Friday, June 29, 2007

Re-Training a Princess

I said I wanted to write a post on why the charming/innocent/wide-eyed princess behavior is so difficult to respond to. I don't necessarily mean that it is more difficult than other behaviors to deal with calmly. Which behaviors affect us emotionally depend on different factors, including our own personalities.

What I mean is that it is difficult to know how to respond to it. It is the sort of behavior that gets reinforced.

Let's take a simple case: imagine dealing with a kid who speaks disrespectfully to you. You can (1) clearly explain what behavior you want the child to stop; (2) explain and model the sort of behavior you want in its place; (3) refuse to respond to the negative behavior; and (4) reward the positive behavior.

Now it might not be easy to do this consistently, but at least you know what you need to do. The child calls you a b*tch and you pretend not to hear or remind the child that that is inappropriate. The child does not get your attention until after he or she addresses you appropriately.

See? Simple. Not necessarily easy to do, but simple to plan.

But what do you do about a Princess? How do you explain what is wrong with making your eyes too wide, or using that particularly sweet tone of voice, or smiling while making eye contact? How do you model the behavior you want? How do you explain to someone who is seven or fourteen or forty what the difference is?

But let's say somehow you manage that. Somehow you get the person to understand the difference. First, be sure to write up how you did it and send it to the rest of us. Second, you need to figure out how to only reward the non-manipulative behavior.

Please forgive me, but I'm going to give an example from dog training. You may know that if you want your dog to stop doing something, you must not reward the behavior, ever. Our Cattle Dog tends to bark at us when we are playing fetch with her. She brings us the ball and we pick it up (with the plastic ball-throwing device) and she barks at us. We have been trying to stop this behavior for years, but we haven't had much success. See, we want to throw the ball for her. That's the point of playing fetch. The goal is that whenever she barks, we drop our arm. When she calms down, we throw. And it would work too, except sometimes, actually quite often, she barks when we are in the beginning of a throw and we can't or don't stop. So though I know that I did not throw the ball because she barked, from her perspective, it just worked.

Princess behavior, lying, and other forms of manipulation are like that, only worse.

What do you do when you meet your little princess in the kitchen in the morning and ask, "Cereal or eggs?" and she bats her eyes at you and says, "Eggs, please." Do you not feed her? Calmly tell her that she can only have her eggs if she asks with less charm?

Of course you can stop rewarding the behavior in terms of no longer letting the kid get away with breaking the rules. That may help. But from the princess's perspective, the behavior continues to work, just not quite as well. Our princess engages in a behavior and sometimes gets what she wants, and so the behavior is rewarded, and the behavior continues.

I'm not saying that this behavior cannot be modified, but I am saying that it is really, really difficult. I do know that what must be done is beyond me. The thought of trying to explain what the behavior is that I want and then to insist upon it constantly is too much for me.

So I am committed to just not letting myself get pushed into doing something I don't want to do, and trying not to let myself get too annoyed by it.

I've done really well in the three hours I've been working on it. Rhonda (that seems like such a mis-fit name know that I know her) wanted to go to the store. I told her that I had already gone. She said, "If you go again will you take me?" I said something ambiguous. The truth is that I haven't told her that she is not allowed to go to the store with me. I'm not certain that she is really not allowed, I just know that I don't want to go anywhere with her. A couple hours later she came out and asked if I was going to go. I said no, Hubby was off shopping right now.

"But you promised you would tell me so I could go too!" Imagine here the face of someone who has just been betrayed by her very best friend.

"I don't remember saying that, but in any case you won't be able to get to the store tonight."

"Why not?"

"Because no one is going to take you."

"But I really want to go" she says, her lip almost trembling, eyes pitiful. I swear she looks like my dog does when I accidentally step on her tail.

"Sorry, you're not going." I find that right now I am managing to be impressed with the performance, which is better than being furious.

She holds the pitiful face, just looking at me.

I pat her on the shoulder and say, "Really good try, but you're not going."

She adds a dash of confusion to the look of pain and betrayal.

I go back to my book and eventually she walks off.

I have no illusions though. Sometime soon she will come up to ask me if she can do something that she is allowed to do. She will throw me her best, most charming look, and I will not even notice. I will say, "Of course you may."

And she will smile in triumph.


  1. Thank you!!!!!!
    post at my blog

  2. What a difficult position you're in. Of course you don't want to reward manipulative behavior, but how do you "untrain" her without getting rid of some of her courtesy?

    I'm a pretty cheerful person...and I was brought up to believe that even if I was in a nasty mood, I should at least act pleasant to those around me. I had a boss who was disgruntled allll the time. She hated computers, and had hired me to be her designer, and also to update her computer software. One day, she stuck her head in the office and said "oh, by the way, when you finish that, will we be able to blah blah blah (something to do with the new software)?" I said "No problem!" with a cheerful smile.

