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Kids and Parents

An architect’s daughter missed the bus to school every single day. Her father had to take her to school. Fifteen minutes there, fifteen minutes back; thirty minutes a day, two and a half hours a week. Nothing he could do could get her up, dressed, and ready on time.

Working on the problem in class, we had a little negotiation in which the father played the role of his preteen daughter. Why did she miss the bus every day? “To spend more time with Daddy,” her father realized.

So we worked out a strategy. First, he would say to his daughter, “You know, I take you to school every day. That’s two and a half hours a week. Because of that I have to work on Saturday to make up the time to earn money for our family. Money to buy food, to pay for the house, and the other things we need. Wouldn’t you rather I spent the time with you on Saturday instead of having to work? We could plan something together on Saturdays. But that can only happen if you save us the time by taking the bus.”

The architect used two negotiation tools in his talk with his daughter: trading items of unequal value, and giving the daughter decision power.

This was good. But the architect didn’t think this was enough. So he formed a coalition with a third party. He called the mother of one of the daughter’s best friends, who lived a few doors down. They arranged for the friend to stop by and pick up his daughter on the way to the school bus. The father figured that his daughter would not want to leave one of her best friends standing at the door and make her miss the bus, too.

His daughter never again missed the bus.

The reason that children are often much better at negotiating than adults is that children do by instinct what Getting More makes explicit. Children very carefully watch adults, gauge where adults are coming from—what’s going on inside their heads—and then negotiate to push adults’ hot buttons. They use words like “Just a little more” (it doesn’t cost you much—they are essentially trading items of unequal value); “I love you, Mommy” (offering an emotional payment); or “I’ll be a good girl” (satisfying your needs). Children are very focused not just on their own goals but also on the other party.

So in order to do better at negotiation with children, you have to think the way children think and try to understand how they feel. You have to understand their perceptions.

Too much of the published advice and conventional wisdom on negotiating with children is not very useful. It often doesn’t achieve the goals of parents, that is, for children to grow up to be well-mannered, caring, and intelligent adults. Some of this advice focuses on what the parents want—not on the pictures in the heads of their children. Other advice tries to manipulate children into doing what the parents want. Children see through this.

Here, we will focus on the language and perceptions of children. The result is more power and less frustration for parents in negotiating with children. But a lot of this depends on your attitude in dealing with your kids. Remember, the way you approach a negotiation determines largely what you get from that negotiation.

So if you want your children to listen to you and to meet your goals, the way you treat your children is the biggest determining factor. As such, everything you do with your children is part of the negotiation. How you treat them, what you say, and what you do will shape the trust or mistrust they have in you.

The observations and advice in this chapter draw from psychology, as well as from decades of my observations of how people act, whether they are children or adults. And they come from tens of thousands of journals of students who have tried these tools with people of all ages.

I’ve included in this chapter the things that work, and why, as well as the things that don’t work, and why. We’ve reviewed a lot of studies; some are consistent with the behavior we’ve observed, some are not. When there’s a conflict, we go with observed behavior.

To get better at this, you’ll have to practice, and debrief yourself. Children practice all the time. They are prepared for negotiations with you. For you to be effective with children, you have to do more than know this material. You have to use it, learn from it, use it again. Remember, there is a big difference between conceptual knowledge and operational knowledge. What you know is good. But your ability to implement what you know is key.

Negotiating with children is not a special skill. With some specific “cultural” differences, mentioned below, negotiating with children is a lot like negotiating with adults. The tools for negotiating with children include valuing them, listening to them, doing role reversal, communicating clearly, focusing on goals, and not being emotional. It also means you can change the behavior of children just as you can change the behavior of adults. As with adults, it’s best done incrementally. And with children, there are plenty of things to trade.

Cultural issues aside, children are individuals. Getting More has a special chapter on negotiating with children not because treating them differently is a valid stereotype, but because it’s a stereotype. Actually, a treatise on “how to negotiate with children” is as foolish as one on “how to negotiate with the Japanese.” There are millions and millions of different Japanese and billions of different children.

The same is true of saying that there are different ways to negotiate with boys versus girls. It depends on the individuals involved. Cultural averages will give you insight about general questions to ask. But you still must begin with the individual. And every individual is different.

So the first thing you need to do is figure out the pictures in the head of your child. This is more important than anything else you can do. What are they thinking? What are they feeling?

Why is it important to know how to negotiate well with your children? Here’s the thing a lot of people miss. Children and parents have a special bond that no one else in the world has. They are, in the deepest sense, part of you. It is the same with adopted children, since parents must overcome many hurdles to adopt.

That means your children are potentially the closest people in the world to you. They are almost the only people who will give you unconditional love. In this risky, often dangerous, often alienating world, children can be your biggest supporters. Parents have an opportunity, unmatched with virtually anyone else, to nurture and cultivate their biggest supporters throughout the parents’ lives.

Parents who negotiate poorly with their children can easily miss out on something very special, a bond that can last forever. So getting this right is an amazing opportunity, one that, unfortunately, too many people fritter away. This chapter is intended to reduce the chance of that. And even if you’ve made mistakes, it’s almost always possible to turn things around.

Let’s first talk about the three biggest “cultural” differences with children.

First, largely at least until they leave home, children are keenly aware that they have less traditional power than adults. Until their midteens, children are almost always smaller and less physically strong. Until they leave home, they have less money. They depend on their parents for food, shelter, clothing, and almost everything tangible. This makes children insecure. That means if you increase a child’s perception of his or her power and security, they are willing to give up a lot for it.

Of course, this is exactly opposite of what most parents do. Too many parents threaten children, making them feel less secure. That’s why threats don’t work over the long term, or the medium term, or the short term, either. Children just try to find a way around them.

Second, children use crying and tantrums more than adults, often, but not always, because of less developed communication skills. Crying and emotion in adults generally have limited value. But children know that crying often works in getting them what they want, because many parents can’t stand to see their children cry. Young children also cry when they get frustrated by not being able to get their needs met or points across.

