Fake Crying; Is It Manipulation?

Are toddlers capable of manipulation? (Tl;dr answer is no, their brains only *start* developing those skills as pre-schoolers)

One of the examples that is often held up as ‘proof’ that a toddler is manipulating, was ‘faking emotions’.

Let’s look into why this doesn’t usually mean what we think it means.

Are toddlers capable of fake crying, coughing, looking sad, etc? Yes.

Do they do this ‘for attention’? Yes, but not in the way that we think.

Playing with emotions is a huge part of literacy development (that is: speaking, reading and understanding languages) as well as emotional literacy development (understanding appropriate social cues, behaviour and emotional regulation).

Our babies start this acquisition of skills from birth by intensely watching faces. As soon as they work out how to control their mouths, they start copying how we open and shut our mouths when talking. But they have no ability to make purposeful changes to the way they sound (cry) yet.

Between 2-7 months old, the way that babies breathe starts to change. Now they are capable of what’s called ‘speech breathing’.

Speech breathing is what allows us to both change the sounds we are using (by stringing them together in different combinations or by altering the tone) and to automatically assess how much air we need in our lungs and the speed at which we can release it without running out of breath mid-word/sentence.

At 2+ months, your baby might start showing an ability to change the pitch of their cries (hence sleep trainers’ claims of being able to differentiatedifferent types of crying e.g. ‘protest crying’). By four months they can identify that different facial expressions convey different emotions.

By 7 months, they will be babbling. And if you pay attention, you may notice that they will babble in the form of a conversation. They say something, you say something, they reply. They’re still also intensely watching your face for clues. They aren’t speaking words yet, but they’re mastering sentences,  paragraphs and tone.

This continues as they learn real words. So does their intense interest in watching people’s faces. What’s this got to do with fake crying? That’s their next major learning leap.

Just like how they have identified that voice modulation can show a variety of tones, they’ve noticed that facial expressions and body language can either improve understanding of communication or hinder it, improve how confident they feel about attempting something, or infer disappointment.

Babies instinctively understand body language and tone, long before they understand actual words. Hence why if you do the “Still Face” experiment with a baby or toddler, they get distressed. They’re realising that something doesn’t match up between the body language and the voice/actions of the person and there’s an instinctive “wrongness”.

Toddlers are  curious and our “fake crying” toddler has a hypothesis - people treat you differently when you show different emotions.

It’s an emotional literacy lesson first and foremost but it ties back to language literacy as well.

And just like when they were babies gaping like fish as you talked, or starting to practice using tone and sentences, they mimic what they see in other people.

So they start testing their hypothesis by pretending to cry, or cough, or laugh or look sad and seeing how people respond.

It’s not manipulation. It’s dramatic play

And dramatic play is the bedrock of social development as well as an important pre-literacy skill. It is through dramatic play that your child will learn story creation, sequencing of events, reenactment and other literacy skills.

It’s also where they get to practice emotional/social skills. Playing house, tea parties, police and robbers etc. They’re testing out roles and social conventions.

So when our toddlers ‘fake’ cry, ‘for attention’ they’re not manipulating. They’re testing a hypothesis.

Learning to accurately understand human communication is both verbal and non-verbal, strengthening their understanding of language and they’re just dipping their toes into the concepts of dramatic play which will cement huge amounts of their language and social/emotional development as pre-schoolers.