Negotiating with Kids: When You Should and Shouldn't
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.
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!"
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.
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:
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!
by Kim Abraham LMSW and Marney Studaker-Cordner LMSW