    She went ballistic, screaming at me not to condescend to her, and how dare I, stop that fake sh*t, etc., etc., etc. All I meant with my cheerful, smiling and sincere response was "I'd be happy to do that and should easily be able to fulfill your request, boss!" What she heard was "that's easy, you dumb bitch!" said with fake cheer.

    Where do you draw the line? After Rhonda has manipulated you with her eye-batting routine once, how do you know when she's manipulating, or whether you're reading in ulterior motives to her smiling demeanor?

    (I'm seriously asking, and not at all accusing you of misreading her!)

  3. The only thing I can think of is to make it so whether or not she's forbidden something has nothing to do with being asked. Like a really, really detailed version of the rules posted on the fridge. "Can I go to the store?" "No." "Can I go to the store cutely?" "No, what do the rules say?" "Can I adorably eat some broccoli?" "What does it say on the fridge?" "It says I can." "Then sure."

    I'm not sure if it would work, but if you have most of the things she asks for already covered, so it doesn't matter if she cranks up the sweetness, maybe that would help.
    Or maybe not. I am not a parent, so it's all hypothetical to me.

  4. Depending on how immature/age-inappropriate the behaviour is, could you treat it somewhat like whining? So high-pitched voice w/ batting eyelashes gets rewarded with a firm "please ask me in a way that reflects your maturity" (or something along those lines). Princess behaviour is significantly more effect when you are young - at 14 (right?) you might actually be in a position to discourage it. I also like the fixed rules/impartial authority approach.

    Ugh, good luck. Any way you cut it the whole thing sounds fairly unpleasant.

  5. Why does it matter if she's cute about asking for something she's allowed to have? For that matter, why does it even matter if she's cute about asking for something she isn't allowed to have, as long as you don't give in? I'm sure we all do it sooner or later.

    I have a girl like this at youth group and the way I deal with it is it just doesn't work, and it consistently doesn't work, in that she is not gonna get anything just by making puppy dog eyes. If she wants something she can say "may I ... please" just like everybody else. If it's something she can have, I say yes, just like everybody else. If it's something she can't have, I say no, just like everybody else. No drama about it either way.

    If she then makes puppy dog eyes I say "puppy dog eyes aren't gonna help you." If she says "you're mean" I say "yep." If she says "I want ..." I say "you can't always get what you want," plus from time to time, the whole group gets the "don't bother talking about what you want" talk. (It's actually one of our rules at youth group, that you don't say "I want.") If she says "no fair" I say "life's not fair." If she makes to start crying I say "don't start crying." And if she says "but you said ..." and I did say it, I explain why I'm going back on what I said, e.g. "I'm sorry I told you you could, I had forgotten I also told M. she could, so she'll do it this time and you'll do it next time." Then the next time I'm more careful about what I say, e.g. she asks "can I light the Coleman at supper" and I say "I'm not gonna say yes or no right now or I'll forget what I said to whom again - we'll just decide this when it's time to light the Coleman."

    It works. I've had her for nine months, she doesn't cry to get her way with me anymore, and usually she'll be content with just ONE follow-up comment of the "you're mean" variety and walk away. But some times I can see that it's wearing on her, and that's a good time to give her a hug before she gets high-maintenance, and tell her I'm impressed with her.

    So to summarize, just say "yes" or "no" the same as if she wasn't being cute. It's not a big deal and it's not something that you're going to break her of in a few days of respite.

  6. I'm not sure I've ever posted, I'm a long time lurker, but man, you hit the nail on the head with this one. I'd like to print this and show it to my foster daughter's case worker.

    In my case, my foster daughter is three. Yep, three. Pretty hard to get anyone who doesn't live with her to see that a three year old is being manipulative with the big eyes, sweet smile, and just a *dab* of baby talk. But oh, it is so clear to those of us who live with her! I spent months venting and trying to get someone, a friend, her social worker (she has two, both of whom I respect greatly), my mom, someone!, to see it. Then I gave up.

    But, Thank GAWD there are people like you and gawdess who *get it*.

    One of these days I should start a blog, and stop being a lurker, cause y'all are my lifeline!

    And Carolie, it is a good question. I am *constantly* trying to figure out if I'm reading into behavior, or if it is just really typical kids stuff. It is so much harder with the princess routine!

  7. I have three princesses. It takes a tremendous amount of time and patience and consistency to eliminate (most) of that habit. Meanwhile, everyone around me can't understand what I'm frustrated about, as they all seem like charming young ladies. ARGH!

    Thank goodness others, like you, understand!


Comments will be open for a little while, then I will be shutting them off. The blog will stay, but I do not want either to moderate comments or leave the blog available to spammers.