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 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.
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 about why 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 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!
Punishments vs. Consequences: Which Are You Using?
by Debbie Pincus MS LMHC
Do these situations sound familiar? Your 10-year-old won’t listen to you when you tell her to come inside for dinner. You rack your brain for a way to change this behavior so that in the future she will do as you ask. Your teenager breaks curfew – again. You thought you had addressed this with him the last time he got home late, but here you go again. As parents, we know the importance of parenting from our principles, things like teaching our children to own up to their actions and face the fallout when they make poor choices. And you’ve tried. You’ve talked to your child over and over, you’ve explained your reasoning repeatedly. You’ve given them restrictions, taken things away and grounded them for a month. Yet nothing seems to be getting through. It could be time to look at the difference between punishing your child and using consequences.
“Consequences help all of us learn and grow. When kids experience the effects of their actions, they get the chance to learn from their mistakes, make better choices and improve their behaviors.”
What Are Consequences?
Consequences are things that flow naturally from one’s choices, actions and decisions. There can be “bad” and “good” natural consequences. If you overeat, the consequence can be a stomach ache. But if you are kind to someone, they’ll likely be kind in return. Consequences help all of us learn and grow. When kids experience the effects of their actions, they get the chance to learn from their mistakes, make better choices and improve their behaviors. Consequences also give us the chance to parent from our principles instead of from a place of frustration, anger or disappointment.
Consequences Are Different from Punishments
Punishment says to your child: you’d better think like me, or else. If you don’t, I will make you pay (or suffer) until you make the choice I want you to make. A punishment doesn’t respect the child’s right to make a decision, even if that decision is a poor one. It arises out of anger and fear and often looks like a withdrawal of love in order to get the child to do what you want them to do. This approach doesn’t help kids develop new ways of taking responsibility for their behavior. It can also be destructive to the relationship.
Consequences, on the other hand, communicate to your child that their behavior is their choice and their responsibility. And that your responsibility is to help them learn how to face the results of their choices, no matter how difficult or unpleasant. A consequence respects the child’s right to make a decision, even if it’s not a good one. It’s not a withdrawal of love or a rejection. It’s a matter-of-fact learning experience in which you maintain a better relationship with the child as you hold them accountable.
Let’s look at a common situation to illustrate how providing consequences is different from delivering punishment. Your 13-year-old doesn’t call to check-in and let you know where he is. In the past, his punishment was to lose his cell phone for a couple of days. Yes, that might have taught him that when you don’t act responsibly you can lose privileges. But what it didn’t teach him is how to act more responsibly. So how can using consequences make a difference here?
Take the same scenario, but before you decide how to respond first ask yourself: What is it that I want him to learn and improve? You probably want him to learn to follow your instructions and do what he is told, which in this case was to call. You also want him to improve by consistently remembering to do it. To motivate and guide your son to better behaviors, the consequence could be that he will only be allowed to go out with friends on the coming weekend and only for an hour. During that time he must remember to call you and let you know where he is. If he does this successfully both Saturday and Sunday, he can return to going out for longer periods of time. What he’s learning is that privilege (going out with friends) comes with responsibility (calling to check-in). What he’s getting is the chance to practice and demonstrate to you both is that he can be trusted to do as he’s supposed to.
Or maybe your daughter doesn’t do her assigned chores. What do you want her to learn and practice? A natural consequence may be that you do not feel the goodwill to take her shopping. Instead, she is assigned extra jobs to help you out around the house. From this she learns that when she doesn’t do her part, others may not have the time or interest to go out of their way for her. Having to help more around the house will let her practice doing her part and to appreciate that not meeting her responsibilities can cause problems for others.
It’s Not Working!
Of course, consequences are only effective if your child buys in and decides to change. It can be frustrating to hear that, but ultimately their behavior is up to them. Maybe your son will eventually get tired of not having his cell phone and decide he’d rather check-in on schedule. Maybe. That’s up to him. Your job is to consistently hold him accountable through consequences, whether or not he decides to change.
It’s easy when you are feeling exasperated with your child to resort to doing things like using increasingly extreme consequences, attempting to control him or her through anger or distance, or just giving up. Resist that temptation! It can help to keep in mind the underlying reason why you are trying so hard–you genuinely want to help guide your child. By showing your child what they can expect in life when they make poor choices, the consequences are working, regardless of how your child responds. Whether or not your child’s behavior changes is their choice. Your responsibility is to keep reality front and center, whether your child cares to see it or not.
Tips for Creating Effective Consequences
- Pause and be thoughtful – In order to provide consequences that help your child learn, take your time thinking it through. Tell your child you will get back to him or her as to what the consequence will be. Think about what it is that you hope he or she will learn. What is your goal?
