The Art of Non-Negotiation
Create Trust and Invest Time
Building trust from the beginning is crucial with babies, to convince them that when you say something, you will do it, says Virginia Varga, infant and toddler coordinator at the Center for Montessori Teacher Education in New York. Prolonged negotiation becomes less common with such understanding, and “when parents need to have a child do something immediately, the child has learned that, ‘They wouldn’t ask me to do this if it weren’t important,’” Varga says.
When choices are possible, parents can make children feel that they have “some say in this adult world” by discussing the options, Varga adds. This way the child begins to understand others’ feelings and learns to solve problems peacefully.
Sometimes avoiding negotiation is a matter of giving children attention at the right moment. If both parents work, it is important to spend some time together after arriving home rather than immediately “park the kids in a playpen or highchair” while parents attend to the details of daily life, says Sherry McBride, a pediatric nurse practitioner and RN at the Sansum Santa Barbara Medical Foundation Clinic in Lompoc, California.
When McBride’s four children were little and “getting distracted,” she sometimes placed pots and pans on the floor near the kitchen, played with her kids for a few minutes, and then “weaned” herself away to make dinner, with the children still in view. Kids often play more independently when they’ve had face-to-face interaction first, McBride says.
Stand Firm on the Non-Negotiables
Some decisions are not appropriate for young children to make, experts say: whether to go to bed at a certain time, hold a parent’s hand when crossing the street, or go to a public bathroom alone, for example.
But even non-negotiable events can involve a little leeway. “If you try to keep a bedtime and they must go to bed, you can give them at least the choice of whether they want to be carried or if they’ll walk,” Varga says. “I think that, for the most part, children will cooperate with that because they still have some choice.”
On the other hand, picking which preschool to attend, as some parents in New York City have allowed their children to do, is “not a decision a four-year-old is capable of making,” says Dr. Robert Evans, a psychologist, former teacher, and author of Family Matters: How Schools Can Cope With the Crisis in Childrearing.
Instead, the ability for thoughtful negotiation develops over many years. “I think to have a real negotiation, you have to have people who are closer to adult,” Evans says. “The typical pattern of parental authority has been one that begins unilaterally and moves over time, especially into the upper adolescent years, into one of more negotiation.”
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