Negotiating with Kids: When You Should and
Does it seem like every time you tell your child "No", it turns into a
tug-of-war? One mom shared with us recently, "Absolutely everything's an
argument with my son. Even the simplest request. He just can't take no for an
answer. It's so frustrating!" Many parents find themselves in a negotiation with
their children when they are met with any kind of resistance. Negotiating is an
important life skill. By definition, it means coming to an agreement through
discussion. It's about finding a middle or common ground. But negotiation can
also mean to get over or around something, such as negotiating the vacuum around
the furniture. When it comes to children, they often try to negotiate "around"
us to get the result they want.
Discussions with your child that take place after
you've given your decision are not negotiations! What's happening in those cases
is that your child is negotiating ?around? you. They are trying to get their
way, not find common ground.
My Kid Should Be a Lawyer Someday
Sometimes talking to your child-especially if she has a personality that tends
to be oppositional or defiant-can feel like you're in a courtroom. Having just
told your teenage daughter no, she can't have a friend over, she immediately
puts you on the witness stand. "Isn't it true that just last week you told me I
need to start finding more things to do so I don't just sit around the house all
summer?" Caught off guard, you begin to defend your decision: "Well, yes, but
this just isn't a good day to have someone over. I'm tired and I have to work
tomorrow morning. Besides, your room is a mess!" Your daughter, the amateur
lawyer, responds: "So the answer is yes, you did tell me to find things to do!
And please-yes or no answers only-you're saying that because you're tired, I'm
not allowed to socialize? What if I cleaned my room first? Then can I have a
friend over?" Tired of being on the defensive, you give in simply so she will
stop hounding you: "Why do you always have to argue about everything? Fine, have
her over, but you'd better get your room clean!"
Negotiating "Around" versus Negotiating "With"
The above situation is a classic example of a child negotiating around her
parent to get her way. Your daughter wasn't looking to find the middle ground.
You stood in the way of her plans, so she figured out how to work around you.
She wore you down until you agreed, just to stop the arguing. We've all been
there as parents.
So what does it look like to negotiate with your child? Say you are discussing
how much allowance is going to be paid for chores your son will do around the
house. You may say, "I will pay you $5 each week if you keep your room clean,
clean the guest bathroom and vacuum the living room every Saturday." And your
son comes back with, "If I take out the trash too, will you give me $10?" That's
negotiating with you. The key here is that there's room for give and take
because you're still discussing the matter. It's not a request to which you've
already said no. You are still thinking over the pros and cons and getting your
child's input, prior to giving an answer. Together, you are coming to an
agreement about a fair decision or compromise. Discussions with your child that
take place after you've given your decision are not negotiations! What's
happening in those cases is that your child is negotiating around you. They are
trying to get their way, not find common ground.
How to Stop Over-Negotiating
It's much easier to avoid over-negotiating with your child rather than try to
fix a situation after you've already given an answer. Here five steps you can
take now to be more effective:
Take a moment to think before giving an answer. Parents are busy. Kids sometimes
have fifty requests in an hour. It's easy to just say no without really
considering the request. It's quicker and less stressful in the moment. But in
the long run, it can actually increase stress caused by arguing and possibly
regretting an answer given in haste. There's nothing wrong with saying to your
child, "Let me think about that for a few minutes," even if the request seems
Think about the request and give a timely response. If you tell your child
you're going to consider his request for a few minutes, make sure it truly is
only for a few minutes. Don't take an hour to get back with him. Delaying your
answer will only frustrate him, leading him to hound you, and increase the
likelihood you will snap out a "no," just to get him to stop. If you need to
wait in order to gather more information before making a decision, tell him up
front. "I know you'd like to go to McDonald's for dinner. I'm not sure what your
dad has planned, so I need to wait until he gets home so we can talk it over.
I'll let you know within fifteen minutes after he gets home." That way, your
child has a timetable and knows what to expect. You're also modeling important
life skills. It's respectful to get back to someone in a timely manner, and you
are following through on your word. You are showing him that his request is
important to you.
Consider why you're saying no before you give an answer. Negotiating typically
happens when a parent says no to something a child wants. Kids have a lot of
"wants." They want to go places, do things, buy things-it can get overwhelming.
Sometimes we give an automatic no to a request without really considering if the
answer could be yes. For example, your 6-year-old asks if she can finger paint.
