Little Negotiators

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An interview with Susan Stiffelman, MFT

A lawyer once told me in any good negotiation everyone loses something. But when it comes to negotiating with our children, is the loss a healthy power dynamic between parents and kids?  When parents engage with their children in these discussions, are they putting themselves in an overly vulnerable position? Or could both parties actually stand to gain?  Susan Stiffelman, child development expert, says there’s a time and place for that kind of strategizing, so long as parents and their children stick to certain rules of engagement. — Laurel Moglen, Managing Web Editor, TMC

Under what circumstances is it appropriate and not appropriate to negotiate with your child/ren?

Negotiating is such a loaded word, and is often used in such a negative way. I’d like to use the phrase, “making new agreements.”

When a child is really upset, that is, pushing and demanding, that’s not a time to make a new agreement. It’s time to be captain of the ship. Use empathy first. Acknowledge your child’s point of view. You can say something like, “I know you wanted to get ice cream with Grandpa, I know it doesn’t seem fair to not get to watch another show, I know you’re really disappointed…” Be there with your child, giving loving support, allow them to be sad, but no negotiating. Their talk might look like a negotiation, but really it’s a hostile takeover.

If a child proposes something, and presents her idea in a respectful way, and they appear to be able to consider both points of view developmentally, then you should at least consider her point of view. For example, she wants to watch a show before doing her homework. You can say, “I have some concerns – but tell me your plan, and maybe we can make the change.”

My approach is not about being dogmatic or inflexible or controlling. Especially as kids mature, we want them to be independent and able to make their case. It’s important to give kids’ their audience, especially if they’re being reasonable. It builds a sense of trust and respect between parent and child.

A lot of kids think us parents are power hungry. We just say “no, no, no” because we simply can. Strong-willed kids really resent that. So, it’s important to, at the very least, consider their point-of-view, so long as they’re being reasonable and calm. How else will they learn to ask for what they want in life?

What about when kids try to change the order of an established ritual – for example having breakfast before getting dressed for school?

Two thoughts —

Generally speaking, kids do better with consistent rituals. I tend to want to advise a family to stick to them. That said, if a kid asks sweetly, you could say something like, “Well sweetie, I’m willing to give it a try. If you think you can get dressed and be in the car by 8am, it might work.”

I have no problem with that because how else is a kid going to ask to try new things and show you s/he can live up to their new agreements?

What do children learn from making new agreements?

They learn their voice matters. They learn how to articulate their wishes in a respectful way. They learn how to listen to another person’s point of view and respond.

What are some tips for parents on how to create new agreements with their child/ren?

  • Choose a topic that’s fairly neutral, and not hugely important one way or the other in terms of outcome. Don’t start practicing with big things.
  • Teach your child some guidelines such as: we take turns talking, and listen to the other person respectfully, we don’t shout or say rude things.
  • If no “new agreement” is made, acknowledge your child’s disappointment with the outcome. Allow your child to feel their sadness or frustration and acknowledge this is not what s/he hoped would happen. This is where parents have to accept that kids won’t always be happy and won’t always like you. If you’re really parenting, you have to live with that.
  • Sometimes it’s good for parents to give in. Just make sure you, as a parent, are okay with that outcome.

What is the goal for parents when entering into a negotiation with their child/ren?

I think there are two:

  • When coming up with a new agreement, parents need to be sure it’s one they can live with and feel good about. It should cause no harm and shouldn’t compromise the child’s welfare.
  • To empower the child to learn how to speak for herself and advocate for herself.

Susan Stiffelman, MFT, is a licensed psychotherapist, child expert and author of, “Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids while Staying Cool, Calm, and Connected.” She is dedicated to helping parents raise kids who are joyful, resilient and authentically themselves–without power struggles, negotiations, meltdowns and the various other thieves of joy that interfere with a parent’s ability to enjoy the journey of parenthood.  Her free newsletter can be found at

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Posted in: Behavioral Issues, Expert Advice, Learn