“Can we ride our bikes on the track down the street.”
“Nope, it’s too close to dinner time to go there. I need you to hang near the house.”
“Why? Please, it will be more fun there.”
“No, it’s too close to dinner. We don’t have time.”
“But why? It’s no fun riding here. Can we please go?”
“Look, you can go as far as the parking lot, but that’s as far as you can go.”
“How about that empty lot on the other side?”
“OK, but no farther.”
This is OVER-NEGOTIATION.
Let’s dissect these well-intended exchanges to make sure we’re teaching our children to make reasonable requests, rather than training them to be insufferable.
We Negotiate with Children for the Right Reasons
I want my child to be able to think and reason.
I need her to be able to question authority for her own safety. I want her to have self-esteem, grit, and resilience, and to be assertive and self-possessed.
Learning to negotiate with adults is one way of cultivating these skills. So it seems reasonable to reason with her.
Heck, sometimes it’s even FUN (gasp!) as a parent to be able to give the gift of an occasional delayed bedtime or second serving of ice cream. Those can be great moments.
But negotiation is a very slippery slope.
If we allow our kids to question every decision and direction, they will devour us and pick their teeth with our tired bones.
Way Too Much of a Good Thing
The problem with over-negotiation is just the “over” part. Some negotiation is fine and healthy. Too much turns them into backtalkers (I wrote about the problem with backtalk a few weeks ago.)
If we frequently engage in over-negotiation with our children, they come to believe the world owes them both an explanation and special treatment to meet their needs. That’s not doing them any favors in the long run.
Over-negotiation also sends the message that children have equal billing in adult decision-making, which just isn’t the reality.
As a former teacher, let me tell you what these kids are like in school. Draining.
They make the classroom environment harder for everyone. A teacher shouldn’t have to continuously explain to your kid why we walk in a line, or why he can’t lean back on two legs in his chair, or why she can’t sit under the table to read her book while teaching is underway at that table. A baseball coach shouldn’t have to repeatedly explain why a child doesn’t get one more turn after his fly ball has been caught.
I assure you, all of the rules and reasons have been covered. It’s tedious and disrupting to continually have to revisit them, and it makes the kid look like a jerk. The kid isn’t a jerk, he’s just in the habit of trying to wiggle his toe over every line.
These can be the toughest children to like. And the sad part is they usually have really nice, smart parents, who are just trying to raise thoughtful, self-possessed children.
I can also tell you these kids can learn in school settings that they can’t act like this. I reformed dozens of over-negotiators in my day, but the minute their parents arrived on the scene I would see them crank up the same old habits.
I don’t say this to shame the parents. I just want to make the point that these habits can be changed.
Three Ways to End Over-Negotiating with Kids
If we agree that some discourse and negotiation is OK, let’s decide where to draw the line and how to enforce it. Here are my three suggestions.
1. Require compliance in all routine matters
There’s no reason to discuss or debate the stuff you do every day. Be clear about how your household operates and don’t allow your rules to be up for in-the-moment modification.
Sure, kids need reminders about shoes, toothbrushing, chores, manners, etc. But they do not need a logical debate about any of them. Ditto for safety matters. There’s no time to discuss safety directions until after compliance, and after the danger has passed.
Just do it. Because I said so.
Ain’t nothing wrong with that phrase for 80-95% of parenting directions. You know why? Because 98% of the time THEY ALREADY KNOW THE ANSWER.
2. Comply first, ask questions later (if you must)
Here’s how this rule works:
- You give a routine direction. (“Please put your shoes on the rack.”)
- Child says, OK, and does it.
- Then, if the child needs further clarification (about why you decided the dirty shoes should stay in the mud room) he or she can say: “May I ask a question?”
I also recommend you reflect discussions of routine stuff like this back onto them (after they’ve already complied with the direction) and don’t engage unless they do. For example, say, “First, you tell me why you think we don’t leave dirty shoes in the hallway.”
If they refuse to answer, you can too. This usually nips an unnecessary conversation in the bud. Kids don’t seem to enjoy hearing adult logic come out of their own mouths.
The vast majority of the time, questioning directions exists for sole purpose of escaping the task and engaging you on some level. The child doesn’t want to clean up her room. So she’s satisfied to stand around and discuss it with you.
3. Minimize the REQUESTIONS
What’s a “requestion,” you ask? It’s when we want to give a direction, but we present it as a question. Anytime we add “OK?” to the end of a direction, we transform it into a requestion.
Most of us make requestions out of politeness: “Would you mind closing that door? Bugs are getting in.”
My best friend might respond: “Ugh, I just sat down, and I haven’t even had a sip of this wine yet. Gimmee a minute.” And I would say, “Girl, keep your seat! I’ll get it.”
I didn’t give a direction, I made a request. When that request was rejected, I was happy to step in. (She’d probably do it even if she was tired. ‘Cause Boss Parents can close doors and drink wine at the same time!)
But here’s a different scenario: “Your backpack is in the middle of the kitchen floor again. Go hang it on the hook, OK?”
If my kid said, “gimmee a minute,” I would not be happy to step in and do it for her (unless she was on the toilet). I should have given a clear direction, not a requestion.
Bosses Know How to Give Directions
Ideally, we would think about what we want our children to do, and how important it is to us, BEFORE giving a direction. If we’re truly offering an option, that’s fine. But if we require compliance, we shouldn’t use a requestion.
It’s a tough habit to break. I still do it 12-89 times per day.
- “Clear your plate, OK?”
- “How about we get PJs on before dinner tonight?”
- “Why don’t you go ask daddy when he’s coming in for dinner?”
- “Do you mind going to get me a fork?”
- “Could you please get in the car?”
These are not directions. They are questions, suggestions.
When I’m on my game, and I want no-questions-asked compliance, I’ll start with: “This is a direction.” Then give the direction. That way it’s crystal clear.
Children are quick to pick up on this change of language and tone.
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How to Know if You’re Negotiating Too Much
If you frequently hear other adults laughingly say, “She’ll make a great lawyer once day!,” you may be over-negotiating. (No offense, lawyers!)
If you brace yourself for “the discussion” any time you give a direction, you’re definitely negotiating too much.
My kid and I go through cycles. I know I’ve been negotiating with her too much when she regularly begins asking for more time and more cookies, or saying “not right now” or “no thank you” when I give her a direction.
Fortunately, at her age, a serious conversation goes a long way.
I tell her what I’ve noticed. I explain that it’s not OK, and that from now on she’s going to follow directions the first time or there will be consequences. I also remind her that I’m proud of how well she generally follows important directions. Then I give her a few jellybeans as reinforcers the next few times she gets right on it. That’s usually enough to get her attention and get our course corrected for the next week or so.
As I’ve written in the past, I’m totally cool with using a jellybean to draw attention to a behavior change I want to happen quickly. If you think your situation may be past the point of a conversation and a jellybean, I discussed “the nuclear option” and a few other ideas in this article about nagging.
Why am I in the car in my pajamas?
In closing, I want to note an exception.
Any time we change a routine, or do something out of the ordinary, our kids deserve an explanation. That’s fair.
A kid should have questions about unusual circumstances. Any time they might feel unsafe or truly confused, a conversation is appropriate.
“Get in the car, we’re going to the store.”
“Just go get in the car!”
“But I’m in bed. We already read two bedtime stories and did goodnight kisses.”
“Oh, right. Well I just read on Facebook that Ben & Jerry’s is giving out free ice cream and they close in 15 minutes. There’s no school tomorrow and mommy has a wicked craving.”
That’s reasonable, right?
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About the Author
Lisa King is the co-founder of Boss Parent. She also provides parents with in-person and remote child behavior consulting.