Playing dumb is defiant

Ignoring the “playing dumb” game is a parental mistake that would seriously limit a child’s future achievements.

By acting stupid, a child should not be allowed to purposely frustrate parents into lowering their standards of what a child should and can do. The manipulation of parents by children has become an art form.

Any observant adult has seen the phenomena of a child “playing dumb.” It could be one of our own children, a grandchild or a neighbor’s child who plays this game. The modus operandi is always the same. The child flashes a blank face to a reasonable request by the adult. The adult is paralyzed not knowing how to proceed. Another attempt using a slight variation of the question results in the same vacant expression or a silly smirk.

The child does not comply with the request or answer the question. His staring into space makes it difficult to understand what is, if anything, happening in his mind. The child in the short run wins by cunningly acting dumb but loses in the long run by developing debilitating habits that limit his development and, thus, his destiny.

This game of acting dumb is creative defiance. Instead of saying “I don’t have to answer your stupid request or question,” which will probably get a reprimand, the youngster waits out the adult’s patience. It is a slick way for the child not to do something that others think should or needs to be done.

“Playing dumb” has its roots in prolonged daydreaming and avoidance behavior. Daydreaming is the ability to transport the mind while the body remains stationary. “Avoidance” is making sure the individual does not come in personal proximity to certain authority figures who might require something from him that he does not want to do. As the child is called out for daydreaming and avoidance he “ups the ante” by acting as if he has forgotten his native tongue. This vacant look thwarts most adults from demanding an answer to a simple question or completing a task.

The frightening aspect of “playing dumb” is that it is so effective in disarming adults. When the child does not openly challenge the adult’s expectations and demands, the adult is emotionally diffused. Instead of becoming angry when being ignored, the adult is puzzled. Does he understand or not?

When a child is young, he might not answer a simple question like “what is the name of this color.” The child refuses to answer correctly even though he has mastered all the color names. As a child gets older he may act like he does not knows how to clean up his room, make his bed or do his homework that he has done many times before. The child’s repertoire of masterful performances is accomplished by many years of practice and refining these “playing dumb” acts.

The embarrassment and frustration of the parents motivates them to work harder to disguise their child’s non-compliance. The parent does the chores for the child instead of making the child responsible for doing it himself. It is easier than confronting and fighting with the child.

This “game player” blows his cover of playing disabled when she wants to do something she finds interesting. The “dumb” mask falls off, replaced with an enthusiastic, bright-eyed one. The child becomes motivated and alert to complete an activity of interest. Playing with her doll, a sport, a board game, riding a four-wheeler or diving into the world of dinosaurs or Disney elevates the energy level exposing the child’s innate intelligence.

People who are intimate with the child such as parents, siblings and teachers know the child is not defective but are generally frustrated with the self-defeating shenanigans. Adults intuitively know the child has the potential to become successful although they have confusion as to the best way to stop him from using these pathetic, self-defeating games.

The major problem of these children is a lack of discipline. They have had poorly executed external discipline from the adults in their lives and have not found a purpose to which to commit themselves. Once the child has external discipline imposed on him, he will learn the benefits of doing something that he may not like. Eventually the child learns to internalize the external discipline developing a level of self-discipline and independence.

The positive habit of meeting the authority’s expectation before he is allowed to do something of his own choosing is a major pivotal point in the child’s future. The child moves from daydreaming, avoidance or acting dumb to taking a proactive stance of completing adult requests before beginning his own activities that he finds interesting.

It is the parent’s responsibility to outsmart their little game player. By knowing their child, the parent’s demand that the child does things they know he can accomplish before giving him what he finds valuable. The child conforms to the parent or teacher because he knows the adult means business. “No trip to the museum or going to recess until this task has been done.” The more the child follows instructions and commands without resorting to the game, the more appropriate and healthy the child becomes.

The parent’s resolve to demand higher and higher standards helps the child to be convinced he can do anything he puts his mind to do. By authority figures standing strong, the child’s passive defiance withers giving way to the child’s choosing to focus on the task at hand and completing it in a proper and timely manner.

As the “dumb game” recedes the child gains competency in more skills that leads to genuine self-confidence. to excellence in everything, equaling success.

Dr. Domenick J. Maglio, Ph.D., is the author of “Invasion Within” and “Essential Parenting.” He is a psychotherapist and the owner/director of Wider Horizons School. Visit:

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