Have you ever found yourself drawn into deep negotiations with your child?
So deep that you temporarily forget you are the parent?
My daughter has a knack for reeling me in. At the tender age of seven she has already mastered the fine art of negotiation and seems destined for a career around the negotiating table at the UN. She’ll do well I’m sure. Her persuasion skills are legendary.
Here’s a scene from my house just the other night.
My 4-year-old son is in the bath, all soap and steam. There is water everywhere. Toy action figures are littered across the floor, around the bathtub, on the shelf. And in the toilet.
It’s getting late. It’s school tomorrow. I’m starting to feel stressed.
Picking up the signals with her in-built precision radar my daughter seizes her moment.
She has already won my heart this busy evening. She has bathed herself. Combed her hair. Fished new pyjamas from her drawer. Carefully placed her dirty clothes in the laundry basket.
I was putty in her hands. And she knew it.
Ella: ‘Mom? Can I please just watch the end of my film while you see to Joe?’
Me, distracted: ‘No I don’t think so sweetie, it’s getting late.’
Uh-oh. I used the fateful word – ‘Think’. Why didn’t I just stop at ‘No’?!
Ella, sensing my indecision: ‘Pleease Mom, there are only 10 minutes left.’
From the bath Joe launched a tiny Buzz Lightyear figure skyward. It connected with my left ear. He giggled.
Ella, persisting: ‘Mom? Can I?’
Me, rattled: ‘No, it’ll soon be bedtime and time to go upstairs.’
Uh-oh. I used the equally open-ended ‘Soon’. Very different from ‘Now’.
Ella, indignant: ‘But you’re not ready yet, and it’s not fair that Joe got to watch his programme earlier and I didn’t!’
Me, feeling bad: ‘By the time you’ve got it set up it will be too late.‘
Uh-oh. Now we’re negotiating. How did that happen?
Ella: ‘The disc is already in. So can I? Please? I promise I’ll come when you call.’
Joe, now feeling ignored, unleashed a mini-tsunami over the side of the bath.
Me, frazzled and soggy: ‘Okay, okay, but just 10 minutes, right?’
Uh-oh. I asked for her agreement. What was I thinking?!
Ella: ’20 minutes?’
Me, firmly beaten: ’15 and that really is it!’
Ella grinned and left the room. I saw to my dripping boy, only later finding the headspace to reflect on the fact that my girl had once again skilfully negotiated her way to the deal she wanted.
Part of me is proud of her tenacity. I have taught her how to focus on what she wants, and given her the tools to reach for it.
But I’m also aware that there is a vast difference between innocent persuasion, and manipulation that leaves the other person feeling bad inside.
It’s not a giant leap from one to the other. And lately, I’ve seen my daughter flirt across that line on quite a few occasions.
So. I’m officially now on a mission to manage my daughter’s talent for negotiation. And I realize, with a degree of squirming discomfort, that this will involve changing some of my own behaviors too.
After all, our children learn by example.
I’m all too aware that my former career as a professional negotiator has probably influenced the way I’m bringing up my children more than I care to acknowledge.
I know I’m adept at negotiation. I know how to use it wisely. And most times I do. In Desperate Mom moments when I’m tense and tired though, I know I occasionally cross that line between persuasion and manipulation. I blatantly, and shamelessly, maneuver my children into behaving the way I need them to.
But it doesn’t feel good.
And worse, it shows them that ‘This is how you trample on others to get your own way!’
Not the message I want them to receive.
So with a deep breath and a humble head here are my 5 top tips for nurturing responsible negotiation in your children. With a heavy dollop of personal mindfulness thrown in for good measure.
1: Beware of the Mini-Observer in the Room
Now that I analyze it, I understand what a powerful advertisement I am for persuasive behavior. Over my seven years as a parent to date I have used every technique in the book to get my kids to behave in certain ways.