- Be consistent – You can’t make your child change, but you can make sure you consistently provide consequences when you see him or her making poor choices. Stick to it, despite any opposition, unhappiness or lack of noticeable change in behavior.
- Be mindful – Stay focused on you doing your job and let your child do his or hers. Your job is to guide your child by providing reasonable and realistic consequences. Your child’s job is to decide how he or she will respond to what you provide and expect.
- Be matter of fact – Think of providing consequences like conducting a business deal. It’s about facts, not emotions. Don’t take their behavior personally, which is hard, I know. Yelling, cajoling, criticizing and nagging won’t work over the long run and will only get you more frustrated and upset. Focus on how you are going to behave, no matter how they act.
- Accept your limits – When we accept that we can’t make our children behave a certain way, we actually have a greater chance of successfully influencing their behavior. When our children don’t have to use their energy to get us off their back, they will have a clearer mind, less anxiety and be better able to make reasonable decisions. Remember that the consequences that you consistently hand them will help positively shape them.
- Use “I” not “You” Statements - Taking an “I” position is better than taking a “You” position when it comes to providing consequences. Children respond better when they know where their parents stand on an issue rather than when they are being bossed. For example, saying “I will not listen when you speak to me like that” delivers a clearer message about what is acceptable than “You had better stop speaking to me like that.”
Punishments send a message to children that sounds like this: “If you think for yourself and not like me, you will have a price to pay.” This, of course, contradicts what most parents actually want for their children, which is to raise them to be independent and think for themselves. Consistent and reasonable consequences can help you to develop children who can function independently, think for themselves, and make good choices throughout their lives.
Are You Doing Too Much for Your Child?
by Janet Lehman, MSW
As parents, many of us do things for our kids that we were able and expected to do for ourselves when we were children. Our parents didn’t often feel the need to negotiate with our sports coach, solve our every problem, or entertain us in our free time. A big difference from today, when all too often we are over-involved in many areas of our children’s lives. Sounds funny, I know. How can a parent be too involved or do too much for their child? Isn’t that just being a good parent? But when we don’t expect our kids to take responsibility for chores or their behavior, and we attempt to smooth away all the bumps and bruises that are a natural part of childhood, we aren’t doing our kids a favor. Instead, we’re bringing them up to avoid taking personal responsibility and to expect that others will take care of things for them – even when they are really able to take care of themselves. We’re teaching our kids that life is full of unmanageable problems, when what we want them to learn are the basic skills to manage those problems. Stepping back and taking on the role of coach and teacher instead of “do-er” and “fixer” was one of the hardest things I had to do as a parent. But as my husband James Lehman said, it is also one of the best things you can do to help your child build their social and problem-solving skills and learn responsibility.
When you come home after having to work late and find that your child’s homework isn’t finished (again), ask yourself these questions before doing anything: Whose chore is it? Mine or my child’s? Who should be responsible for getting it done?
Why Are Today’s Parents Different?
In past generations, parents were a bit more detached from the moment-to-moment life of their children. The powerful reality of two World Wars and the Depression meant that families survived by having each member share in its burdens. Children took on a lot of responsibility early. Parents attended to their children’s needs, but in the context of keeping the family together. With the peace and prosperity of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, many families were able to give their children free time, time separate from their parents. Kids had large numbers of playmates they spent time and connected with, whether siblings or neighbors, and parents had their own “adult” lives. Parents were a very real presence in the lives of their children…but in the background.
Of course, things are different today. Most parents have less time to spend with their kids. Work and other responsibilities mean that we aren’t home, consistently in the background. This leaves us feeling guilty. And guilt leads to over-doing. It relieves our guilt when we do something that is really our child’s job, like homework or the dishes, instead of getting them off the computer. We also over-do when we are tired or time is tight. It often seems easier to just go ahead and do the work ourselves. Making the time to teach our child to do a task, coaching them through the process, and holding firm with expectations takes patience – something hard to muster after a long day at work!
Recognizing When You Are Over-Doing
In my practice, parents would often ask me: How do I know when I am doing too much for my child? How do I recognize it? You’ll know if:
- you feel more pain than your child seems to;
- when your child is refusing to do even the simplest chore;
- when you realize that you’ve lost perspective about what to expect from your child.
Think of it this way. When you come home after having to work late and find that your daughter’s homework isn’t finished (again) and your son is sulking because he argued with a friend, ask yourself these five questions before you do anything:
- Are you fighting the same battles over and over and getting no further ahead?
- Whose chore is it? Mine or my child’s?
- Whose problem is it?
- Who should be responsible for getting it done?
