Reactive devaluation and reverse psychology: Or, how to get the house clean

Hurricane Joaquin may have missed the East Coast. But if you have a small kid, then Hurricane [small kid’s name] probably hits often.

Keeping a house clean with a small child around seems impossible. And without the child’s assistance, it probably is. But a thoughtful approach can elicit said assistance and make even this mess negotiable!

When you ask a small child to clean up the egregious mess they just made—say by emptying a toy chest then propelling its contents across three counties—they often say “no.” Now there are many potential reasons for the “no,” along with many potentially appropriate responses. But a common reason is reactive devaluation: automatically discounting what somebody says because of the particular somebody who said it. Small kids, like business negotiators (and teenagers), often automatically disagree with a request just because it came from a perceived “opponent”—in this case, a parent.

Well, at least for small kids, knowledge of the reason paves the way for a potentially appropriate response: reverse psychology. The kid is doing the opposite of what you want because of who you are. You can’t change who you are, but you certainly can say the opposite of what you want, at which point the kid will likely do the opposite of the opposite of what you want—that is, what you want. “Billy,” you could say, “please—whatever you do—DON’T pick up all of those toys. Get yourself dressed, take a nap, wash your face, but DEFINITELY don’t walk around picking up your toys.” Notice how you’re contrasting the toy pickup with three other activities that Billy doesn’t much like but you do, just in case he decides to drop the reactive devaluation.

I’ve seen reverse psychology in action—it works, particularly with feisty / smart / willful kids (not that I know any of those). But it has some clear drawbacks that you should know before making it your go-to. First, it fundamentally involves deception—you want Billy to clean up his toys, and you’re telling him you don’t. Is lying to achieving your personal goals the kind of strategy you want Billy to learn (remembering that he will eventually become a teenager)? Probably not. In addition, on a more practical level, it sends the message that you don’t give a rat’s behind about the cleanliness of the house, which you most certainly do, and which Billy may eventually take to heart. Finally, Billy will eventually figure it out. In other words, you may get a few messes cleaned up through reverse psychology, but Billy will eventually learn your tricks and consequently ignore your requests not to do things. That will surely catch up with you and Billy eventually.

This is all to say that reverse psychology is an effective antidote to small kids’ reactive devaluation. But it’s a strategy to use mindfully and sparingly, in moments of true desperation.

What do you think of reverse psychology – do the benefits outweigh the costs?

2 thoughts on “Reactive devaluation and reverse psychology: Or, how to get the house clean

  1. Pingback: The musings of 2015 | Brian Gunia

  2. Pingback: Work-life balance as a negotiation with yourself | Brian Gunia

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