Your instinct is to say no. It'll cause a mess and you don't feel like cleaning
it up. But after you've said no, you regret your decision. You realize it was a
missed opportunity to keep her busy and engage in a creative activity. Changing
your mind after she's repeatedly pleaded with you makes it look like you've "given in" even though
that's not the reason you changed your mind. This only
encourages her to keep trying to negotiate ?around? you in the future.
Gather all the information you need before giving an answer and make your
expectations clear. If your 10-year-old son says, "Can I go to Johnny's house?"
make sure you know exactly what that means. How will he get there, who will be
home, what will they be doing? Make it clear under what conditions the answer is
yes. For example, "You can go to your friend's house as long as his parent is
home and you stay in their yard to play." This can help avoid the pitfall of
having to rescind permission upon hearing that Johnny's parents aren't home and
he is having twenty of his closest friends over for some unsupervised fun.
Involve your child in the decision, if appropriate. Not every situation is
negotiable, but some are. In the earlier example of the adolescent lawyer-to-be,
she had some valid points. Cleaning her room and finding something positive to
do with her time might indeed be justification for a "yes" when asking if she
could have a friend over. You might have decided the positives (socializing and
a clean room) outweighed the negatives (being tired and not wanting to hear any noise).
There's nothing wrong with talking to your child about why they are
making a particular request. It can get them thinking about the pros and cons of
situations. Talking about a request does not mean you are committing to granting
When the Answer is Simply No
There are two situations in which you will want to "stick to your guns", as
difficult as that might be:
When you've thought it through and the answer is no. 16-year-old Tiffany asks to
go to her friend's party where drinking has been known to occur. Your daughter
doesn't want to accept no for an answer because she really, really wants to go.
She makes every attempt to negotiate "around" you. In this case, you may want to
use statements such as, "I've thought this through. It's not up for discussion.
The answer is no. Or, "I understand how much you want to go, but there is no
room for negotiation. Any time I'm willing to discuss a situation, I will let
you know ahead of time, but in this case my answer is simply no." You don't need
to defend your decision.
When you haven't thought it through and automatically said "no," but upon
reconsideration would have said "yes." Even in this situation, stick to your
original answer, otherwise your child will get the message that "sometimes no
will turn into yes, if I keep at it long enough." You may even honestly tell
your child, "You know, I made that decision pretty quickly. Next time, I promise
I will think about it for a bit before responding. But the answer this time is
no." (That response is a judgment call, as some oppositional or defiant kids may
try to use that information as a tool to push your buttons.) Can there be
exceptions? Yes. For example, maybe you receive new information that changes things?-initially
Johnny's parents weren't going to be home, but now they are.
But remember: every time you say no, then change your mind to yes, it reinforces
that whatever happened between NO and YES (arguing, crying, the silent
treatment) was effective in negotiating around you. The next time you say no,
you can expect to face the same behavior.
When we make parenting decisions in reaction to a child's arguments and
disputes, everyone loses. As parents we come away feeling frustrated and
ineffective. Our child comes away with the mistaken idea that the way to get
what you want in this world, when faced with an answer or limit you don't like,
is to argue. It also creates the mistaken impression that parents and children
are on the same level. We're not. A parent has the ultimate authority and
sometimes the answer is going to be No. You don't have to be a dictator but at
the same time, it's not a democracy. Remember: as much as your kids might try to
tell you otherwise, all family member "votes" are not equal!
(Negotiating with Kids: When You
Should and Shouldn't reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents)
by Kim Abraham LMSW and Marney Studaker-Cordner
Kimberly Abraham, LMSW, has worked with children
and families for more than 25 years. She specializes in working with teens with
behavioral disorders, and has also raised a child with Oppositional Defiant
Disorder. Marney Studaker-Cordner, LMSW, is the mother of four and has been a
therapist for 15 years. She works with children and families and has in-depth
training in the area of substance abuse. Kim and Marney are the co-creators of
The ODD Lifeline for parents of Oppositional, Defiant kids, and Life Over the
Influence, a program that helps families struggling with substance abuse issues.
Their first children's book, Daisy: The True Story of an Amazing 3-Legged
Chinchilla, teaches the value of embracing differences and was the winner of the
2014 National Indie Excellence Children's Storybook Cover Design Award.