for myself.  I didn’t need to call it “spoiled,” I just needed to recognize the reality of what was happening, and decide whether I wanted to change it.


The “manipulating” terminology came up again more recently as I read James Dobson’s The Strong-Willed Child.  I found some truly helpful strategies in the book, and would recommend it to others struggling with children’s behaviors, but I was turned off by the way Dobson described children with such behavior.  He painted a picture of a power-hungry little tyrant who can even be recognized in early infancy by the way she – you guessed it – “manipulates” her parents with her cries.  I found this picture to be profoundly unhelpful.  I need ways to make my relationship with my child less confrontational, less adversarial.  Terming her “manipulative” or a “tyrant” makes me feel more angry when she misbehaved.

But if I took apart the concept of “manipulating” and thought about it differently, I could see – unemotionally – that just as a baby cries in order to get her needs met, a toddler or preschooler also chooses behaviors that she thinks will satisfy her needs.  I think it’s possible that what Dobson was describing (negatively, not very clearly in my opinion) was simply that the strong-willed child is behaving purposefully – choosing behaviors that she thinks (correctly or not) will satisfy her needs.  (I’m pretty much just paraphrasing William Glasser here.)  That’s reasonable, and it offers me a way forward – seeking to understand the purpose behind my child’s behavior.  Maybe it’s really just the same thing as “manipulating,” but “manipulating” feels like a dead end to me, and “purposeful behavior” does not.


So what ties these three stories together?  Simply that words matter.  The words that I use as a parent matter, and the words that I hear or read as a parent matter.  I don’t know why I find the language to be such a hurdle; maybe I take things more literally than the average parent does.  But knowing that about myself, I can step back now and then and think about the words I’m using, out loud or in my head, and think – are they really true?  What do they mean to me?  Is that what they’re supposed to mean?  I don’t know what the next hurdle will be for me, but here’s hoping I recognize it and choose better, clearer, more peaceful, more loving words.


2 thoughts on “testing, spoiling, and manipulating: parenting language and how it affects us

  1. Thank you! This is so helpful! I have really struggled with words to use – especially when trying to figure out what to say to my toddler…because it causes a reaction in myself that I don’t like, or something that she does not respond well to. Thank you for a post that I can wrap my mind around!


  2. I’m a literal-ist too! I finally had to decide “you’re life will never be the same again”, coming from someone seeing me pregnant for the first time, doesn’t have to mean what I feared it means. There’s a whole story there, but I’ll just say here that I too have found that it does totally help to figure out what meaning is behind words and phrases. Very helpful.


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