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Stop Negotiating with Your Children

One of the most common destructive patterns of parenting that I observe is negotiating with children. This can come in many forms, frequently in an attempt to be a kind parent rather than a dictator. The problem is that there is a multitude of negative outcomes when you make a habit out of negotiating with kids. I’d like to share some examples and insights.

Let me begin with a recent example. My son and I were in the baby section of a store this week and a mother and her toddler daughter were in the same aisle. The girl, very disrespectfully, said, “You don’t take my toys away from me!”. The mom told her not to be rude, and the little girl made a noise indicating her displeasure with the correction.

A few minutes later, the girl began insisting on a certain snack and taking it off of the shelves. The mother kept reminding her they already bought snacks and they didn’t need more. The girl continued to demand the snack, and when the mom said she was going to the next aisle, the little girl sat down on the floor and refused to follow. The mom waited for her to get up, and when she didn’t, the mom picked her up and put her in the cart saying, “I am tired of your attitude and you not listening”.

This led to a full on tantrum, screaming at the top of her lungs, kicking, crying, the whole shebang. The mom basically ignored her until she stopped crying. Two aisles later, the girl was trying to climb out of the cart. The mom began negotiating with her, saying things like, “If I let you down, you have to stay right by the cart” and “Do you hear me? I am not letting you down unless you behave”. The little girl refused to respond to her mother’s questions, which prolonged the negotiation even further. Eventually, the mom just let her get out and immediately, the girl ran off. The mom responded with, “What did I just say? I said to stay with me and behave”.

So, what are the important elements in this example and what could she have done instead from a play therapy skill perspective? I observed five issues and they are detailed below.

1. Unclear and unset expectations.

If you know your child is likely to give you a hard time about certain things, in certain places, at certain times, be sure to proactively address what the rules are and what happens if your child chooses to break the rules. When you punish under frustration, like putting her in the cart when mom had had enough, it prevents you from making it clear that the child chose a behavior and therefore a consequence that the child was already aware of.

2. Limit setting.

It would have been effective to say in the moment, even if a rule has not been previously established, “If you choose to walk around, you choose to stay right with Mommy. If you choose to run off, you choose to go in the cart.” This makes it very clear that the responsibility lies with the child to make the choice of their behavior. When you pick a child up and put her in the cart after the behavior because you are tired of it, the child learns nothing about self-control. To read more about this topic, you can view my previous article on Limit Setting.

3. Undermining her own authority.

When a parent reacts out of anger to a behavior situation, threats are often made or punishments are often given that are not practical or sustainable. “You are grounded for a week!” or “When we get home, you are going straight to bed!” come to mind. These are most often said in the moment, and there is no follow through after the fact. In this situation in the store, the mom put her in the cart and then let her out two minutes later. It communicates that your word is not relevant and therefore not worth obeying.

4. Negotiating and power struggle.

A parent should never enter into a negotiation with a child. If your goal is to give the child power in the situation (which is encouraged), provide choices. “You can choose to hold Mommy’s hand and walk, or you can choose to ride in the cart. Which do you choose?” Notice that the first eliminates the issue of the child running off but still allows her to stay out of the cart. The second makes it a fun option, rather than a punishment. When you insist that a child listen to your mandates and agree with you, it creates a battle for control. Read more about Power Struggles and Choice Giving.

5. Tolerance of unwanted behavior.

There should always be a plan of action for if a child refuses to cooperate for an extended period of time. Are they tired, hungry, bored? What can be done to address those needs? Do you need to go home for a nap? Do you need to offer a snack? Do you need to create an in-store game to keep them occupied, such as Find the Colors of the Rainbow or Find the Letters in Your Name. It makes both you and the child miserable to continue to deal with inappropriate behavior, especially if there is an easy solution.

Overall, there are very simple ways of speaking with your kids that create a respectful, yet corrective tone to the conversation. It allows you to remain in control and eliminate unwanted behavior while giving the child choices and what he or she needs to be content. Here’s to happy shopping!




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  • So, in other words, negotiate but don’t negotiate? The solution you provided under “never negotiate” is a negotiation with limits based on age. I think you need to spend more time parsing the details of your advice and applying said advice to underlying principles. It kinda sounds like you’re all over the place.

    • Brenna

      Actually, I am in no way promoting “negotiation with limits based on age.” Negotiation, by its very definition, includes a discussion to reach a compromise. In my tips, you offer two options (both of which you are in control of and both of which are acceptable to you) to the child, and do not allow any other conversation or option. This provides a measure of control from the child to make the decision, but allows you to maintain respectful boundaries. Further, setting yourself up for success by eliminating unnecessary issues and being consistent and following through with consequences are both well-suited to prevent negotiating. Try applying my tips and let me know how it goes.

      • I’m confused though. You say to never negotiate, except the entire world operates on negotiation. I suppose my question is, what are the principles underlying this strategy? You keep using words like “authority” and “obeying.” What is your goal for children? The story you told has nothing to do with negotiation, it has to do with a parent who lacks boundaries and limits. Your attack on the concept of negotiation doesn’t seem principled.

  • James

    Excellent article, I wanted to know everyones opinion on going from a negotiation with a child and then moving on to a compromise. I was looking after a family members child and we went for a walk to the park and then petting zoo. The area in which the animals was clearly marked that children need to remain close to their parents in certain areas because there were bridges in places where a child could easily fall. I wanted to hold the childs hand to keep him close and safe. The child had picked up some pine cones which he was keeping in his shirt and needed to use both arms to hold the many cones he had collected. He refused to leave the pine cones so we could go see the animals. I said ” thats fine, if you do not want to leave the cones then we go home”. He cried because he didnt want to go home but still refused to leave the pine cones. My wife negotiated with him after much debate that he could keep them in all the different pockets he had and we could them go see the animals. He was reluctant but eventually did. Now I feel that logically it made sense for him to do so because he could then carry the items and I could then hold his hand. how ever I feel its not teaching him respect. I did explain to him why I needed him to leave the cones and he refused to listen to me. Now I am sure some people would say that the negotiation was the right thing to do. How ever I see this strategy being done with this child often and I can assure you, you have to negotiate everything with him now. He is often so unreasonable. I am interested to hear your thoughts on when to not negotiate and when to compromise? I have seen this same thing with his older brother whom now, if you want him to eat his vegetables he immediately goes into negotiation. He would present the idea that he is going to eat some vegetables but then some candy. He will clean his room, if you buy him a toy. He will put on one shoe when getting ready in order for something else he wants.

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  • I would say it’s OK to negotiate if it’s over something that’s not a big deal, like what clothes the kid will wear that day or what to watch on TV. But if it’s over something where it’s the child’s health and safety, then there should be no negotiation.

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