The Poison of Manipulation

I grew up in the 1960s. Lots of good stuff back then. My dad only bought Pepsi in glass bottles, new and fancy cars were built with air conditioning, and we routinely watched 16mm movies in school. The teachers barely knew how to thread these complicated machines, so often some nerd in the A/V or science fiction club was required to help. Yes, to answer your question, I was in the science fiction club, get off my back—we all have things in our past we’re not proud of.

Anyway… while watching one of those great science films in the 1960s, I saw a film (black and white) of a truck fitted with a tank. This truck was fogging a residential street with DDT. This was a wonder pesticide of the forties. This chemical was a metaphor of human superiority over nature. Mosquitos were killed, and Malaria rates plummeted. In agricultural settings, bugs were eliminated and crops thrived. DDT was used everywhere and on everything. We were shown this clip filmed in the 1940s because by the mid 1960s, it was well known that DDT was a toxic chemical that killed bugs and all kinds of other things—for decades. It persisted in the environment affecting animals, birds, and humans long after it was banned in the US in 1972. It was then banned worldwide for agricultural uses in 2001. The black and white film clip was released in 1947 to illustrate the safety of this wonder pesticide so the truck in the film clip fogged that residential street—as laughing and well-dressed kids ran in and out of the pesticide vapor. I am not kidding. Other kids splashed in a large public pool while a man playfully covered them in DDT fog.

Just because you are not alarmed by something does not mean it is without harm.

Imagine now a 1947 black and white film of a white-gloved woman shopping for a house together with her husband. They pull up to the curb in a Ford sedan the size of a small yacht. They glance to the right and see a lovely two-bedroom home with a for sale sign staked crookedly in the grass.

“Jane, dear, this house is the cat’s pajamas! Right in our price range and close to the office, too. What do you say?”

“Darling, that house is so—quaint and small. Don’t you think a man of your stature in the community is expected to live in a larger, more substantial home?”

The unwitting man pulls the pipe from his teeth.

“Bunny, dear, you are always thinking of me, aren’t you? Of course, you’re right and—I like your moxie. Let’s keep looking.”

She is not fogging him with DDT but an even more deadly poison. She is subjecting him to the poison of manipulation. I’ve come to believe that one of the worst sins Christians commit but don’t feel badly about is the sin of manipulation. To manipulate someone, you either fool them into doing something they don’t want to do, or you overpower them to the same end result.

Psychologist Preston Ni has a good definition of manipulation that helps us see more clearly what is actually in that toxic fog:

“Psychological manipulation can be defined as the exercise of undue influence through mental distortion and emotional exploitation, with the intention to seize power, control benefits and privileges at the victim’s expense.”

We’ve all been on the business end of this kind of behavior, and we can recall quite vividly how small and powerless or deceived we felt. This is a total violation of the laws of relationship. We never want to experience this again, but most of us have done this to our spouse and our kids without thinking much about it. This is the opposite of loving others more than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). Manipulation is using others to get what I want at their expense. Preston Ni has also placed manipulation into five categories:

Negative manipulation: Designed to gain superiority by causing the victim to feel inferior, inadequate, insecure, and/or self-doubt.

Positive manipulation: Designed to bribe the victim emotionally to win favors, concessions, sacrifices, and/or commitments.

Deception and Intrigue: Designed to distort the perception of the victim for easier control.

Strategic helplessness: Designed to exploit the victim’s good will, guilty conscience, sense of duty and obligation, or protective and nurturing instinct.

Hostility and Abuse: Designed to dominate and control the victim through overt aggression.

In the house-buying example above, the wife used a combination of positive manipulation and deception, rendering the man to believe that passing up the house was in his best interest, when in reality the wife simply wanted a bigger, more impressive home. It would have been perfectly acceptable for her to say, “Oh, darling, I was hoping for a larger, more substantial home. Can we keep looking?” In this version, she expressed her feelings but she did it honestly. No one was harmed in the making of this sentence.

In parenting, how often do we use negative manipulation to lead our children to do what we want? We use this strategy out of habit and, most often, expediency. After all, isn’t it easier to change your child/teen’s behavior though strategic helplessness than to address the issue head on? There is a difference in telling your teenage daughter, “You are twelve years old, and I will not allow you to get a tattoo. I’m sorry but it’s not open for discussion.” Though your daughter will feel frustrated and perhaps misunderstood, the message is clear, and it does not harm the soul of your daughter. She is not the problem; the proposed tattoo is the problem.

You could try to accomplish the same thing with manipulation by saying something like: “Are you TRYING to embarrass me?! I can’t believe you would even ask such a crazy thing!” In this case, the parent is using negative manipulation, which creates shame. Here, the tattoo is not the actual issue; you would be saying your daughter is stupid and thoughtless of others (i.e. you the parent). You are in effect saying that she would be willing to harm other people for the sake of fashion. In the first example, she is “too young,” while the second says, “you are bad and shameful.” Humiliating your teen in this way is an act of hostility and is done out of habit or modeling your parents’ parenting style. This is essentially using the muscle memory programmed over a lifetime of manipulation.

Commonly, a parent will defend the wounding and shaming through manipulation by stating that it was only done for the benefit of the teen. Rather than face a discussion of the facts of a situation, or rationalize through tough subjects, parents claim it is for the teen’s benefit to lead them through manipulation to the parents’ decision. The toxic fog of manipulation is for the child’s benefit?!

Looking at my own parenting and relationships, I have used this type of manipulation, and I’ve done it to those I love most. It is convicting to evaluate my own parenting style and realize I have become what I most don’t want to be. The muscle memory of manipulation is rewarded by compliant children and teens, but I want my kids and those I love to feel safe and respected around me, not dominated and shamed by me. I want to communicate honestly and say what I mean, while protecting those I am talking to.

As in most behavior modification programs, simple awareness is the first step. I am reminded in Scripture that we are called to build each other up:

So encourage each other to build each other up, just as you are already doing. 1 Thessalonians 5:11

This week, as you journey through carpool, sports, homework, dinner, errands, etc., be more aware of your communication with your children. Ask yourself if you use guilt, shame, and manipulations to shape your child’s behavior. When confronted with a toxic fog situation, follow these steps:

  1. Identify the real issue. As with the example above, the issue is the lasting implication of a tattoo, not that your daughter is a bad and selfish person for desiring a tattoo.
  2. Take a moment to break down the muscle memory of your initial response, and identify how to address the issue without resorting to manipulation, no matter how small and harmless it may seem.
  3. Communicate honestly and say what you mean while addressing things with your teens and children, in effect reprogramming yourself and those you love most.

We can care for each other better and in a much more Christ-like way by working to identify manipulation and eliminate it from our homes and conversations. We are called by Scripture to build up one another, and banishing manipulation is a really important way to protect those we love and begin to repair our bruised or strained relationships.

Dave Carl is the Family Ministry Pastor at Stonebriar Community Church and is responsible for the ministry focusing on children birth through graduation and the parents who love them. With a ministry philosophy based on Luke 10:27, his primary focus is to give parents the skills to raise kids who truly love Jesus and want to serve others. Dave has a passion for ministering to families in crisis in our community. He has spent several years pouring into fathers and husbands and helping them learn that they need community, were designed to guard and protect, and that they really can be the spiritual leaders of their family.

Dave and his wife Cathy of 20 plus years have three children with one married, one in college, and one in high school. Dave is an avid woodworker and loves to write. He sees all stories in the form of pictures in his head, and he would love to connect with you!

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