The smart parent, however, knows that crying is always Plan B for children. It takes energy to cry. Crying is not a happy circumstance. Crying is a sign of frustration. It’s physically upsetting. The key is to give children the chance to use Plan A more: giving them more power, more of a sense of control, emotional payments, helping them get their needs met, understanding what they are trying to say.

Third, a child’s life is about getting more. Children think mostly in terms of two categories: things they like and things they don’t like. So they are constantly negotiating for more of what they like: more ice cream, more TV, more toys, more time with Daddy or Mommy, more time with friends. To get these things, children are often willing to trade. Don’t think of it as bribery but as a way to teach children a valuable skill for life.

I knew a lot of this in theory before I had my son Alexander in 2002. But then I got to practice it day in and out, consciously and as a professional, from the time my son was an infant. Our son has turned out to be a great negotiator.

When he was about four, I once asked him to do something for me. He didn’t want to do it. I said, “Didn’t Daddy buy you ice cream last week?” He nodded yes. I said, “If Daddy bought you ice cream last week, isn’t it only right for you to do something for Daddy now?” The result: he did what I asked him to do. I had linked our current negotiation to a past negotiation—and, by implication, to future negotiations.

About a week later, my son asked me for some ice cream. I declined, saying he had had too many sweets already that day. Without skipping a beat, he said, “Didn’t I do something for Daddy last week?” I had to hand it to him. I also gave him some ice cream, although we negotiated over the amount.

So let’s look more specifically at some of the mechanisms that get children to do what you want—and in a way that meets their needs, too.

The first thing you need is to define your goals. Many if not most parents think of short-term goals: do your homework, stop screaming, clean your room. It is very important to think about whether your actions toward your children will meet your long-term goals: having them grow up to be successful, responsible, and loving adults. The tools below are designed to help you do that.

When you probe more deeply, you will often find out that you are not meeting your goals with your child, because something deeper is at work. Linda Kaufman, a sales rep at Comark, the Canadian clothing distributor, said she continually had to negotiate with her preteen on doing homework. We did a role reversal exercise in class where she played the role of her son.

“Homework wasn’t the problem,” she found out. “I hadn’t taken the time necessary to map out a plan with him that was agreeable to both of us.” The real problem, she said, was trust. Together, they agreed that her son would do his homework after school, and after that he would have Internet access. And they set up a trial period. “My son wants to keep Internet access,” she said. “We proved that we can keep commitments to each other. And I realized I should make sure we solve problems together.”

Assuming you know your goals, the most important thing you need to understand is the pictures in the heads of your children. Otherwise, you don’t know where to start. It means asking questions. It means not assuming anything.

Franz Paul’s four-year-old son, Henry, had become a picky eater at dinner, and also disruptive. Franz thought about the pictures in Henry’s head. Dad realized that he had recently stopped playing with Henry before dinner because of work demands; the family ate as soon as Franz walked in the door. As soon as Franz, a hedge fund manager, started playing with Henry again before dinner, everything returned to normal.

So the right answer to many of your child’s fits should be questions. If your child says, “You’re mean!” your answer should be “Why?” or “Tell me more.” If your child says, “Robert stole my toy!” your answer should be “Why?” or “Tell me about it.” If your child says, “I want a cookie now!” you ask, “Why a cookie?” or “Why now?”

Yes, you can certainly guess. But it’s not as good as asking your child a direct question.

I’ve seen advice for parents that says things like “When they say they want a cookie, ask them if they want a banana instead.” What? Your child knows the difference between a cookie and a banana. If they wanted a banana, they would ask for a banana! “Why do you want a cookie?” is better. Or “Why do you want a cookie so close to dinnertime?” Or “It’s so close to dinnertime, will you take half a cookie?”

Or modify the common advice: “You could have a cookie, but it’s not so good for you. Can you satisfy your sweet tooth with a banana instead?” This is very different, because it contains respect.

Rahul Sondhi’s three-year-old nephew insisted on eating in his parents’ bedroom. Instead of just saying no, Rahul asked his nephew “to show me exactly where he wanted to eat.” Whereupon the nephew took his uncle to a corner of the bedroom where there was a stool. The nephew sat on the stool.

“I realized that he wanted to eat like an adult, not in a high chair,” Rahul said. “The room was not material. So I took the stool into the dining room and sat him down to eat. He ate there happily.” His nephew just wanted to be “big,” to be treated more like an adult. “Looking at the problem from his perspective allowed me to solve the problem,” said Rahul, now strategy chief for a New York hedge fund.

Cesar Grullon’s nine-year-old son, Stefan, wouldn’t sleep in his own bed. After questioning him, Cesar, a marketing entrepreneur, got to the root cause: his son thought his bed was a “kiddie” bed. So Cesar offered to go with his son to the store and pick out a big-boy bed if his son would agree to sleep in it. “In situations where power is so lopsided,” Cesar said, “it’s tempting to flex one’s strength and unilaterally decide outcomes. But these outcomes are often short-lived, because root causes are not articulated, understood, and addressed.”

In other words, you have to not only understand your children’s perceptions but appreciate them. Bill Taylor, a sales rep from BASF, said that his son, a high school senior, wanted to attend music school after graduation. “I want him to get a degree in a field where he can support himself,” Taylor told the class. He was willing to pay tuition to study education, business, or science, but not music.

So we did a role reversal exercise, where Bill played the role of his son. “I realized,” he said, “that the old dude mistrusts the young buck’s judgment. And the young buck thinks the old dude is a dinosaur.”

Bill and his colleagues used the exercise to come up with a proposal: the son would go to a state school for a general degree, as well as a special music school. “I needed to appreciate and value him,” Bill said.

The key is to communicate honestly with your children about the pictures in their heads. Don’t try to hoodwink them. Just because they can’t express themselves as well as you do, don’t think they don’t notice things. They probably notice things even more acutely than you do. Watch your child as much as, or more than, your child watches you. What revs him or her up? What calms him down? What are her likes or dislikes? What are the indications of their various moods?

