Aha! Parenting Blog

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Should You Negotiate with Your Child?

"I don't negotiate with my kids, I think it would confuse them... And didn't you say in a previous post that parents should stand firm so that children know they can trust them to mean what they say? It seems that allowing negotiation would undermine that, and give the child the impression that the parent isn't confident in the boundary they are enforcing... Wouldn't it make more sense to tell the child in the first place if a particular request is a choice, instead of giving an instruction and then allowing them to negotiate their way out of it?" - Sylv


Sylv is right, of course. If we know that a limit is firm, and we're not open to negotiation, then we need to make that clear:

"The rule is you feed the dog before you come to the dinner table."

"We don't drive the car until everyone has their seat belts on."

By contrast, if we're open to how our child fulfills our request, most children feel more cooperative if they're permitted some choices. No one likes to be pushed around.

"Do you want to put your shoes on first, or your jacket?

"Do you want to wash your face yourself, or do you want me to wash it?"

But what about those times when we set a limit and our child argues with us? If the limit is non-negotiable, we don't negotiate, although we can't blame a child for trying. (A sense of humor really helps.)

"You're saying you're NEVER going to bed? Uh huh, right. Come here, you never-go-to-bed-boy! I'm the bedtime wrassler, and I always get my man!"

Sometimes that means we just have to say No and stick to it. Even when our limit is greeted with tears. But remember, there's no reason to be mean about it. You can be firm and clear about your limit, while still understanding why your child doesn't like it.

"I hear you. It's really hard to stop playing and get ready for bed, when your brother gets to stay up later. When you're eight, you'll be able to stay up later, too. And right now, it's still time for you to get ready for bed. Let's go." 

But there are certainly times, when our child states his preference, that we realize that actually we could give a little, and we'd both be happy. In that case, why not say so at the start? But do it in a way that invites them to partner with you to find a solution that works for both of you.

"Okay, I hear you want to stay at the park longer....And I need to get home in time to get dinner started. What can we do?.....Hmm, staying another 20 minutes doesn't work for me; it doesn't help me get dinner cooked in time....What about this?  Will you two help me peel the potatoes?...Terrific! We found a solution that works for you AND works for me!  We can stay ten minutes longer."

This teaches kids to look for Win/Win solutions, which is an essential relationship skill. Should they get what they want by whining or threatening? Absolutely not. Should they learn that they can get what they want by marshaling good arguments and making them in a reasonable, humorous, charming way that meets your needs as well as theirs? Absolutely, if you want them to get anywhere in life.

The hard part of this is getting clear about just what your needs are, in the midst of the negotiation. Sure, she has to get that peanut butter out of her hair, but can she do it at the kitchen sink instead of in the shower? Sure, he needs shoes, but why can't he carry his sandals to the car and put them on there? It's hard to make these decisions under pressure, so it helps if you can stay calm while you consider. And if you're too stressed to be open to negotiation at that moment, you're allowed to pull rank:

"I hear that you think it would work for me to take you to the store now, then come back and get your brother... That sounds like a lot of driving and I'm already overwhelmed with this busy day... So thanks for trying to come up with an idea, Honey, but today I need to do this the simple way. We need to all be ready to leave in 15 minutes together.  Now, how can we work together to do that?"

Can't this drive you crazy? Yes, which is why you'll probably need to pull rank sometimes and just announce that you're not open to negotiation. Since you usually try to find win/win solutions, your kids will give you the benefit of the doubt.

Isn't this more work? Yes. But you're teaching them critical life skills. When my daughter was 14, she once said to me:

"Mom, I know you're going to ask how I'll get all my homework done if I spend all Saturday with my friends at the amusement park. But I've been keeping up with everything, so I only have my history paper to finish. If I get up early on Sunday, I'll be able to do a good job on it."

See what I mean? By the time they're teens, they're anticipating your objections. What's more, your objections have become part of their planning process, so they're becoming more responsible before you even open your mouth. That's what I call Win/Win!


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