At every step I’ve been laying out my stall of persuasive tactics, ranging from the bright and cheery, to the frustrated and shouty (hey, no one’s perfect, right?!).
And my kids have lapped this up. A lot of times my efforts have been rewarded. I like to think that most times my children have felt okay about that. But I also know that on occasions they feel beaten down by it.
They know they have been manipulated. This truth does not make me proud.
It’s no wonder that when they feel a desire to change something in their own world they copy what they’ve seen. My daughter can be sweetly persuasive. But when the chips are down she also knows how to pull out all the stops and launch a manipulative campaign of monolithic proportions to get what she wants.
And she doesn’t even know she’s doing it — until the age of 11 or 12 kids don’t truly understand persuasive intent.
When my daughter skilfully negotiates a deal with me it’s not her intention to deliberately manipulate me. She is simply using tools that she knows to be effective – tools that I’ve unintentionally provided her with.
Our goal as parents is to gently nudge this in the right direction so they grow up with the powerful skills of responsible persuasion instead of ending up as master manipulators.
To this end we need to model responsible persuasion. And to be aware of the little observer in the room whenever we seek to change their behavior.
They’re always watching.
2: Change the Channel
Not the TV channel (although given the endless adverts you may want to do this too!).
No, I mean change the way you channel your child’s skills.
Compassionate persuasion is a great life skill. I’m trying to help my girl use her guile for the good.
Little brother has a just-four-year-old’s grasp of the sharing concept. If he wants something he grabs it. Often he does this simply to get a reaction from his big sister. Until recently Ella’s response to this would be to snatch back, usually with a look of grim determination on her face.
I like to try and leave them to resolve their own disputes where I can. But in the snatching scenario the situation generally deteriorates. I am forced to intervene.
I knew Ella had the skills to manage this type of situation. She just needed a little nudge in the right direction. So over a peaceful coloring session one day my girl and I had a little chat.
Actually, it started when I snatched her favorite pink pen from her hand, mimicking Joe’s triumphant expression when he does a similar thing. Here’s how it played out:
Ella looked at me, confused. And blinked. I started coloring again. Her eyes narrowed.
Ella: “Mom, why did you just snatch my pen?”
Me: “You’re not having it back!”
Ella, frowning: “But I was using it, and you always say snatching’s not nice.”
Me: “I want to color with it!”
Ella, handing me a red pen: “I was nearly finished. Here, use this one and I’ll pass you the pink one when I’m done.”
Me: “No, I just want to finish what I’m doing.”
Ella, seeing I had grass still to color: “Oh look, here’s the green we thought was lost! I was going to use it to do my tree but you could do your grass first if you like. I don’t mind.”
Me, relinquishing the pink: “Ah, thanks sweetie, that’s really thoughtful.”
Afterwards we talked. I explained how she had just demonstrated great sensitivity and maturity in handling the ‘Snatch’ situation. I highlighted how she’d used reason and persuasion to great effect to come up with a win-win solution that worked for both of us. I pointed out how she had ultimately succeeded in regaining the pink pen, while leaving me feeling cared for and good inside.
She saw how calm persuasion can deliver results.
She logged it away.
And honestly, two days later I heard a valiant attempt from her to remain calm and reason with Joe as he zoomed a toy plane back and forth in front of a TV programme she was trying to watch. She half succeeded. He moved aside, still noisy, but no longer blocking the view.
I was so proud! As I peeked around the door I’m sure I saw a half-smile on her face.
Now, I may be an optimist at heart, but I’m a realist too. I know that at seven and four my children are a long way from any consistent ability to use reason over action.
But it’s a start. They’re starting down the path of looking for win-win solutions. And I’m now more ready than ever to create other situations where I can help them both channel their skills in the right direction.
3: Take a Soak in the Soothing Waters of Persuasion
The Girl Guiding Movement may have a point. Their motto is “Be prepared.” So dip your toe in the water and make sure you know what to expect before your child even opens their mouth.