Next, listen to what they have to say. Studies show that many parents do this poorly, even though they think they do it well. Think how an adult would react if you treated them the same way. Say your kid is talking to you and you continue to do what you’re doing, without real feedback, or even turning around to look at them. It’s insulting!

More important, you will be training your children to do the same thing to you. If you wonder why your child doesn’t listen to you, think about whether you listen, really listen, to them. You say, Johnny’s just a child. Actually, Johnny, or Sara, is a small adult—with a memory. Your kids will grow up, too. They won’t forget how you treated them when they were young.

What this means is that if you want your child to stop and listen to you, you have to do the same thing. Unless you are in the middle of something critical, when they call you, STOP and listen to them. Get all the details. The golden rule here is very important; children learn to apply it even before they can articulate it.

In a study done in England and Wales a few years ago, almost 75 percent of teenagers felt that being listened to and understood by their parents was key to their relationship. Only 41 percent of parents thought so. Even from a young age, children who feel listened to and understood by parents gain more self-esteem, are able to think independently, and develop more social competence and decision-making ability.

You may need to be creative. Steve Shokouhi, who got the cocker spaniel for his daughter, Debra, also had a problem with Debra not going to sleep on her own. She wanted Mommy or Daddy to sleep at the foot of the bed until she fell asleep. She wouldn’t say why. So Daddy set up a puppet show, and his daughter talked through the puppet. The puppet said Debra was afraid of the dark. A night-light wasn’t enough.

So the parents put all the lights on in her room, and Debra fell asleep. She was okay with the fact that her parents would turn off the lights later in the night after she was sound asleep.

What if you bend over backward to listen to them, and they then don’t come when you call them, or don’t listen to you? Remind them, nicely, what you do for them. Will this work all the time? Absolutely not. But each time you use the tools in this book, your success rate will go up.

A related point is to consult with your children. Let them into your decision-making whenever possible. This addresses a key insecurity of children: that they have no power. It encourages them to trust you more. They feel included. They feel loved. “What could we have done better for next time?” you might ask them, for example.

Rod Palmer, a manager at Marathon Petroleum, could not seem to motivate his nine-year-old daughter to do her homework and participate in sports. He finally decided to consult her for answers. They came up with a schedule that worked. Rod let his daughter participate in the decision process, he said, including setting rewards and consequences. They implemented it incrementally. In the process he found out that his daughter looked at the world differently, in wanting to feel some control. “Letting her take ownership made her better at things,” he said.

If you want your child to brush her teeth, it’s better to put five toothbrushes and five tubes of toothpaste on the bed than simply telling her she must brush her teeth. Tell your child, you have the power. Decide which one is yours. Discuss the various pros and cons of the toothbrushes—color, taste, looks, etc. This may take more time than just yelling at them to brush their teeth, but it is far more effective.

And actually, what you are doing is training your child to make decisions and work collaboratively with you. It translates to all kinds of situations. Ask your children to help you pick restaurants; it will often satisfy their desire for more control.

John Murray’s three-year-old daughter, Kelli, wouldn’t brush her teeth without a fight. He offered her a choice of toothpaste, and he also offered to read any book she wanted. “It was like flicking a switch,” John said. “She was willing to brush her teeth. I gave her a little control; she felt empowered and was willing to meet my goal.” Instead of giving something up, they each had something to contribute.

In my opinion, the sentiment “Children should be seen and not heard” is a terrible message to convey to our children. It devalues children, essentially saying that their perceptions are not important. It causes them to stop listening and to look for ways to fight back.

Studies show that children who make more of their own decisions wind up being more self-motivated, creative, healthy, and intelligent and having higher self-esteem.

How would you like it if you were watching your favorite TV program and someone came into the room and just shut it off without asking you? You would be livid. But that’s what a lot of parents do to their children. Too often parents assume that what children think, or need, isn’t important. Parents resort to the use of raw power. And, eventually, your kids will hate you for it.

People of all ages have been found to have a higher risk of mental and physical health problems when they feel powerless. Having the chance to make choices they feel are meaningful increases people’s sense of well-being. It also increases their ability to cope effectively with stress. Such people negotiate with others more calmly and effectively—and that includes children.

Giving people information helps them feel more powerful, as well. Children facing surgery, for example, can be taken on a tour of the hospital beforehand, to let them see what the hospital is like. Allow children to express themselves. Fully answer your children’s questions. What parents should be asking is, “What can I give my child control over?” The more you do this, the easier it will be to negotiate with them.

Alan Switzer’s son, Brandon, insisted on playing with the new train his dad bought him at Disney World the night before their return home. Alan wanted him to pack it. “Do you want to take the train home with you?” asked Alan, an infotech director. “How do we do that if it’s not packed up?” Brandon, given the decision authority, let his dad pack the train.

Children who feel empowered at home are less likely to turn away from their parents when they get more power as teenagers. So many of the problems that parents have with their teenage children are the result of having used poor negotiation skills early on. Research shows that by the time kids are thirteen, those from controlling families are often ready to run away from their parents. The peer group becomes more important than the family group, as a result. Yet this is almost entirely preventable.

Andrew Jensen was teaching a class of ten-year-olds in Sunday school. “They’re ten years old, so they are very hyperactive,” he said. “Some have little discipline at home, and thus are unruly at school.”

Andrew thought back on his experience as a ten-year-old in Sunday school. He remembered how he reacted to his stern teacher—rebelling against her rules. So he decided to be less formal, to provide the children with more incentives, and to consult with them on when and how to do their lessons. He used lesson-based games to demonstrate concepts of reverence. Small treats were given for good behavior now. Pizza was available later.

“The children started bringing their books,” Andrew said. “There was no misbehavior. There were many volunteers to answer questions.” He learned to think about what made his students tick, what roadblocks there were to learning, and how students might have different perceptions. He realized one must be willing to try new things, without losing focus on one’s goals. “This stuff works with anyone!” said Andrew, finance manager of an industrial supply company.

