How to bargain with your kids: and win

Posted on 11 July 2017

Every parent has found themselves at a crossroads – caught in a battle of wills with a stubborn child. How can parents navigate these testy waters without resorting to short-term solutions?

Words Rose Cohen

Five parenting negotiating tactics that actually work.

Make it age-appropriate

It’s virtually impossible to negotiate with very young children while their understanding of the needs of others is still developing. This is especially true of toddlers and pre-schoolers.

‘A fair amount of narcissism is normal in the developing child,’ says Dr Birgit Schlegel, a paediatric neurologist at Mediclinic Constantiaberg.

She recommends giving choices to small children as a form of negotiation instead. For example, say, ‘Do you want to play in the bath or have a quick shower?’ when washing is not negotiable. Giving choices is a good way to make children feel empowered in situations where they might feel they don’t have a say.

Deflect or defer if necessary

Negotiation should always take place in a calm environment and at the right time. For instance, it’s not a good idea to negotiate your adolescent’s curfew when they’re late for school and rushing out the door.

‘There is a time and a place for everything,’ explains Dr Schlegel. ‘Parents need to be consistent and avoid being pressurised into impulsive decisions. The worst thing to do is give a knee-jerk response in the heat of the moment, then go back on your word later on. It sets a bad precedent.’

It’s also absolutely reasonable to tell your child that you need some time to think about a decision or a situation.

Learn to really listen

When you negotiate with your children, you need to listen attentively and patiently. Always make sure that you listen first, no matter how ludicrous the child’s demands – and don’t interject immediately.

‘Your children need to know you are seriously willing to take their feelings into account,’ says Dr Schlegel. ‘This will boost their sense of self-esteem and set the scene for a negotiation in which any agreement reached is not yours or mine, but ours.’

Give your full focus and offer positive reinforcement. It’s also worth trying to understand what your child might not be saying. Think about what your child is truly asking for and it’ll be easier to define the dilemma, says Dr Schlegel.

Be willing to compromise

In order for a negotiation to take place in good faith, both parties need to be prepared to give a little. ‘You can start by finding some common ground,’ says Dr Schlegel.

Be careful of doing all the compromising, however. ‘Very often children will try to wear their parents down so they’ll give in,’ Dr Schlegel warns. ‘This is dangerous, as it gives kids the impression that they are on the same level as their parents.’

If you reach a point where your child refuses to compromise, all negotiations must be taken off the table.

‘We don’t always get our own way in life and children need to know that,’ says Dr Schlegel. Similarly, parents need to avoid giving harsh ultimatums. ‘This shows you’re not listening and can lead to rebellion.’

Set immovable boundaries

Some things are simply not negotiable – like your family values, for example. ‘As a parent, it is your role and duty to instil the morals you deem important and to set boundaries that will direct the making of highly important life decisions,’ says Dr Schlegel.

There are also safety rules, like wearing a seat belt in the car, that should fall into the ‘not negotiable’ category. You don’t always have to defend a ‘no’ response to your child. ‘Remember that all family votes can’t be equal, as parents retain the most important vote,’ says Dr Schlegel.

Negotiation versus compliance

Parents can’t always be negotiating about everything, says Dr Schlegel. ‘Set daily limits and expectations for things that require instant compliance. ‘For example, children need to be ready for school on time – it’s not negotiable, and non-compliance must be met with consequences.’

When specific agreements have been reached between parents and their children there should be no room for loopholes or misinterpretation.

‘Once a decision is arrived at, there is no negotiating after that,’ explains Dr Schlegel. She cautions that there will be times when parents need to offer their children the ‘take it or leave it’ option.

Parents are responsible for their own empowerment, she adds. ‘It’s OK if your  child is sulky or unhappy about a decision that you’ve made for their own good. You can empathise, but don’t apologise.’

Published in Magazine

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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