The Art of Negotiation, or Why You Shouldn't Argue with a Three-year-old
“We’ll read one book before bedtime,” you tell your child.
“OK. Three. But that’s all.”
Of our children’s many intrinsic gifts, the art of negotiation is often the most universal. Understanding us as intimately as we understand them, our children know how to make exactly the argument that will convince us. Sometimes it’s by appealing to our emotions. Sometimes it’s by appealing to our exhaustion! And because we want to have thoughtful, engaged conversations with our children, we often encourage them in their negotiations, offering points and counterpoints until we’ve identified some compromise that suits us all.
Negotiation has its benefits. When resolving complex issues or unpacking complicated social settings, negotiating can help give our children the understanding that we are flexible and responsive to their needs. But more often than not, we negotiate in times when the negotiation is more about control than complexity, when our children are negotiating for outcomes that we know, as adults, are less healthy for them. For less sleep or more playtime. For fewer vegetables and more ice cream. In those times, our negotiating leaves undermines our best intent as parents, teaching children that a persistent counterargument can protect them from doing what they don’t want to do.
How can we tell the difference? By deciding mindfully before we’re in the midst of a negotiation what issues depend on our adult experience or knowledge to best determine and when we want to support our children in learning to compromise. In issues of health and safety, for example, we need not negotiate.
“Billy, please stop juggling those knives,” you tell your child.
“How about just four knives?”
“Ok. Three. But that’s all.”
Clearly, not a time for negotiation. Likewise, we shouldn't negotiate after we’ve presented something as a “have-to.”
“Billy, it’s time eat dinner,” you tell your child.
“Ok. On Monday. But definitely by then.”
When we give our children direct instructions and then negotiate with them to different outcomes, we devalue the difference between an instruction and a request. Take the time to reflect on which household rules you want to maintain as nonnegotiable rules and which you want to have your children's input to inform. Then, stick with those limits. The rules may be different from household to household, but the consistency should not. If an outcome is negotiable, we should present it as such. If it’s not, we need, even in the face of well-crafted counter-arguments, to avoid negotiation. Simply restating the rule is often enough. Try "It is time to come to the table," instead of You may experience grumbling at first, but when you model flexibility in the contexts that can be flexible and consistency in the contexts that should be consistent, you offer your child both freedom and limits, a critical foundation for children who can advocate for their own preferences and cooperate when those preferences bump up against the demands of living in a community with others. In the Montessori classroom, we call this "the society by cohesion," but at home, we might just call it, "family." ’.