Negotiating with Our Children

Negotiating is part of everyday life whether we like it or not.  Married couples negotiate, religious leaders negotiate, school boards negotiate, diplomats negotiate.  But should we negotiate with our kids? Shouldn’t we just lay down the law and expect compliance, or will there be times when wise parenting can include compromise? 

I talked about this topic with Greg and Lisa Popcak on their radio program More2Life yesterday (October 25th).  You can listen to the archived show here.  Every time I’ve been a guest on the Popcaks’ show I learn something about the very topic I’ve been invited to talk about.  The program was about compromising in general (not just with kids).  The Popcaks pointed about that negotiating isn’t about two people becoming equally miserable; it’s about putting people before our own agenda.  As Christians, we always want to take care of the needs of others, including those we’re having a tough time with in the moment.  By extending our hand and our heart, we can really reach a solution that makes everyone feel respected, and in this way negotiating actually builds trust and rapport between family members.

Wise parenting can include negotiating with our children

Some parents think they should never negotiate with their kids because it’s their job as the parent to lay down the law.  They may be concerned that opening the door to negotiating would just lead to endless arguments with their kids.  But you can be a wise leader and still include others in leadership decisions.

Including our children in some decision making or permitting them to voice their opinions and feelings about these decisions doesn’t mean we’re wimpy parents or that we’re surrending control to our kids.

By allowing our child to engage in negotiations with us under certain circumstances, we give them practice in an important life skill. Practicing negotiating and compromising teaches children empathy and fairness, how to resolve conflict constructively, and how to be humble enough to include the needs and feelings of others in their decisions.  Negotiating isn’t about winning a battle or defeating an adversary.  We’re not talking about engaging in a debate.  We’re talking about a meeting of minds.  Especially in a Christian home, negotiating must include love, patience, and lots of listening.

How to negotiate

No matter the context, successful negotiating involves a similar process:

  • Identifying the real problem
  • Identifying the needs of both parties,
  • Brainstorming solutions that meet the needs of both parties,
  • Agreeing on the solution,
  • Implementing the agreement.

Sometimes this process will be quite automatic and informal.  When we’re talking over what we’ll have for dinner or which movie we might want to see as a family, we’ll probably just throw out ideas and try to respect one another’s opinions.

At other times, this negotiating process can become quite formal; you can even create a contract with your child outlining your agreement.  For instance, if you and your teenager negotiate over her weekend curfew, she may point out that if her curfew is at 10, then she  misses the end of most movies at the theater.  You might express your concern for her safety when she is out late and about whether she’ll be able to get up on time for Mass the next morning.  After discussing various options for meeting the needs of both sides, the parties may decide to try out an occasional extended curfew to 11 when the teen is seeing a movie, but only if the parents pick her up from the theater and only if she is able to get up and attend Mass.

Obviously the topics and manner of negotiation depend on the age & maturity of  your child.  We wouldn’t be open to negotiating with our 10 year old daughter about whether she can have a boyfriend, but perhaps our 16 year old.  (I have a 9 year old and 2 year old daughter.  Just typing that sentence made my stomach turn!) We would not expect our 5 year old to give us a clear rational reason for why she doesn’t want to take out the garbage anymore – we use the negotiating process to teach her about this skill and to build her confidence in expressing her thoughts and feelings.

What’s on the table?

Although I’m a mom who’s willing to negotiate or compromise with my children when they express themselves respectfully and clearly, I personally limit what I’m open to compromising about.  I would be open to discussing and compromising over the following topics:

  • Chores: who does what, when they are done.
  • Commitments:  how our family spends our time (vacations, Christmas plans, birthdays, etc.)
  • Money:  allowances and family purchases
  • Dress & hair: my teenager is a boy and doesn’t currently care about what he’s wearing, but I would be open to compromising over fashion and haircuts, knowing this is just a way teens express themselves and try on identities.  However, I would place provocative, morbid, or anti-Christian dress in the morality category below and wouldn’t be willing to compromise about that type of attire.
  • New rules & boundaries: Clear rules and boundaries are important for a child’s sense of security.  However, at family meetings we can include our children’s input about rules that don’t seem to be working for some reason or if boundaries need to be clarified.  When we talk with our children about the reasons for the rules, they are more likely to internalize and respect them especially if they’ve been part of the rule-making process.

Some topics are non-negotiable in our home, so Philip and I just announce the rules and enforce them:

  • Agreed upon rules:  While some rules can be negotiable, I think we should avoid negotiating rules outside family meeting time.  Otherwise you risk endless debates about whether the kids will take out the garbage now or later, or whether bedtime is 8:00 or 8:15. Obviously there will be exceptions to this “rule”, but if you allow negotiating over rules 24 hours a day, you’ll end up on the wrong side of the proverbial deep end
  • Safety & health:  For example, yelling and hitting are unsafe and emotionally damaging, so we can make a clear prohibition against this behavior.
  • Morals & ethics:  For example, we would never permit our child to cheat on an exam.

This list is a work in progress.  My children teach me every day about their ability to give and take, and to participate in family discussions.  I find negotiating and even debating with my teenage son quite exhilirating!.  He presents his viewpoints very clearly and reasonably.  I’ve noticed that he really wants to come to an agreement.  I think because he trusts us and feels respected, he knows we’re not out to get him when we say “Let’s talk about it.”

What if you and your child can’t agree?

Well, goodness, that would never happen, right?  If I can’t agree on a solution with my child, I will delay the decision or make the decision myself.  The point of negotiating with your child is to give them practice in negotiation and empathic communication, and to show them that you respect and understand their point of view.  An invitation to engage your child’s ideas and opinions accomplishes this goal when you extend these invitations consistently, even if sometimes you can’t come up with a perfect solution.  The process gives your child more benefit than the actual outcome.

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