I was talking with a girl who is studying childhood development here in Chicago. She’s from South Korea. While she isn’t learning a whole lot at school, she is learning a lot at home with her host family who has a 17 month baby and a three year old boy. Lately, the three year old has been crying in the middle of the night for his momma. The parents think at his age the boy ought to have more fortitude, so they decided to leave him alone until he’s finished crying and goes to sleep. But the other night, says the girl, the boy- after failing to get his mother’s attention with ‘Momma! Momma!’- started to shout, ‘I pooped! I pooped!’ Of course, the mother rushed in to take care of her son but the toddler was as free of poop as a constipation convention.
This, the girl from South Korea tells me, just goes to show how intelligent three year olds can be. Intelligent? Try manipulative. Baby humans know how to lie like baby sea turtles know how to run to the sea. Instinct. Which, to the toddlers’ credit, isn’t a bad thing. In fact, in this context, it’s probably wrong to frame lying in moral terms. A three year old human being has absolutely no way of fending for itself; it can’t hunt it can’t gather it can’t do shit. The only way a three year old can ensure its survival is this: getting attention. From mom, dad, brothers and sisters, anyone who will take care of him.
Trust me. I’m speaking from experience as a youngest child. We’re prodigies; we make attention-getting an art-form before we can even lift up our heads. We grab undivided attention like a windowsill collects dust. Have you ever met a youngest child who wasn’t an entertainer? Exactly. They didn’t make it to their fourth birthday.
We lie. We cry. We tell you we pooped when really we didn’t. We see that makes you laugh and that when you laugh you stick around. So we make that our sole objective. Laughter.
During childhood development, manipulation in the form of lying or entertainment isn’t bad, it’s strategic. The problem arises when the three year old boy becomes a twenty three year old man-boy who still relies on telling people (now not only the caregiver but girlfriends, boyfriends, teachers, friends and even strangers) he pooped himself in order to get their attention. Only he doesn’t use literal ‘poop’. He acts troubled, like he has a heavy weight you couldn’t imagine carrying; he makes you worried for his survival; he emits cries of help without appearing to be intentionally doing so. Oh but I was.
This is when we can put on the lens of morality. When old justifiable behaviors from childhood are practiced unjustly as an adult. One of my biggest problems is people-pleasing. It’s so pernicious and indelible because it’s so innocuous and accepted. I’m nice. But not because I’m honestly motivated from within to do nice things, but I have a fear that if not- if not!? ‘Momma! Momma!’
I’ll die, alone and abandoned. Or be killed by the tribe for failing to be good.
OK, it’s not that extreme. Just because I’m nice, entertaining, or pleasing to you doesn’t mean I’m manipulating you. But sometimes it does. I’ve caught myself doing it with bosses (ass-kissing) landlords (more ass-kissing) and authority figures (smooch!). I don’t do it with people I don’t depend on. In fact, I can be haughty, if not an out-right bully with people I absolutely do not depend upon. That’s not the true me, but it’s a part of me, just as much as the adorable me.
Help me. Next time we’re talking ask, What are you really thinking, Ben? What is it you want?