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Teaching Kids to Negotiate

Bending the Rules

When my children were in their early elementary school years, they persuaded my wife and me that it was important that they stay up an hour past their bedtime to watch a Jacques Cousteau special on TV. My nine-year-old daughter stood beside her seven-year-old brother as she argued that her class was studying sea creatures and this program would help her with her schoolwork. She also pointed out that her brother would soon be studying this topic and that he would benefit greatly from it as well. Jason nodded affirmatively as Alisa pleaded their case.

We had no VCR at the time so we could not tape the show for future viewing. Since Alisa had made what we felt was a compelling argument to extend their school night bedtime, we agreed that they could watch the program, reminding them that they would be expected to rise at the same time the following morning with no complaints of being too tired to be at their bus stop on time. They would not be driven to school. After agreeing to our deal, they thanked us profusely and scampered down to the basement to watch the program.

Friends of ours had been visiting and had observed this discussion. When we returned to sit with them, one of them remarked, "Boy, you guys are a soft touch. Do you always give in so easily? In our house, bedtime is bedtime. No wheeling and dealing. Plus they'd be so cranky in the morning if they didn't get their regular amount of sleep."

We simply thought that our kids and we had engaged in a successful negotiation. They made a strong case for slightly bending a school night bedtime hour and had agreed to get themselves off to school the following morning without any complaining. We trusted that they would fulfill their part of the deal. We thought that they had negotiated well.

Raising Future Diplomats

The ability to negotiate is a valuable and necessary life skill. Negotiation involves empathy and compromise and children who learn to negotiate acquire and learn the importance of these abilities. Parents who teach their children to negotiate with them, as well as with other adults and children, enhance their confidence, self-esteem, empathy and social relationship skills.

Diplomats negotiate. Kids playing pick-up, non-adult-supervised sports negotiate. Married couples and friends negotiate. All successful, respectful relationships that I have been part of and have observed involve a continuing series of negotiations. The type of negotiating I am referring to does not result in defeating another; it's not adversarial. I am speaking of life's negotiations that teach and emphasize fairness and understanding, walking in the other person's shoes, negotiations that result in as favorable outcomes as possible for all parties involved.

Children are given power, independence, and respect when their parents allow and encourage them to negotiate, even as young children. Deciding with a parent which clothes to wear, which breakfast foods to eat, whether to do their homework immediately after school or after dinner, how neat their room should be, how loud to play the TV on Saturday morning when parents are trying to get some extra sleep and what times during the week to do their chores. There are endless opportunities to teach children negotiation. Parents who embrace negotiation and compromise as a family value raise children who know that their opinions, feelings and needs will be honored and respected. Children who are taught in this manner are also much more likely to return this honor and respect to others.

It may be difficult to see the correlation between successfully negotiating a later bedtime with your nine- and seven-year-olds and coming to a sensible compromise with your teenager about a weekend curfew...but I assure you that the comparison is valid. The respect, honor, and empathy that accumulate throughout successful parent/child negotiations during the younger years often result in agreeable negotiations and compromises in the teenage years. Remember that negotiating with your children is not giving up or giving in, it's teaching them one of life's important lessons.

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