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Negotiator or Manipulator?

Elisheva Appel

How to help our children find the fine balance between coaxing and controlling

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

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If we define negotiation as discussion with the objective of reaching an agreement, is it ever advisable for parents to negotiate with their kids? Depending on whom you ask, the answer is either no, yes, or sometimes

R aise your hand if you’ve ever begun a sentence with, “If you get ready for bed nicely, then…”

Welcome to the club of mothers who know that issuing orders like an army drill sergeant isn’t the optimal way to secure children’s cooperation. However, while parents and children both like to feel like the winner, some situations just feel like stalemate, or even defeat.

“I have one child who always wants more than I offer,” says Shaina, a mother of five from Yerushalayim. “If I offer him two cookies, he’ll ask for a third. If I try to beat him to it by offering three, he’ll ask for a fourth.”

“My daughter has very high material needs, and it can be impossible to satisfy her. It’s so hard to know when to be firm. When she pleads and cries, my no becomes a yes, and then her older sisters are jealous that she always ends up getting her way,” says Malky, a mother of eight from Lakewood.

And from Chava, mother of three from Flatbush: “When my kids are involved in a good play session, I hate to disrupt it, so sometimes I’ll give them a few minutes extra. But no matter how much time I give, it’s always, ‘We just finished setting up and didn’t start the game yet, can you wait?’ and when those extra five minutes are up, ‘Can we have just a few more minutes?’ ”

Using discussion, not force, to encourage cooperation is a widespread tactic — but does it undermine parental authority? When does childish negotiation become manipulation? And how can we teach our children healthy communication skills while still running our homes smoothly?


“If you…”

According to Rachael Rovner, veteran early childhood educator from Memphis, parents often don’t notice the subtle messages they’re giving their kids. The if/then statement is often misused, formulating what parents expect from their children — pleasant cooperation — as a choice that’s up for discussion. “You’ve just given them the option of not going to bed nicely!” she points out.

Conversely, Dina Friedman, creator of the Chanoch L’naar parenting classes, maintains that the mother hasn’t given the child a choice as to whether to obey; the choice was already there, and the mother simply provided information about what would occur as a result of the child’s choices, letting the child to make an informed decision. Allowing a child to experience the inevitable consequences of his choices, and learning that his parents will follow through on the limits they set, is the basis for all parental authority, she explains.

“Listening to a child’s request is an expression of sensitivity to his needs, not an affront to authority. It sends the message: I care about your life and your perspective. You’re a person, not an object — even when I’m asking something from you”

If we define negotiation as discussion with the objective of reaching an agreement, is it ever advisable for parents to negotiate with their kids? Depending on whom you ask, the answer is either no, yes, or sometimes.

“They’re the children, you’re the grownup. I don’t understand how adults negotiate with children. You’re letting a three-year-old tell you what to do with your time?” asks Mrs. Rovner.

Some parents report opening a topic up for negotiation in order to secure cooperation and forestall the tantrum they expect will come if they lay down the law. “If I let you walk without holding Mommy’s hand, will you stay next to the shopping cart like a good girl?” seems like a better alternative than an explosive meltdown in the cereal aisle. But in the Rovner household, explosions are not an anticipated outcome.

“We don’t have tantrums,” explains Mrs. Rovner, “because there’s never been negotiation.” When children learn that their parents’ demands are negotiable, they become surprisingly persistent and dedicated to getting their own way. “Kids aren’t manipulative; they’re very smart. They learn from past experience. If I got a raise every time I walked into my boss’s office and demanded one, I’d do it more often. Kids negotiate and act with chutzpah because it works for them.” (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 595)

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