Manipulating Emotions

Dear Reader,

In preparation for the upcoming Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival, I began reading through the section of Charlotte’s third book entitled “We are educated by our intimacies.” I didn’t get very far, however, before I was stopped in my tracks by this passage:

“I need not again insist upon the nature of our educational tools. We know well that “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.” In other words, we know that parents and teachers should know how to make sensible use of a child’s circumstances (atmosphere) to forward his sound education; should train him in the discipline of the habits of the good life; and should nourish his life with ideas, the food upon which personality waxes strong.

These three we believe to be the only instruments of which we may make lawful use in the upbringing of children; and any short cut we take by trading on their sensibilities, emotions, desires, passions, will bring us and our children to grief. The reason is plain; habits, ideas, and circumstances are external, and we may all help each other to get the best that is to be had of these; but we may not meddle directly with the personality of child or man. We may not work upon his vanity, his fears, his love, his emulation, or any thing that is his by very right, anything that goes to make him a person.” (pp. 182-83; emphasis mine)

I don’t know about you, but I find this passage very convicting. We live in a culture in which trying to influence others through their emotions and appetites is common practice. Think of advertisements and just how often we are exposed to them. Think of the stereotype of the mother laying a guilt trip on her child. I am showing my own bias here — but think also of so many churches in which the emotions are manipulated through music, performance, dramatics.

There are a few things going on here, I think. One is that we have accepted as truth that it is okay to be ruled by our emotions. Feeling something makes it right. If I do not love my spouse, it is okay to leave him or her lest I not be true to myself. And once we accept that emotions legitimate action, it make sense to control others through their emotions.

Now I don’t want to go to far and discount emotions altogether. Though it does at time seem to me as if they are the most fallen aspect of our human nature, they are none the less God-given and can guide us rightly if they are used rightly. It is a mistake too to ignore feelings altogether and to rely only on intellect, on what we can reason out. We become very cold, dry people if we do this. And there is a place too, both in religion and parenting, for an appeal to the emotions. But I think we must distinguish this — the appeal to the emotions– from manipulating emotions. The difference may be subtle but I think it lies in how we address our fellow man. If we seek only an emotional response, we manipulate. If, on the other hand, we combine the emotional aspect with the intellect, we create a more balanced approach. The former seeks to change people without regard for that they really think. The latter seeks to influence but not at the expense of the other person’s own opinions. It may use emotion but it seeks to convince, not to force.

So how does this affect what we actually do as parents? I am only beginning to think about this myself, but here are some preliminary ideas I have had:

  • We must be honest with our children. It is amazing how many times parents aren’t. These are often little lies along the lines of “no, I don’t have to money to buy you that toy today.” They are designed to prevent argument from the child and ensure their cooperation. But they are lies nonetheless. They don’t give the child credit for being able to understand more complex reasoning. And, of course, they ultimately destroy the parent-child relationship.

I know a mom who told her child they could not legally ride in the front seat of the car till age 12. This is not true in this state. It might be a wise decision, but it is not a law. I am sure the mom thought that by saying it was, that she was avoiding any argument, any efforts to convince her to change her mind. But she was also not allowing the child the opportunity both to understand the mother’s thinking and to perhaps try to use her  own.

  • Don’t lay guilt trips on your children. This is a tough one. When our child sins, it is very tempting to make sure they feel the full extent of what they have done. After all, they must be aware of their guilt in order to repent, right? I am not saying we should not point out sin. We should. But there is a difference between pointing out and driving home that point. I myself have done this far too often.
  • Be very careful with rewards and punishments. Use them sparingly. After all, our goal is not to get our child to do good for the sake of a candy but to do good for its own sake.
  • Don’t try to frighten them into good behavior. Making them aware of natural consequences is okay, as in “you can’t run into the street; you might get hit by a car” or even “if you don’t clean your room, you cannot go to your friend’s house.” But we should not use fear to control our children’s behavior.
  • Be careful of excessive or false praise. Your child is likely not the prettiest or smartest that ever was; don’t tell the they are. And when they fail, you can be compassionate without  lying to them. They need to go through failure too.

So why do we do these things? Why do we seek to manipulate our children? Often there is the underlying belief that they are ours to be manipulated. We care very much about how they turn out, rightly so, but we forget that they are their own people, made in the image of God, and that they are not ultimately ours to control or shape. I think we also on some level lack the faith that God is in charge of them and that He is shaping them as He will. We take too much of a burden our ourselves and forget that this is the work of the Holy Spirit. We either don’t trust that He is working in them or we don’t think He is doing it the right way. I have said this before, but it bears repeating — I think a lot of what the Charlotte Mason approach calls us to is letting go, not seeking to control every aspect of our children’s development but trusting that there is Someone greater who is working in them.


3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by nellekeplouffe on August 10, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    Good thoughts. I especially appreciated your last point about the Holy Spirit’s work.


  2. […] start with two posts from Letters from Nebby, first, we need to avoid emotional manipulation. This is a huge issue for our culture, not just children but adults are subject to […]


  3. […] start with two posts from Letters from Nebby, first, we need to avoid emotional manipulation. This is a huge issue for our culture, not just children but adults are subject to […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s