Even two-year-olds. John Valovic’s two-year-old was going to bed too late. But he refused to go to bed earlier. “I realized,” said John, “that my son wanted to be in control of his schedule.” So they had a talk and decided together what to do. For example, they agreed to reduce his son’s midday nap from three hours to one hour. “Including children in discussions works,” he said.

You will be amazed at the extent to which children will trade things of unequal value when you let them. Brian McDevitt, head of retail for a major Internet company, wanted his five-year-old son, Thomas, to talk to his dad when they got up in the morning. Brian thought it was a good habit to get into. So Brian told his son that in exchange for fifteen minutes of conversation in the morning, Thomas could have fifteen extra minutes of coloring. Thomas started talking immediately.

Some of you might think of this as a bribe. I disagree. A bribe is paying someone to do something that (a) they should do for free or (b) is unfair to others, like giving cash to a government official to sway a decision. The trading discussed in Getting More is fairer to all, and is a reasonable bargain for both.

Children love to trade. Philip White’s three-year-old son, Ethan, didn’t want to get out of the bathtub. He wanted to keep playing with his toys. Daddy was in a rush. “I made sure I was empathetic and acknowledged my son’s power in having the right to stay in the tub,” said Phil, a director at an Internet company in San Antonio. “I convinced him to get out of the tub now in return for having colored water in the tub the next day.” His son agreed, and got out of the tub. Even three-year-olds are willing to negotiate.

Soo Jin Kim’s five-year-old daughter had trouble getting ready on time for school. Mommy knew her daughter, Min Suh, liked her hair braided. “I proposed to braid her hair every morning if she goes to bed one hour earlier and gets up thirty minutes earlier,” said Soo Jin, now a senior counsel for Samsung Electronics in Seoul, Korea.

Notice how easy each of these negotiations was. If you have the right key, children are very willing to negotiate.

Alexandra Levin’s friend brought her two-and-a-half-year-old, Sydney, to Alexandra’s house. When it was time to go home, the child didn’t want to go. She wanted Alexandra to continue reading Eloise. Her mother sensed a tantrum coming. So Alexandra used negotiation tools. “I agreed to read her two more pages now,” Alexandra said. In other words, she was being incremental. “And I said that next time I’d read the whole book again.”

Sydney calmed right down. She understood what “incremental” means.

It was also a great lesson for Sydney, learning to postpone gratification to an appropriate time in the future. Alexandra, who lives in Philadelphia, has since had three kids of her own and the same tools work just fine with them also, she said. As such, you don’t need to have your own children to master negotiating with kids.

At 5:30 A.M., Brian Murphy hauled himself out of bed to go downstairs to work out. His three-year-old daughter, Evelyn, woke up early and came to see him. “Daddy, can you keep me company?” she said. She wanted him to sleep on the floor in her room. Who can resist such a request? Brian didn’t want his daughter to think Daddy loves exercising more than her. At the same time, Brian knew he really needed to work out, and this was the only time he could do so.

He thought about the things Evelyn really liked. One was her “Little People” toys. Evelyn was not allowed to sleep with them. Brian asked Evelyn if the Little People could keep her company in bed while Daddy worked out to stay healthy. Evelyn agreed, and the problem was solved. Brian later formed a principal investment company and was running for governor of Maryland on the Republican ticket in the fall of 2010. He said the same negotiation tools work in politics as with his daughter: defining what value means to each person and then exchanging items of unequal value.

Jacqueline Sturdivant was babysitting her friend’s three-year-old son, Alexander. Alex wanted to play with his cars on her newly reupholstered silk sofa. She wanted Alex to play with the cars on the floor. Instead of ordering him to do so, Jacqui told Alex that playing on the floor was better. The surface was smoother. And there was space for six cars, instead of one or two on the sofa. “We had a car race on the floor so I could show him,” she said. “He won two of three races.”

“Telling my friend’s son not to play on the sofa because it messes up the fabric has no meaning to him; he does not care about fabric,” said Jacqueline, who directs a translation service in New York. “But he does want his cars to go faster. And hard flat surfaces make cars go faster. Therefore, it was a simple sell to get him to change.”

This means framing things in terms of the child’s needs.

Poorvi Chothani wanted her teenage daughter Chadni to take typing lessons. “She hates typing,” Poorvi said. This was compounded by peer pressure. The parents of two of Chadni’s friends did not think it was a useful skill. Using two fingers on their BlackBerries worked just fine.

So Poorvi focused on her daughter’s needs. “She wants to be a journalist,” Poorvi said. “I showed her studies that showed how much faster you can write with touch typing.” Poorvi also told her daughter that instant messaging would be more efficient with better typing skills. Poorvi said she understood peer pressure, but this was for her daughter’s career. She added that her daughter could choose the days of the week to take classes.

“Role reversal made me sensitive to her feelings,” said Poorvi, founder and managing partner of a law firm in Mumbai, India. “Focusing on her interests made her feel I was on her side. Pointing out third parties’ studies made me less of her enemy. Being incremental—taking classes part-time—made it easier to start. Giving her the power to choose which days she took classes was persuasive.” Chadni took the typing course and became a writer, her mother said.

As you can see, it often takes several tools to achieve a successful negotiation. As long as you are listening to your kids and valuing them, it doesn’t really matter which tool you start with. You will discover your own favorites with practice.

Mary Gross’s four-year-old daughter, Eleanor, made a scene every time Mommy had to go on a business trip. “I thought about her interests and needs,” Mary recalled. The first thing that Mary said to her daughter might seem so obvious that most adults don’t say it. But it’s very meaningful when you look at the world through a child’s eyes. “Doesn’t Mommy always come back?” Mary said to her daughter. She wanted to ease her daughter’s fears.

Next, she asked, what could her daughter do that she enjoys when Mommy is away? They put together a list. Finally, Mommy promised to bring back a “surprise” for her daughter. “I was able to leave with a big hug and kiss instead of tears and tugging on my coat,” said Mary, a career services counselor at Wharton. “I had acknowledged and validated her feelings.” And there is nothing wrong with bringing home a “surprise” from such a trip. After all, how many spouses bring back presents after a business trip? Not fair to have double standards for children.


