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The Art of Negotiating with Kids

You say, "It's time for bed." "It's time to go." "It's time for homework." "It's dinnertime!" But your child says, "Five more minutes." You are tired of saying "No" and tired of fighting. So, what do you do? Give in? Blow up? Or — negotiate?

Life with kids often involves negotiation, whether we like it or not. According to Scott Brown, author of How to Negotiate With Kids Even When You Think You Shouldn't, "The negotiation between parents and kids can actually be a great learning experience for your kids. If you don't negotiate, your children may not learn how to deal with conflicts constructively. If you don't teach them how to work with you, they may never learn how to work with others."

However, negotiating with kids is often a challenging process. "Parents need to learn how to manage their own emotions and frustrations. One thing we know from observing negotiators of all ages is that when emotions run high, negotiating skill drops dramatically," says Brown, who has worked internationally in conflict resolution.


Strategies for Working It Out

Start an agreement, not an argument. Phrase your requests so that your child can say "Yes." He will listen more readily if you pitch your idea in a way that appeals to his need for control and independence. If you say, "Would you like to set out the plates or the spoons?" you are more likely to get cooperation than if you say, "Set the table NOW!"

Get your child involved. If it's getting near bedtime, you might say, "How many minutes do you think you should have to finish this project and get in bed on time?" If you are discussing discipline, you might ask, "What do you think would be a reasonable consequence for hitting me?" or, "for not doing your chores?"

Explain your point of view. You could say, "We have to leave the playground because I have to make dinner." Once you explain what's on your mind, remain open to any response. If your child says, "I don't care, I'm not hungry," you might say, "But I am and so is your brother."

Know that negotiation doesn't mean giving in. When you negotiate to buy a new car, you're not giving in - you're bargaining. Keep in mind that negotiating is not about winning and losing.


Negotiate issues in age-appropriate ways. If your school-age child doesn't like peas, you might ask, "What vegetable would you like instead?" If your preschooler is not interested in eating at all, instead of arguing, you might consider playfully cutting a sandwich into interesting shapes to make it more appealing.

Respond to criticism with a reasonable question. If your child tells you to stop nagging him to clean his room or take a bath, you might say, "How would you manage this yourself? When would you like to do it?"

Take time to cool down. If your child is making you angry or just plain crazy, go into the other room and chill out before trying to talk. "Will an emotional response from you ease the conflict or dig a deeper hole?" asks Brown.

Write down solutions. Get the family together and appoint a secretary who makes a list of everyone's ideas. Discuss them openly but don't allow criticism of anyone's idea. Also consider doing your negotiation in writing. Penning notes to your older child (like "Room Cleaning 5 PM") might prompt more agreement than nagging would.

Let your child win sometimes. Pick your battles wisely and remember that changing your mind does not mean you are losing. You might say, "OK, I agree with you. But let's make a deal that next time you will listen to me before blowing up."

Remember, you have final say. You don't have to reach consensus in any negotiation. Sometimes, somebody just has to make a decision. "It's perfectly OK for parents to make the final decision, as long as they have heard their children's point of view and tried to be fair," says Brown. "Children will come to respect that; they may not like it, but they will come to realize that it's fair."

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