Monkey See Monkey Do: Can a Pre-Toddler Manipulate?


Is my 15-month old already a manipulator?  You be the judge.

The Scene.
A week ago it was nearing bedtime, and our family was in the middle of our nightly ritual. My hubby and I were sitting on the nursery floor for story-time. Twin A was nestled on my lap with a book, while Twin B sat on her father’s lap.

Now, Twin B was running a fever and had become rather fussy. So, she left her father’s lap, walked to the hallway, and dropped to the floor. There, she rolled around crying, frustrated in her discontent. Twin A watched from my lap as her father asked “what’s wrong, Baby?” He walked over to Twin B, picked her up, and whispered sweet nothings to her as he returned to the nursery and began gently rocking and comforting her.

Five seconds later, Twin A began a “nah-nah-nah” chant. No tears, just a chant.

“What are you doing, Dear?” I ask her. She rose from my lap, walked into the hallway and dropped to the floor at the exact spot her sister lay crying moments before. Now on her back, she continued her chant with hopes that someone would notice her.

“Wow, she’s really faking it,” I observed.

“I can’t believe she is really doing that,” my husband remarked. “I mean, she’s being dishonest. That’s what worries me.”

Me too.

Her brain actually connected a cause-and-effect. If her sisters rolls around the floor crying, then someone will pick her up and comfort her. If it worked for sister, maybe it’ll work for me. This was last week, and since then Twin A has repeated this routine 3 days in a row.


This scary thought brings up three questions:

  1. Is my daughter learning to manipulate?
  2. Is my daughter learning to be dishonest?
  3. What can I do now?

StrongWilledYou better start reading The New Strong-Willed Child,” my co-workers tell me as I share this account.  Trust me I have. I started the day after this scene, and I’m halfway through the book.

What to do? What can I do now at this early age? I realize that there is not much discipline I can do for a 15-month old, but I can at least do something.

  1. Pray for wisdom and discernment as a parent. Ask the Lord to guide us to shape her will without breaking her spirit.
  2. Recognize where the behavior is coming from. Twin A obviously desires more attention, most likely triggered by the extra attention her sick sister has been getting recently. Once we recognize her need, we can be intentional about giving her quality time without affirming her dishonest behavior.

So how about it, friends? What did you do? Dr. Dobson writes that most multiple child homes have at least one strong-willed child. Chances are many of you have experience in this area.

Help a sistah out please.

Question: How did you discipline your strong-willed pre-toddler?

My heart’s desire is to shape my children’s will without breaking their spirit.

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14 thoughts on “Monkey See Monkey Do: Can a Pre-Toddler Manipulate?

  1. Such antics are NOT as manipulative as we perceive through adult eyes. Their emotions are raw, stark and true. So hurt, the need for reassurance and attention is a deep need, simply expressed in inappropriate ways. Distraction works marvelously to stop “poor” behaviour. Usually it works instantaneous. Then she can receive a hug within minutes and as far as she knows, it has nothing to do with attention seeking

    • I hear you Melanie. Good true perspective. Thanks for reinforcing “distraction” to me. That’s a good technique. I appreciate your comments, you have so much more experience than this young mama. Hugs!

  2. i would look at these books too:

    Raising-Your-Spirited-Child by Mary Sheedy Urcinka
    You can’t Make me [But I can Be Persuaded] by Cynthia Ulrich Tobias

    I haven’t read either of those nor Dobson’s, but have read other Dobson books and am not a big fan. Plus the reviews on his book were very mixed – people either loved it or hated it and it really was 50/50.

    We deal with this and I’ve learned to give each child quality one-on-one time (may be a bit harder for you with twins) and love the child the way they yearn to be loved. One of mine is very affectionate and loves touch and quality time. The other, from what I’ve observed so far, loves to be more active and laugh. By giving the older one what he needs, he’s much more willing to go along with what I ask of him. But, that may just come with age as well. We also started giving him choices (both of which we are good with), like green shirt or blue shirt. He enjoys knowing that he has some decision-making in his life and he goes along with other things that aren’t up for his choice quite yet (what is on his plate, his behavior, etc.)

    Keep searching and learning about your kids – but know that things change everyday! They keep life interesting….

  3. Hey Maya and Chris. I really like all the sweet child-hood stories (for adults) you are sharing with us. Just like us grown ups the little ones use those super brains to get love with what ever it takes in their little innoncent minds. It is not dishonesty to them just a way to communicate with visual methods and not spoken thoughts since they do not know YET how put to verbage all they desire. And, mayabe a touch of sibling rivalry and jelousley stirring into action. And, little girls seem better at this than boys, I think. Enjoy the love and life they give you !! Tim

    • Hey Tim, Good advice. I appreciate your comments and encouragement so much. It feels good to enjoy life and the joy they are giving us!

  4. I have felt at a loss for a couple of months now since my 18 month old has started to seem very ‘manipulative’ and ‘dishonest.’ I need to look into Dobson’s book and hopefully be steered in the right direction! If I don’t figure this out now, I’m going to be in a rough spot once number 2 shows up in 2 months and we have to sift through jealousy!

    • I’m with you! Please keep me updated on any lessons you learn and any great books you find. How has your pregnancy been going?

  5. Our two mimic each other all the time. (The latest scene: Oliver will hit us, we say no and sit him down away from us, he cries, comes to us for comfort, we comfort. Sailor repeats the whole thing with a fake-as-ever routine).

    When I watch my two do this, it doesn’t appear to me as manipulation, but rather imitation and a cause-and-effect “hey, I just saw brother/sis do this, if I do the same thing, will I get the same reaction?”

    I’ve noticed them imitate each other with naughty behavior (lifting the garbage can lid, pulling on the curtains, trying to touch a plug). The second I scold and remove one from the object, the other one is right there doing the same thing. It seems to me that they are curious if it will result in the same reaction from us.

    Our daughter is definitely a dramatic, wail-over-nothing for attention type, and I think she’s capable of manipulation (and does it). BUT, when I see them imitate each other, it really doesn’t strike me as manipulation, but rather a “oh, what if I do the same thing?” experiment. They also do this with things we think are funny and laugh at them about….the second one gets a chuckle out of us, the other one is trying to recreate the same action.

    Just my two cents 🙂

    • You just described the scenes in our house all day long! You’re right it’s definitely a cause-and-effect game. A friend of mine called me after this posting and she told me her family therapist encouraged her to give in to the behavior and give the child the attention she needs. Sure enough, it worked! So, research is showing that you are on to something.Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate your two cents!

  6. My girls do the same thing and they are only 10 months old. They know if they fall I will run over and pick them up. Throughout the day they stand, fall on their butts (softly) and cry. I go over, pick them up, and kiss them. I know when it is fake because the cry is 100% different. Kids will learn to manipulate but if innocent like this I just go with it. Once they get to be older and really plan things out to get their way we will have a discussion.

  7. Do not worry so much about motives and meanings of behaviour of these precious lives. They are wanting love and affirmation. Spontaneous, unrationed love will never spoil a child. Have not read that anywhere. No Spock or Dobson in my distant past either. You and Chris are great! Do not be weary

  8. I totally agree with Aida on this. Definitely not manipulation. She’s yearning for what she saw her sister get.. love and affection.. comfort. She’s way too young to know any other way. 😉 As for discipline, I think they’re still too young. Once the girls got to be closer to 2, we started the little “pop on the toosh.” However, they were warned a head of time in a very nice way. Too, you can do the time out, but remember to only do it for 2 minutes at a time. But again, both of these are things to consider more on down the road,,, like 19-19 months. You guys are awesome. I know God will guide you like he did us. 🙂

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