Ying Liu wanted to stop his six-year-old son, Jing, from watching so much TV. He also wanted to encourage Jing to play the piano and do more math. The first thing Ying did was prepare. He made a list of his son’s interests. They included, in addition to watching TV, playing with Legos and going to the zoo.

He then suggested to his son that he could trade TV time, piano time, and study time for Legos and visits to the zoo. They established a point system. So whenever he watched less TV, he got points. Whenever he studied math or played the piano, he got more points. Dad and son monitored the process together. As Jing got points, he felt valued and good about himself. He spent quality time with Dad.

Ying, now a McKinsey associate in New Jersey, also used standards to negotiate with his son. He noted that a classmate and a cousin were each limited to thirty minutes of TV per day. Ying’s son watched hours of TV per day. All three of them said they wanted to go to Harvard. Ying next asked his son which of the three he thought would be going to Harvard, and why. Jing told his dad whichever of them worked the hardest. And that became his goal. The process worked.

Some parents might object to trading TV time for homework, but I see nothing wrong with this. Kids watch TV anyway. Parents should get something for it! And more often than not, eventually the kids will come to like the activity they are being encouraged to do, so you won’t have to trade them things to do it.

Some experts declare that a system of rewards and punishment decreases motivation over time. Based on experience, in the real world, I beg to differ. Rewards and consequences work just fine, if (a) the child has a hand in choosing the rewards and consequences, (b) the process seems fair to all, and (c) it creates the right incentives. It’s also a great idea to keep a record: a colorful spreadsheet, a journal—something that parents and kids can share. They can discuss how to make continual improvement.

Julie Haniger told me she has never been successful in getting her children to keep up their responsibilities around the house. “They sometimes let me think they have agreed, but then they do not follow through,” she said.

So Julie had a meeting with her kids. She wanted to know if the family members would agree to make a commitment to help each other. They said yes. So they all came up with a reward system (a weekly allowance). There was a schedule for chores, provided with some flexibility. There were penalties for inaction. They also created a chart with stars to record their performance. And finally, the family agreed to monthly meetings. “It worked better than I thought possible,” she said.

By now it should be clear that the willingness of children to meet your goals as parents has a lot to do with how you treat them. Treating children with respect trains them to treat you with respect. That doesn’t mean you have to approve of everything they do. But it means you need to give them reasons when you say no, just like you do with adults.

And it needs to be done in a way that doesn’t undermine your child’s sense of security. The best security of all for a child is the love of their parent or parents. I find it amazing how many parents undermine their children’s sense of security and confidence by withholding love. Or by threatening it in some way.

The trust relationship between parent and child is absolutely critical. If you lose or harm it, everything else will be affected. That means if you have a problem with your child, you need to sit down and communicate with each other. Talk about trust, and anything else your child has on his or her mind.

When children are young, trust is built with face time: doing projects together (art, scrapbooks, Legos), sharing things together (games, sports, educational TV, reading, counting water towers or different states’ license plates on cars along the highway). All of this affects the child’s attitude toward negotiating with you on a wide range of things that both of you care about. Everything is related.

Some parents sit with their children at dinnertime and the whole family talks about the best and worst things that happened to them that day. At my house each member of the family also has to bring up three other items of interest. When children communicate and are listened to this way, trust is built. So when I want my child to do something important for me, he is usually much more willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. It’s a backdrop that affects the entire parent-child relationship.

When you do projects together, children are less likely to be demanding in general. When your child does not want to be left at day care, start a project with the youngster with the teacher’s help. Ask them to show it to you when you get back. You can check on their progress with them by phone during the day.

If you were to ask about the kinds of things that people value most from their loved ones, high on the list is “unconditional love.” That doesn’t mean that the other party can’t criticize you. It means that the other party loves you despite your weaknesses and faults.

When you emotionally undermine your child, the pictures in your child’s head are often “Mommy doesn’t love me” or “Daddy doesn’t love me.” What it also means is that the child, without knowing the term, thinks you are withholding your love. If you do that, don’t expect to get their love in return.

Blaming adults causes them to shut down and not listen. It is even more pronounced with children, because kids are insecure and dependent on you. Whenever there is a problem in which I’m involved, I first think it must be my fault. After all, I have the most control over myself. If my son broke something, my first thought is, Why didn’t I train him better?

It doesn’t mean that you should go around praising your children all day long. Children can detect manipulation probably even better than adults can. Studies show that specific praise is better. “You’re a good boy” is not as good as “That was a great piano recital.”

Remember, you’ve lived longer and have more experience and skills. It’s your job to teach your child—and teach until he or she gets it. If you don’t follow this advice, you won’t meet your goals. And we have thousands of journals and twenty years of study to back it up.

So tell your child, “I love you with all my heart and soul. But you can ask for more ice cream all day and I’ll still say no. And here’s the reason …” They need to make sure that your love is unconditional. If they still don’t get it, you might say, “I’ve lived longer than you have and I’ve seen more things. And here’s what I found out.” Even a four-year-old understands that. Touch them on the arm while saying it. How many of you show your children affection as an absolute prerequisite to criticizing them? It makes a world of difference.

It’s also key to set priorities. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Safety, health, laws, ethics, and manners are nonnegotiable. Everything else we can learn incrementally and twin it with responsibility. Humor is great with kids. If your son spills flour all over the floor, you might say, “Whoops! Are you baking a cake on the floor?” Then add, “I guess we have to clean it up.”

And we clean it up together. Adults drop things, too. Your child will already feel bad about it. Don’t make it into a comment about his or her entire personality or self-worth. It’s not fair, and they know it. You’ll just teach them to be unfair.

Paint them a picture. “You need to brush your teeth or we’ll soon have to go to the dentist, and no one thinks that’s fun!” It’s just how adults would frame it to themselves.

