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Smart Talk: Six Ways to Speak to Our Kids

This excerpt is from How To Say It to Your Kids by Dr. Paul Coleman.

The "N" in TENDER stands for Negotiating. It should be used less often than parents realize. Negotiating begins when your growing child requests more freedoms (choosing which clothes to buy, staying up later, etc.). You can then discuss with her the responsibilities that accompany those freedoms.

Children are not your peers. They haven't the right -- as do adults in contract disputes -- to break off negotiations. Parents have the final say. Still, your children benefit when you hear them out, understand their reasons for wanting something, and sometimes negotiate an agreement with them.

When 11-year-old Danny wanted to own an expensive pair of in-line skates, his father had two concerns. First, he wanted Danny to appreciate the value of money. Second, since his son tended to postpone getting his homework done by playing too much, the new skates would add to that problem. Dad expressed those concerns.

Danny said he would do extra chores to earn the money. His father liked the idea, but the expensive skates would require a lot of chores. Dad really wanted the garage painted, but it wasn't a very big job because the first coat was nearly finished. Additional chores were required. Danny suggested they buy a cheaper pair of used skates so that extra chores would not be necessary. Dad agreed. Then Dad said that if Danny spent extra time playing and didn't finish his homework by nine o'clock, he would not be able to play the next day.Danny agreed. Obviously, Dad held all the cards in this negotiation. But because he believed his son would learn a valuable lesson, he took his son's ideas seriously.

The mistake parents make is when they negotiate out of desperation (that is also known as "bribery"). Maybe they are worried that their kids will misbehave during an important event, so they beg them to be good and promise them ice cream later. Or a mother screams, "Okay, you can have a new video game. Just stop yelling!" That situation is different from one where Mary must go grocery shopping and has to pull her two kids away from Nintendo to accompany her. She can start out by Empathizing and saying, "I know it's no fun to go shopping when you'd rather play. But I promise I'll hurry, and if you two promise not to complain when we are in the store, we can have pizza for dinner tonight." Mary is not desperate. She wants to reward her kids for good behavior. If she also praises them once or twice in the supermarket for their pleasant behavior, she will increase the odds that her kids will cooperate even more in the future.

How to Say It

  • "I know you've done a lot of work already, but we still have some more to do. I really appreciate your effort. Is there anything special you'd like to do later?"
  • "I know you want to go to the lake today with your friend and her family. I think that would be nice but I have these concerns...Any suggestions?"
  • "Before I can consider what you want, I need these things to happen..."
  • "Before we leave for the ball game, I want you to tidy up the house. Which rooms do you want to start with?"
  • "I cannot agree to that. Is there something else you want instead?"

The parent who negotiates in the best way is a benevolent dictator. She is willing to make accommodations to her child's wishes because she believes it is deserved or that it is in her child's best interest. A benevolent dictator never loses sight of who is in charge.

How Not to Say It

  • "Okay, you can sleep over your friend's house tonight, but remember you have a paper to write for school." (This is fine if your child is very responsible, but it is better to have an agreement ahead of time about your expectations. Kids are experts at putting fun ahead of responsibilities.)
  • "Will you promise to be home on time if I let you play at the neighbor's?" (Of course your child will promise. If it is important that he not be late, discuss what the consequences will be if he is late.)
  • "All right, all right. If you just be quiet for the next half-hour, we'll go to McDonald's for dinner." (Using blackmail is a bad habit to get into.)

The best time to negotiate is when:

  • You are not desperate.
  • You want your child to take on more responsibilities.
  • You want to teach your child the art of negotiation and compromise and the consequences of keeping or breaking agreements.


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