Watch out for the signs. Is she negotiating, or inching towards manipulation?
Anticipating what may lie ahead is one of the best ways to get ready for a potential negotiation with your child falling on the wrong side of the invisible fine line.
Take a moment to consider the following scenarios and how you can counter them. Your child is probably an expert at these now. Isn’t it time you saw it for what it is and channel it in the right direction?
- Divide and conquer – possibly the oldest trick in the book. Mom says ‘No!’, so they go ask Dad, who says ‘Sure, why not!’ In pitching parents against each other children shift the focus away from the issue at hand. It’s an easy one to counter. Talk with your partner. Agree consistency. And, above all, back each other up when the mini-negotiator rears her head.
- Embarrassing the parents – I’m guessing there are few among us who haven’t dealt with a public tantrum of some form. When you know you’re entering a potential tantrum-zone get mentally prepared. Picture yourself managing your child effectively (using whatever technique works for you) and be ready to spring into action at the first sign of a wobbly lip.
- Sweetness and light – butter wouldn’t melt, right? Children know how to melt your heart, and then skip happily away having been rewarded with whatever it was they were after. Don’t buy it. Embrace and love the cuteness, but also be prepared to look beneath it and save yourself the pain of being hoodwinked.
- Exploiting the moment (see above!) – my bath time battle the other night says it all. Train yourself to be hyper-vigilant for possible negotiations when you are vulnerable.
- The Guilt Train – as caring parents we always strive to do the best for our children. And we know we don’t always succeed. As we’re busy beating ourselves up our children are spotting an opportunity for some leeway. Try to be proactive when you feel this way, and be ready for any forthcoming attempt at negotiation.
- Persistence, persistence and, err, persistence – if there were a prize for persistence my girl would win gold. I know that part of the problem is my own previous weakness in this area – admiring of her tenacity I have given in once too often in the face of an ongoing barrage of pleading. Get a grip Mom and just say ‘No!’
I need to keep in mind this observation from Clinical Psychologist Dr Susan Rutherford:
Kids will test you, and may test to see if they can manipulate you with tears or tantrums, and a parent should be ready to face these behaviors with resolve.
It is our role as parents to establish and maintain limits that are fair and consistent. And that extends to keeping our kids firmly on this side of the line between persuasion and manipulation.
4: Step Outside the Bubble
When my daughter zoned-in on my vulnerability on bath night I found myself lost in the bubble of the moment. I was floating helplessly in a kaleidoscope of emotions, obligations and responsibilities.
Learn to recognize the dawning of a new negotiation and STEP AWAY FROM THE BUBBLE before it consumes you. Here’s how:
What’s in the Bubble Mix?
There are certain triggers for negotiation which could slide into manipulation. Let’s call these the Ingredients of the Bubble Mix. Spotting these triggers is the key to controlling the inflation of the negotiation bubble, and will help you avoid getting drawn in:
- You/they are tired – in this state you are more likely to capitulate, and they are more likely to try their luck
- They have an unresolved desire – these things sometimes don’t go away. My son has been known to remind me of a promise I made to him three days ago. I forgot – he didn’t. Cue negotiation…
- They are wound too tight – if we give our children no slack they will always fight against the ties that bind them. When rules are too rigid and flexibility is failing, our children will naturally seek to renegotiate the terms of their life.
The metaphorical deep breath.
Since our children are, thankfully, not mean and deliberate manipulators it can be easy to spot when they are brewing for a negotiation of this sort. Here are some of the sure signs your child is readying their persuasive reserves:
- Your child appears, and then disappears – they want to engage, but aren’t sure how.
- You ask your child to expand on something, and they say ‘It doesn’t matter’ – they have gauged that the moment for negotiation is not quite right. But don’t worry. They’ll be back.
- You are aware that a conversation with your child is wandering, and has yet to get to the point -they are waiting for the right moment.