How you frame things to children (and others) is key to how they will respond. Walk them through the process. Give them the courtesy and respect of working through the problem with them. Give them the details. Maryann Wanner’s seven-year-old daughter, Aimee, would not wear knee and elbow pads while riding her bike because they weren’t “cool.” “We then did an inventory of her many, many bruises and I asked her to pick out the coolest,” said Maryann, a finance manager. “She grimaced and put on the pads.”

David Luzzi needed to negotiate with his twin eleven-year-old boys to play fewer video games. David’s goal was to cut video game time to half of total playtime instead of almost 100 percent.

The first thing David did was talk to his wife, Marla. As all parents know, kids often try to play parents off against each other. David and his wife made sure they were on the same page. And they would also all do the negotiation together.

The second thing David did was figure out the setting for the negotiation. He didn’t want the boys to run off to some other activity. So they had the discussion over a forty-minute drive on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Then he needed to get his boys to realize for themselves that video gaming was only one part of a full life. That if they played too much video, they would be depriving themselves of other activities they liked. So David asked his sons for a list of fun activities that they liked. They named a long list of activities that his wife wrote down. Video gaming was only one of the many items on the list.

Then Mom mentioned studies by scientists that said too much video gaming was not good for kids. Well-balanced play was better. The two eleven-year-olds, Colin and Marcus, had of course taken science class and were always “educating” Mom and Dad on things they learned in school. Authoritative studies by scientists were respected in the Luzzi household.

David’s son Colin was no dummy. He could see where this negotiation was going. He started to become upset. David was ready for this. He knew from studying emotion in class that many negotiations are not rational. Emotional payments must be given. So David asked Colin why he was getting so upset.

Colin said he likes video games and “hardly ever gets to play them.” David, now the dean of engineering at Northeastern University, did not argue with Colin about this. Being right didn’t matter here. Instead, David and Marla said that half the total playtime in video games seemed fair, didn’t it? The rest of their time would be spread among all the fun activities the kids had mentioned. Everyone was thrilled. The boys came away from the discussion with a new sense of responsibility and family decision-making.

The part that takes parents some getting used to is slowing down and being incremental. Asking the children about their dreams and fears. Making an emotional payment.

At the beginning of chapter 6, we saw the example of a mother getting her daughter willingly to go to the hospital to get stitches on her forehead. Incremental, emotional payments are effective. Children think in terms of being incremental. They ask for some cookies, and you say no. So they ask for one cookie. Why can’t you do the same thing? When they ask for cookies, you say, “How about one cookie?” Or “You can have half a cookie now, and half a cookie later.”

Michael Johnson’s three-year-old daughter, Anne, rolled up in a ball on the soccer field, crying and noncommunicative. It was her first soccer game. This is not unusual, but most parents just don’t know what to do in this situation. Michael got her to start communicating by telling Anne that she didn’t have to do anything, that Daddy loved her, that Daddy was here for her.

Anne finally confided that she was afraid of all the parents watching her and seeing her make mistakes. No problem at all, her father said. He suggested they go to the next field, where no parents were watching, and “play our own game.” Anne loved it. They did that for a while, as Anne became increasingly confident. Finally, she was willing to join the other kids for the last few minutes of the game. Anne even scored a goal. “She had a great time and is now confident,” said Michael, a private equity manager outside Philadelphia.

Bob Evans’s son, four, refused to take swimming lessons. “I’d rather ride my scooter,” he said. Bob realized that his son, Michael, might be afraid of the water. He told his son it was okay if he was afraid of the water. Bob, a financial services executive, said that when he was a little boy he was afraid of the water, too.

So Bob and his wife first gave his son a lot of baths. Then they took him and his friends to the shallow end of the pool where the son could stand up, “just like in the bathtub.” Later, they put water wings on him; he tried deeper water. Then they took him and his friends to a swimming class. Afterward they all got pizza. The process was very incremental, dealing with the child’s fears and eventually meeting the parents’ goals. Peers and pizza of course helped. The process got Michael to love the water; he later swam in the Marin County championship in California.

Yucong Li needed to transfer her daughter to another school that was closer to their home and Yucong’s work. Her daughter was sad about this and opposed the transfer. So Yucong encouraged her daughter to talk about all of her concerns. She said she would miss her friends. And she was afraid of an unfamiliar new place.

So Yucong gave her daughter plenty of time to get used to the new school. They visited the teachers there, who were nice. Yucong helped her daughter write good-bye letters to all her friends at her present school, and made sure everyone exchanged phone numbers. Plans were made for playdates with her friends. The next time they visited the new school her daughter was more interested. Finally she agreed.

“Negotiation skills can be useful in all kinds of situations,” Yucong said. “Appreciate your child’s concerns. Take breaks. Help your child find workable solutions.”

Children are very good at watching adults, but they are less skilled at putting themselves in the roles of adults. It is important for children to understand what adults have to deal with. If you can get your child to play along, try a role reversal with them. Children love to play-act, so it will usually not be a problem.

The five-year-old daughter of William Song was constantly whining and not paying attention. He thought it might have something to do with jealousy over the extra attention that her parents paid to her twenty-two-month-old brother, Joshua. So the father and the daughter, Sophia, did a thirty-minute role reversal. The father played the daughter and the daughter played the father.

In the role reversal, Sophia had the power, and she was trying to get her father to pay attention to her and to do some things together. William, an attorney in New York, responded with exaggerated whining and not paying attention. Sophia soon saw the unattractiveness of her own behavior as demonstrated by her father, and the frustration that it was causing. This helped them get to the root of exactly what was bothering her: not feeling she had enough of her parents’ attention. So they put in place some guidelines that helped everyone.

Mike Vertal had a similar problem with his five-year-old son, Liam. Liam had become increasingly defiant over the previous months, ignoring his father’s requests. Their interactions often led to yelling.

So Mike asked Liam to “play me” for fun, and he would “play” his son. I’ve found most kids can’t resist such games. The father, playing his son, said, “Why do you get mad at me when I don’t listen?” This forced Liam to think about why he should listen to his daddy more. It was a big aha moment for the son.

