One day, Carol said to her five-year-old niece Emma, “My that is a beautiful stuffed lion you have there.”
“I know, I saw it in the store and Mommy bought it for me.”
“Yes. Well, she wasn’t going to.”
“No. She wasn’t going to. So I went,” and screwing up her face Emma acted out, “Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!” then said, “She took it off the shelf and bought it for me.”
“Huh,” replied Carol, hiding her smile. This window into the workings and self-awareness of this marvelous five-year old brain delighted her.
Later that day in the kitchen while talking to sister Martha, Carol started to tell the story of the cleverness of Emma. However, Emma was there, saw what was coming and broke in with an urgent: “No.”
Realizing that she was about to betray a confidence, Carol stopped. Emma had found a technique for getting what she wanted and the notion that she had this power over her all-powerful mother was important to her.
Later when the sisters were alone, they had plenty to talk about. Naturally, Aunt Carol found Emma’s technique considerably more amusing than Martha did. Aunt Carol was seeing the child’s natural genius at work; Martha felt duped. She had fallen down on her job and was a little embarrassed.
Parents need not feel guilty when they drop their guard and revert to the most elemental. It is really hard for a parent not to try to stop the crying at all costs. Sure, research shows that crying is actually a healthy behavior for humans, but even if Emma’s Mom had read the research and had learned to sit with Emma empathetically, still it requires discipline and practice to overcome the instinctive parental response to the stimulus “Waaaaaaaah.”
Nonetheless, guilt or embarrassment is not useful. What might be more useful is for Martha to see that she and Emma are playing a game—an ongoing game that may last for years. Emma is learning how to get Martha to behave as much as Martha is trying to get Emma to behave. They are both playing the game of Get What You Want.
Get What You Want is not a bad game. In fact, it is a driving force in all of us, the engine that drives the development of our brains. Yes, Emma has learned “how to manipulate” her mother. But what’s worse is that Martha has failed to challenge her daughter to develop her social problem solving skills, and needs to learn from the failure.
By making it too easy for Emma to get what she wants Martha missed opportunities to increase Emma’s assertiveness skills. Let’s look ahead. “Waaaaaaaaah” will not be effective in school and will probably result in fewer friends. Getting a job and keeping it will require a larger repertoire, and so will being a world leader. Furthermore, Emma’s spouse will certainly not put up with two-year-old behavior. Spouses are notorious for requiring better behavior of us.
An educator’s main job, whether she is a parent trying to “teach values” or a teacher trying to “teach math” is to develop the child’s decision-making mechanism—the prefrontal cortex. If we let ourselves learn from the interactive game of Get What You Want, we can become better leaders. It’s what children are challenging us to do. To win-win at this game say to yourself:
- “Don’t react. Get creative.”
- “What’s a good thing for someone to say right now? Model it.”
- “Let’s notice what clever lines she comes up with and compliment a good one.”
- “I am still the CEO. She’s still too much of a tyrant to be in charge.”
- “Let’s have some fun with this.”
The job of educators, parents and teachers alike, is to prepare our children to contribute gracefully, creatively and effectively to a complex, changing world. Increasing a child’s repertoire of disciplines for making good decisions in new and ever-more challenging situations is the key. For best results with children parents and teachers need a large repertoire. A good CEO is a leader not a manager, and a good leader knows how to learn from her followers.
If we let our children get what they want without making them learn from the challenge of harmonizing what they want with the wants of others, we are not preparing them for the real world. We are, actually, dooming our children to a life of unhappiness.
Seven-year-olds often say they hope and dream for world peace; let’s learn from each other.