Whitewashing Tom Sawyer’s Fence

Every kid eventually discovers this trick. We used to call it “reverse psychology.” Psychotherapists call it a “paradoxical intervention.”

Mark Twain says it best in the story of Tom Sawyer and the fence that Aunt Polly made him whitewash on a beautiful summer day.

Tom Sawyer 1

We’re all familiar with how the clever Tom lit upon the idea of bamboozling his friends to not only paint the fence for him, but to pay for the privilege. Tom pretended he was having too much fun to share the work with anyone else. He reluctantly allows his first victim to give up an apple for the privilege of taking over the chore.

“The retired artist sat on a barrel in the shade close by, dangled his legs, munched his apple, and planned the slaughter of more innocents.”

By getting other kids to pay to work, Tom soon accumulates, among other things, a kite, a dead rat and a string to swing it with, a key that wouldn’t unlock anything, a couple of tadpoles, six fire-crackers, a kitten with only one eye, a dog-collar – but no dog, etc.

As Mark Twain quips: “If he hadn’t run out of whitewash he would have bankrupted every boy in the village.”

The moral of the story? “He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it – namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.”

When I read this book as a child, I tried out my new power. I found out that the best way to get someone to tell me their secret was to say I wasn’t interested in hearing it. They’d soon beg me to listen.

Tom Sawyer 2

Early in my counseling career, a mother brought her 12 year old son to me so I could make him into a compliant child. She said, “It’s a battle every morning to get him ready for school. I have to wake him up 10 times and stand over him, battering him with reminders to brush his teeth, comb his hair, put his shoes on, grab his lunch. I’m sick of it. We’re always late. I’m at my wit’s end.”

I gave the mother an assignment. “You are to nag him even more than you do already,” I said. “And you,” I told the son, “You have to refuse to do anything. Don’t comb your hair. Don’t brush your teeth. Don’t get dressed. No matter what, take longer than you have ever taken before.”

I was really just telling them to do what they’d already been doing. But now I was assigning it.

Tom Sawyer 3

The following week, the mother called me to cancel the next appointment. When I asked why, she said, “My son got himself up and dressed every day without me having to say anything. He said he’ll do whatever I wanted as long as he didn’t have to see that crazy therapist again.”

Another time, a married couple came to me, and the wife was sick of her husband. They sat in my office and the husband begged his wife for another chance. He cried, he pleaded, he practically dropped to his knees and groveled at her feet in front of me. I noticed the wife’s expression. She looked completely disgusted.

“I’m not attracted to him anymore,” she said with a grimace.  “I wish he’d accept that the marriage is over.”

The next time I saw them, I split them up and spoke to each alone. I got the husband to see that his pitiful behavior was a complete turn-off to his wife.

“Don’t you know how to play hard to get?” I asked.

“But I love her. I can’t bear to be without her,” he whimpered.

Tom Sawyer 6

“If you really want to give this one more chance, you need to follow my strategy,” I said. I explained that he had to pretend he was okay with his wife’s decision to divorce him.

“Tell her in a calm, strong voice,” I said, “that although you love her and would prefer to stay in the marriage, you will be fine without her, and you wish her well.”

“But I can’t do that!” he said. “She’ll believe me. She’ll think I don’t love her. She’ll get a lawyer.”

“Listen, it may not work,” I said. “The marriage may already be lost. I guarantee that if you continue on your current path your wife will get more and more disgusted with you. If you put on an act, she might get scared and see she doesn’t want to lose you after all. I believe this is your only hope.”

Can you guess the outcome?

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The husband was so desperate, he actually pulled off the act.

A mere week later they returned to my office. The wife was frantic. “I don’t know what’s wrong with him,” she said worriedly. “This isn’t like him.”

The husband shrugged, “I’m fine,” he said with a straight face. “I’m disappointed that the marriage is over. I still love you, but I know I’ll get over it and meet someone else. I’ll be happy.”

They stayed together. I don’t know how happy they were, but it’s what they both claimed they wanted.

Could you share with me a story of how you once used reverse psychology?

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4 thoughts on “Whitewashing Tom Sawyer’s Fence

    1. While it’s true that mind games are exhausting when they manipulate one person to benefit only the other, some mind games are good for both parties. Like negotiating to buy something and the seller and buyer both feel they got the best deal. Or watching a magician fool us. Or an old favorite – peek a boo.

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