Mike also needed a commitment. So he asked Liam what they should do in the future when one of them doesn’t listen to the other. Here, Mike included himself in the equation. He told Liam, “Maybe Daddy should listen more, too.” Liam said they should remind each other of this conversation. In the future, this is exactly what they did. Mike, founder of an information technology company, said such role-reversal experiences have helped his son think things through better, especially in science.

Giving children extra responsibility is key to success in dealing effectively with them. In fact, it’s a cornerstone of all human behavior. It’s just more pronounced with children because in general they feel a lack of power much more deeply. The mere act of getting children to “play” their parents empowers children to think like big people (with power) for a few minutes. Children usually remember the insights they get from such a role reversal.

Putting yourself in your child’s shoes is also a good way for parents to gain insight into why children do what they do. Is your child ornery? Ever think maybe they just had a bad day? Aren’t adults ornery at times? What, you think your child never feels any stress? So what if they want fast-food French fries? Or if they want to play computer games for an hour or two? Don’t adults use stress relievers, as well—watching TV or having a drink at the end of a hard day? Which is worse?

It’s important to be sensitive to your kids’ need to relieve stress. If you aren’t, they may later turn to things you like a lot less—smoking, alcohol, illegal drugs. Sometimes my son wants to watch TV just to “chill out.” Maybe he doesn’t want to do his homework just then, he’s too keyed up. As long as we can discuss when he will do his homework and why he’s watching TV, it’s fine. Maybe your child just wants to spend some time alone.

Everything that your kids do is not just about you. They’re not out to get you. They’re trying to live their own lives. Parents often find out that they are the problem, rather than their kids.

Humor is wonderfully effective with kids. Take some time out of your own day and show them funny cartoons. Whenever I went on a business trip, I would get my son a funny hat. I got him so many hats that one day, with a smile, he told me to stop getting him hats. Then I got him T-shirts. Sometimes I draw him funny pictures. It’s like the small talk I mentioned earlier in the book. It gets him in a better frame of mind when we’re talking or he’s negotiating about anything and everything.

Let’s look at some more difficult cases. Some children scream and cry and refuse to cooperate. They are hard bargainers, just like adults. With them, it’s okay to use standards. But they need to be used carefully and tactfully, as this is a relationship situation.

Brian Garrison decided that his son’s tantrums were unacceptable. So he waited until his three-year-old son, Connor, was calm enough to talk. Waiting for his son to be ready was itself an emotional payment. Brian asked his son whether kicking and screaming and rolling around on the floor was a good thing to do. This is a “be extreme or come to me” question. His son grudgingly admitted it was not okay. Even three-year-olds know this.

So Brian asked his son what they should do when this happens. Consultation is another emotional payment. The father suggested that the son may need a “time-out,” that is, some quiet time by himself to calm down. They decided together that three minutes in the son’s room was enough time to calm down. It was a decision that the son participated in. He would first get a warning before a time-out was called. And it worked. Connor realized he could no longer use Plan B, manipulating the situation with bad behavior. “He became much better behaved,” said Brian, now a Navy commander.

“Even at three,” Brian said, “my son understands the consequences of his actions. Our earlier attempts to negotiate with Connor based on reason had somehow conveyed the impression that he could manipulate situations by misbehaving. By establishing standards and enforcing them consistently, we have redefined our daily negotiations.”

Ideally, you should establish the process with your child before an actual event happens. This may not be possible in every case. But each time something happens that the parents or the child don’t like, they should have a discussion to prevent the next time. This fixes the process, not just the problem. And it is important to find out the real cause of the temper tantrum.

That’s what Charles Gallagher did with his three-year-old daughter, Nicola. After one particularly bad outburst at the home of friends, Mommy, Daddy, and daughter sat down after things calmed down and talked through what happened. Their daughter promised to be good and discuss any issues she had later with her parents in private.

Lo and behold, Charles got a call between classes from his wife. Their daughter was acting out again at his in-laws’ house. Could he talk to her on the phone? “I said that we had all agreed on the rules about acting up,” said Charles, now a financial officer in New York. “And that it was not acceptable within our family’s standards.”

Then, without explicitly threatening her, her father said that it was not in her best interest to act out. “You like to go stay with different people, and if you don’t behave when you’re there, other people won’t want you to come over.” He added, “She listened to my arguments, and immediately decided on her own to tell her mother she was sorry and would be a good girl.”

Showing that their actions don’t meet their goals is a powerful tool that can be used to stop arguments. Eric Schneider called home one evening to find that his wife was having a problem with their seven-year-old daughter. The wife and daughter had made an agreement that the daughter could play outside with her friends after school as long as she came inside before dinner to do her homework.

“Unfortunately, when it came time to do her homework, my daughter said the agreement was unfair,” Eric said. “When I called, my daughter and my wife were in the middle of an argument.” Eric asked to speak to his daughter on the phone.

“I asked her what was wrong,” Eric said. “She said she wanted to continue playing outside. I asked when she would do her homework. She said she would do it later while watching TV.” Eric and his wife didn’t allow that. He asked his daughter whether she could do her homework faster with the TV on or off. “Off,” his daughter said.

His daughter quickly saw that if she just did her homework first, she would have more time to watch TV. Eric then asked if his daughter thought it was okay if Mommy and Daddy made promises to her and then broke them. “No,” his daughter said. He stopped the negotiation at that point. It was incremental enough. The rest could be handled in person. The argument was over; his daughter did her homework and came away with a greater sense of commitment.

It is important for parents not to lose their cool, or their temper, in negotiating with children. It just encourages children to do the same thing. Parents screaming at their children is good for neither party.

Remember, emotion begets more emotion. And more emotion means less listening, and less of an ability to meet your goals and interests. Screaming is almost useless except to get someone’s attention in a dangerous situation. You must be calm to bring up your kids to be calm.

If they throw food across the room, you might say, “That’s interesting.” You could add that if it hits the wall and leaves a mark, “we’ll have to get the room repainted. And then there will be less money for toys and vacations. And if we waste food that we could eat, the extra food we will have to buy will cost money and I’ll have to work harder. And that means I won’t be home with you as much.”

