Co-written by Heather Malley and Susan North
"Negotiating” is a word that covers a lot of ground. Sometimes it just means mediating between your needs/wants and those of your child. These are rich opportunities for emotional conversations (i.e. conversations about feelings) and problem solving. But if you find yourself getting into an argument with your child about every juncture/transition/obligation that comes up in the course of the day, the two of you may have just developed a bad habit.
We sometimes say to new interns or teaching staff when thinking about tone and directions, to keep in mind talking to the children as you might talk to a friend. Respectful discourse is an important element in children’s experience in school and with adults in general. This, however, does not at all mean that we should act as though children have the same amount of decision-making power in things that we do. We are the adults, and we are in charge.
Traditionally, within the fields of child development and psychology, there are 3 different frameworks for thinking about parenting styles. Most parents vacillate between the extremes of either authoritarian or permissive. Neither one is beneficial to children. Thomas Gordon has so aptly characterized these extremes as being either a Dictator or a Doormat in his book Parent Effectiveness Training. The third path, which is beneficial to children, is traditionally called Authoritative, and is a lot like how the best bosses act. They are fair, kind, open to feedback, and they are also in charge.
This analogy is a great one to use as we think through what it means to be a parent who holds children’s needs as equal to theirs and understands that expectations should be clear and consistent in order to best manage the needs and routines of the family. Openness/commitment to understanding our children’s needs and wants is distinctly different than allowing a child to “rule the roost”. Kids who have too much power in the household can find this anxiety-provoking and might act out because they crave a more predictable and secure environment. You may even notice that when you hold a limit a child protests it initially, then they show more affection towards you after you’ve held your ground. They often feel safer when they can depend on their loving adults being in charge.
A valuable skill to hone is learning how to listen so that we can catch when something isn’t sitting right with our children and identify the difference between something our child wants versus an important need. Often, the permissive parent is set up to counterbalance their own childhood experience of an authoritarian parent. With the best of intentions, this can mean instinctively rebelling against an authoritarian response by saying yes to everything or backing down on most set rules whenever children express upset. This typically holds for as long as the parent has patience for it and then often results in a backlash of a larger more authoritarian response of yelling or making demands out of frustration with the pattern.
Active listening is a tool that really helps us get to the heart of the matter with our children. This isn’t about placating them, instead it is about listening to really understand them. It takes time and practice but is a magical relationship strengthener. It helps our children see we care to know what is really going on with them when they get upset, often it helps more than any other solution we might try to provide. It also builds a foundation of trust, so that our children will want to continue to consult with us as they grow into adults. If you are interested in learning more about active listening, we highly recommend Thomas Gordon’s Parent Effectiveness Training book as well as the workshop series.
When we are dysregulated, which can happen easily if we are sensitive and empathetic to our children’s emotions, it’s hard to see clearly what the best next step is. We want to do right by our kids, and we might question our own decisions, wondering if there is a more dominant need we aren’t seeing.
A helpful tip that can circumvent situations where you inevitably give in after stating a limit, is to think before you say no. It’s okay to stall, as in “I want to think about that” or “I need to check with [other parent] first.” Know that if you are going to say a firm (and kind) no, this could bring on tears or worse. You need to steel yourself to validate the big feelings that ensue while staying the course. Every time your NO can be turned, with lots of arguing/wheedling into a YES, this puts gas in their tank for future pushbacks. These pushbacks are often due to a natural craving of limits they aren’t getting. Consistent and reasonable limits or a predictable world feels safe and allows children to focus their energy on other things.
Train yourself to distinguish between negotiable matters and non-negotiables. This can be done by reflecting consciously about the struggle at hand. Is it a “have to” thing? If you believe that your child must brush teeth every night, there’s no point in having a 30-minute negotiation leading up to it. In this case, the negotiating can become a stalling technique and habit which wastes everyone’s time and energy. Your child will display a certain amount of creativity, resourcefulness and ingenuity each day, which is better spent on more constructive pursuits than having the same argument each night.
Are you negotiating on a topic that is developmentally over your child’s head? A clever, articulate preschooler can engage with you on topics they have little knowledge/perspective of (time, money, safety, nutrition, health…) A simple statement like, “It’s my job to see that you eat in a healthy way” can sometimes do the trick. And even if your child doesn’t buy that explanation, you will hear it. This might help you stay the course, you are the boss, kind and fair. You need to find your comfort zone in that role.
Tell with compassion, don’t ask. Sometimes when a parent starts out in Doormat mode “It’s time to leave the park, OK?” the child thought there was a choice and feels disappointed at the bait and switch when the parent inevitably switches into Dictator mode. When kids are confused, they often repeat a behavior to gain greater understanding. Like little scientists, they run an experiment over and over until things make sense.
Give your child(ren) lots of choices about inconsequential things, like which vegetable to put in the salad or which sweatshirt to wear. In terms of autonomy, it helps them feel “full” and maybe not so needful of asserting selfhood by opposing you elsewhere.
If your child remains upset about a decision you’ve made, avoid the temptation to over-explain. Be short on reasons and long on genuine empathy. Listen and show you care, give words for the emotions they are feeling. “You really wanted to stay at the park and it’s so disappointing that we have to go home now.” Typically, if children are upset, reasoning with them doesn’t help. Helping them hear that we care, however, does wonders. Hand in Hand parenting talks about the oh so helpful tool of listening while our children cry, which often helps them emerge more cooperative and happier if we allow them to fully express these big feelings.
Remember, you are the boss, a wise, equitable, loving, and consistent one.