6 Reasons Your Child Might Play Dumb, and How to Respond


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He could solve the same problem yesterday, but denies knowing anything about it today. You’ve already coaxed him, pleaded with him, maybe even punished him, to no avail.

Does your child ever “play dumb” this way? Don’t worry – it’s perfectly normal for this behavior to surface in a child, although it can be very frustrating for the parent!

Here are a few things that could cause this behavior in your little one:

1. Your child might be testing you. They know how you will react when they give the right answer and work well; they want to explore how you react if they give the wrong answer or refuse to answer at all.

2. Your child wants to control the situation. They’ve discovered that you get upset when they follow certain patterns of behavior, and now they are manipulating your feelings, and enjoying the fact that they can predictably cause a certain reaction, even though, in this case, that reaction is negative.

3. Your child wants attention, even if it’s negative attention. If your child does their work well, you might let them work on their own, or you might work with them but don’t spend a lot of time on each question. They’re right, so you move on. By coming up with wrong answers or denying that they are capable of the work, the child slows the process down and ends up receiving a lot more attention from you. Sometimes, they would rather have negative attention than no attention at all.

4. Your child can’t be bothered. They don’t want to do the work, and are evading it by pretending that they can’t do it. They’re getting attention from you, time is passing, and they aren’t doing the work they aren’t interested in.

5. Your child has lost confidence in themselves. Even though your child seemed fine with it yesterday, don’t overlook the possibility that they have lost confidence in their own ability. If they don’t remember something well, or just aren’t sure about themselves, and are afraid of disappointing you with a wrong answer, they might avoid giving an answer at all.

6. Your child is trying to “get” something from you. Have you ever offered incentives for your child to do something that they haven’t wanted to do, such as chores, or behaving well in a certain situation? If so, your child might be fishing for incentives, hoping that they’ll get something for doing their work if they refuse to do it first.

Do any of these seem to be a possible cause for the behavior you’re observing in your child? If so, here are a few strategies that might help (determine the cause of your child’s behavior before choosing a strategy; not all strategies work with all causes):

1. Pay more positive attention. Instead of paying a lot of negative attention to your child over wrong answers or a refusal to answer, pay more positive attention to him when they do well. This will reverse their perception of what to do for your attention, and encourage them to do their best.

2. Ignore the situation. If your child is out to get negative attention, and you ignore the situation, not giving them the attention they want, they’ll stop looking for attention that way. At the same time, make sure you have time to spend with them each day and given them plenty of ways to get your attention positively. You could even link this directly to the assignment, by saying things like, “as soon as you finish x, we’ll stop and do y together”.

3. Set a logical consequence. Discourage the behavior by attaching it to an unwanted, but logical consequence  such as, “If you take much longer before completing x, we’re not going to have time for y” (where y is something desirable to the child). It is important to use logic here if you want the child to understand the intrinsic connection between their behavior and the consequence; arbitrary disciplinary consequences might cause a child to change their behavior to avoid something unwanted, but increase the child’s understanding or internal motivation.

4. Praise your child for their effort instead of for the “answer”. Don’t forget that kids naturally want to please their parents. If you habitually praise your child for giving the right answer, they can start to feel as though they only please you by having the right answer. If they lose confidence and aren’t sure they have the right answer, they would rather evade doing the work than demonstrate a weakness that might lesson your image of them. If you praise them for their effort and dedication more than for their outcome, they will be more willing to work things through even when they don’t know the right answer because they know you will be pleased with their effort. Note: This strategy is only effective if the child has actually lost confidence in their abilities – it will not work when the child has truly mastered a skill and is simply refusing to use it.

5. If your child has reached the age of reason, appeal to their reason to help them grow in their internal motivation. This might not be a “quick fix” for the immediate situation, but it will help in the long run, if doing their work changes from something they “have to do” for you to something they want to do because they realize the value of it.

You might need to try several different strategies to hit upon one that works. Once you have identified the most effective strategy for your child, apply it patiently and consistently until they learn your expectations and find more positive ways to express themselves and their desires.

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