Negotiating with Kids: When You Should and Shouldn’t By Kim Abraham, LMSW and Marney Studaker-Cordner, LMSW
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 aroundsomething, 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 minor.
- 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 aboutwhy 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 it.
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 negotiatingaround 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!