- Your child is being super-nice to you – it’s possible they are simply being loving, but also that their agenda has yet to appear.
The trick is to simply dodge the bubble, and not get drawn into negotiations unless we are conscious of doing so.
Of course, some negotiation is okay, even desirable — it helps our kids learn how to navigate their way through the world.
Our intent isn’t to micro-manage them and squish all attempts at negotiation.
On the contrary, we give to them opportunities to learn the art of compassionate persuasion and be skilled at using this double-edged sword the right way. It’s important to not be consumed by the bubble, but there is no harm whatsoever in using a little hot air to change its direction.
Which leads perfectly to my last top tip…
5: Rein in your Inner Control Freak and Listen to your Child
Children have so many aspects of their lives managed by their parents it’s no surprise they rail against it. Over time they learn that certain behaviors yield certain results. And before you know it they are perfecting those skills and you have a mini-negotiator on your hands.
Because children use negotiation as a means of gaining some control in their lives.
When we recognize negotiation we need to reflect on:
- What – is driving their need for these discussions? Is it really about the ice cream they want, or are they needing some dedicated parental attention?
- When – do these situations arise? Is there a pattern? When giving the evening feed to my newborn son, my then four-year-old daughter would regularly try to negotiate a later bedtime, and extra story, or any other sleep-delaying tactic she could. This wasn’t about the sleep – it was a need for reassurance that she, too, was still loved.
- Where – are you both emotionally and physically when things kick off? Does this offer a clue? At certain times of the month, and often towards the end of a busy week, my daughter’s need to negotiate seems heightened. In fact, in these moments it’s as much my own lack of resilience that is the problem. She persists only because the opening is there, and because she’s tired too. That’s my parental cue to help her get some downtime.
- Who – are you giving your time to in these moments? Sibling rivalry is an ongoing conundrum. Just last night my Joe negotiated his way into a board game by sparking feelings of guilt in me because I was playing alone with Ella. And then proceeded to disrupt it. He wasn’t being mean. It was his way of saying ‘I want some Mommy time too!‘
- Why – is your child feeling that they need to persuade you if you are truly meeting their needs? Eeek, this one strikes a tough cord. But it needn’t. As thinking parents we give our best, most of the time. But however much we give they will always take more if it’s available. Often, the ‘Why?‘ behind the negotiation is simply ‘Because I can’!
When we put all these tips into practice we improve our ability to be present for, and supportive of, our children when the need to negotiate strikes.
Being out-negotiated by them is no bad thing. Think of it as a game you play with your children. As long as everyone sticks the rules it’s all good.
Our role is to guide them away from dubious practices, and towards considerate communications that end in win-win solutions. By ensuring they play fair we set them up for greatness. And a life where they can win and feel good about themselves for it. After all, isn’t that what we all want for our kids?
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
When you catch negotiation in action take a moment to ask yourself the following questions. In practicing them often you will gradually change the way you respond to your child when they get too close to the line between persuasion and manipulation. And their skills and abilities to say on this side of the line will slowly evolve too:
- What is my child really trying to achieve here? (This won’t necessarily be the specific thing they are talking about.)
- Am I in a position (physically and emotionally!) to be properly receptive? (If not you need to stall – get out of the bubble and blow it up again later, on more favourable terms.)
- How can I turn the discussion into one that is mutually respectful and with an outcome that leaves us both feeling good?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Looking at persuasion and manipulation in a wider context is crucial to helping your child understand how valuable – and also how potentially damaging – these skills can be. Keep these suggestions in mind for the future:
- Watch movies with your children that show negotiation in action, and use them as a prompt for discussing how persuasion and manipulation works, and the different ways they can make other people feel.
- Take time out after a negotiation (when the dust has settled and you are both feeling calm) and talk with your child about how the exchange you had could have worked better for you both.
- Make a point of flagging positive persuasion whenever you see it – in your child, in yourself, and in the world around you.