- What do I usually do in these situations? Do I swoop in, taking care of everything (over-doing)?
If you come to the realization that the chore (or the problem or responsibility) is your child’s and that your typical response is to over-do, then it’s time to step back and find a different approach. This doesn’t mean that you have been a bad parent; it just means that you’ve taken on too much of what belongs to your child. It also doesn’t mean that you don’t love your child – you do – but now it’s time to try a more effective way to help them grow up.
Coaching, Not Doing
Hands-on involvement – as a coach and teacher – will help your child develop the skills they need to face new or disliked tasks and to overcome obstacles. If your basically disorganized primary school son really needs to clean his room, he likely needs your involvement to learn how to effectively do this. When you work alongside him instead of doing the work for him, you can teach him along every step of the way (something especially important for younger children). Your son likely would be lost without this type of hands-on involvement; with it, he learns what’s needed to accomplish the task. Maybe your middle school daughter has proclaimed her hatred of assigned summer reading. You can offer to also read the book so that you can talk about it together, discussing her perceptions and what you both found interesting. By doing so, you are showing her that reading can be enjoyable and you are helping her think through her book report without doing the work for her. Both examples incorporate the parental teaching and coaching role. By doing with instead of for, you are spending time with your child while also developing their abilities and building their character. It’s a win/win for you both.
What Happens When We Over-Do for Our Children
- Your child learns the wrong lesson - how to avoid unpleasant tasks or challenges instead of facing them. By getting you to do things for them, your child learns to manipulate others instead of how to take responsibility for his or herself.
- Children begin to underestimate their abilities. If your son or daughter has never tried new or difficult things, they won’t know how to start or how to pick themselves up and try again. They’ll think they can’t do it.
- You will be exhausted and not have accomplished much in the long-run. Yes, the dishes may be done quickly and up to your standards, but what did your son learn? Yes, the laundry was done, but when your daughter goes off to a far-away college next year, who will do her laundry then?
- Protecting your child from life’s knocks comes at a cost. Children need to learn to manage setbacks, which they won’t if we always shelter them. As tempting as it is to be the one to negotiate with the coach for more playing time, what will your child do when they’re on a team where the coach expects direct communication from the players? How will your child learn to speak for him or herself?
Difficult Moments = Opportunities for Growth
Facing challenges are great opportunities for kids to grow and mature. Yes, it’s painful to observe our child going through difficult times. As parents, we want to make this stop. Our tendency is to want to jump in and fix things. But, this is when it’s most important that we step back and not step in. Take on the role of teacher and coach, supporting your child through the difficulty, while letting them discover their own capabilities. Remember, learning to manage obstacles in life makes us all stronger people. If we step in, we stop the learning process and run the risk of stunting our child’s growth. We prevent our child from developing the courage needed to try new things, even when it is hard or they might not succeed.
I see this as a “right” of growing up – to learn from our problems and become stronger, more capable people. If you take over and don’t allow your children to come up with their own solutions and discover their strengths, you may be preventing them from finding their path to resiliency. It’s the difficult twists and turns in life that often teach us the most about how strong we really are. These experiences and the learning that comes with them are essential to becoming responsible and capable adults.
Obviously, we can’t just let go completely as parents. We need to make sure that our children are safe and protected, and have the skills to manage the problems that come their way. This often takes planning on our part, along with awareness of how our child learns and what support they need. It also takes some trust in our child’s abilities to do more for his or herself – not always easy, I know.
Keeping in mind James’ advice to “parent the child you have and not the one you wish you had,” there are children whose behavior can make this work so much more difficult. Children with learning challenges, attention problems, academic weaknesses, constant agitation, irritability or defiance have behaviors that place greater demands on you as the coaching and teaching parent. Remember to tailor your approach, based on your child’s needs. Maybe you’ll need to explain things over and over until your child really understands. Or find creative ways to teach and reinforce new skills, like using charts and tangible recognition. You may have to break tasks down into small pieces and teach and coach one step at a time. You’ll need to understand your child’s specific challenges, coach to those challenges or needs, and work to gain insight about what works for your child. It is hard work – but it will pay off. It does take patience, insight and a willingness to remember why you’re going through all this effort; you are teaching your child how to solve problems and manage life’s obstacles so that they can become responsible adults.
For many of us, we’ll have to work at this our child’s entire life. It’s a process that changes as you and your child change. As you get better at stepping back, and as your child picks up skills and abilities, there will be improvement. Your child will grow into a capable and responsible person. It’s a parent’s job to help our children learn how to deal with life’s obstacles, to slog through the hard stuff. It may feel like a tough job at times, but you can do it. Both your child and you will learn and grow along the way.