This trains children to understand actions and reactions. If you do get upset, apologizing for being upset or rude to them is okay as an emotional payment. But understand that you are apologizing for your own bad behavior, which should have not occurred in the first place. Instead, try empathy: focus on their feelings and how you can deal with them. Your own uncontrolled emotion is bad for everyone.

Patrick Gallagher discovered that his college-aged son had charged $156 on Patrick’s credit card for several recreational items without Dad’s approval. This despite an explicit agreement that the credit card was to be used only for books and emergencies. Patrick calmly called up his son and said he “wanted to help, but the respect has to be mutual.”

His son agreed that he had violated the pact. Dad asked his son how he proposed to repay the money. The son suggested paying it back in two installments, and agreed to keep to their agreement in the future. “Call your children on unacceptable actions,” said Patrick, a pharmaceutical industry executive. “But do it calmly. They respect you more and learn better how to deal with conflicts. I wanted him to see I could address his behavior without attacking him personally.” Everything worked out fine, he said.

Many kids like lists, just as many adults do. It represents a sense of order in a disordered world. Making lists together to solve problems is a good activity for parents to do with their children. It improves the relationship and increases commitments.

Abigail Andrews, the eleven-year-old daughter of friends of ours, fought with her mother, Heather, over responsibilities around the house. Finally, they came to an agreement. Abigail was perfectly willing to take care of her responsibilities as long as Mom kept her end of the bargain.

So Abigail wrote up and printed out a “contract” on the computer, complete with artwork on the cover, with the terms inside. Abigail signed it and left it on the dinner table for her mother to sign.

Many parents think it’s hard to get their kids to keep commitments. Actually, many kids are thinking the same thing about parents. So talking explicitly about commitments is key. That includes talking about what happens if someone breaks the commitment.

What Abigail did, and what you and your children can do, is to develop a list of standards that you set for yourselves that will govern how you treat each other and what you do for each other. People find it almost impossible to disagree with their own standards, which they themselves set. So the key is to have both children and parents develop their own set of standards. It enforces a sense of responsibility to one another.

You can also let kids discover things for themselves, instead of forcing them to do—or not do—something. If our son wants to stay up late, sometimes we let him. We warn him he will be tired the next day. Then we make sure we wake him up on time. And he is tired and miserable for the day.

His growth won’t be stunted for not getting enough sleep for a day. But he gets a good lesson in life: actions have results. It took a few times before he got it. Many kids like to stay up. But now, when we say it’s getting late, he remembers what the next day feels like if he doesn’t go to bed. It’s much better than screaming at him to go to bed.

There is a limit to how far we will take this, and we could have used standards instead, or trading. But the approach is the same: instilling children with a greater sense of responsibility.

I am sure there are many things you can think of that offer good lessons for your kids. Think of yourself as the head teacher of a school with one, or two, or three, or however many children you have in it.

You can go even further and have your children turn the tables. What can your child teach you? Children often know more about computers than many parents. Children have entire social networks through their phones. For many adults, this is a mystery. A great way to improve your relationship with your children is to ask them to teach you what they know. This is not to check up on them, and it shouldn’t be framed that way. It is to share things with them.

This way, when children reach their teenage years and naturally start turning to their peers for support and advice, you can be included as a peer. Almost every negotiation will seem easier. The mere fact of asking your children for help values them. And they will value you in return.

If you are having trouble negotiating with your children, third parties can often help. That includes grandparents, uncles, aunts, siblings, and even their friends and friends’ parents. Relations can get strained between parent and child. You may need a kind of mediator to help sort it out. Too often, parents forget about this avenue.

Why not share this chapter with your child or children? You can help each other settle disputes in your family. You can advise one another. Maybe your child won’t agree with everything in this chapter. If so, that’s good insight, too. All feedback is in the service of building the kind of relationship necessary to negotiate everything better.

Jon Rogers’s four-year-old and two-year-old sons, Patrick and Andrew, were constantly fighting with each other. He sat them down and asked why they weren’t buddies. “I told them they should have the responsibility to monitor themselves. Tattling to me on each other—big boys didn’t do that.” Jon told them they should be watching out for each other. From that point on, he said, they played games together. They began looking out for each other, and they still do, eight years later, said Jon, now a managing director for Citigroup in New York.

It would not be fitting to complete this chapter without saying a few words about using force against children—physical violence and emotional violence. In a sense, it’s just bullying, isn’t it? A parent takes advantage of their own size and resources to beat down a child who cannot defend himself or herself. The child responds by being extreme.

Let’s put this in perspective. You know the expression “That child is a terror”? Well, if it’s true, you should more appropriately say, “That child is a terrorist.” What you have done is beaten up the child in such a way that they resort to extreme behavior. Coercion just teaches kids that might makes right.

Dozens of studies show that hitting (or spanking) children increases aggression and behavioral problems on the part of the child. One study showed physical attacks by children on other children in kindergarten occurred twice as often in children whose mothers hit them. Another study showed a relationship between corporal punishment for boys and, later, physical assaults on their girlfriends.

Studies show it can also lower his or her I.Q. as much as five points. Children are so distracted by having been beaten that they can’t focus as much in school. They suffer more depression. Language development is delayed. The conventional wisdom about spanking or otherwise hitting children is simply wrong.

So you say your parents did that to you? Well, most of you still remember it with distaste. Why not stop the cycle of abuse? Even in cultures where children are more accepting of spankings, is this really what we want to teach? Or is it just the actions of parents who don’t know the other tools to use?

In the United States, more than 50 percent of parents still hit their children regularly. More than 90 percent hit children under four at least once a year. Given the negative impact (including lack of trust) and the better alternatives, these are astounding numbers. Some people compare hitting children to smoking: it’s really bad, but lots of people still do it.

It’s not enough for your kids to just accept what you tell them. Get your kids to be active participants in their upbringing. The tools are here.

But to be successful, you need to use the tools every day, and you need to prepare with them. If you do this right, your children will pass the tools down to their children, and a better way of raising kids will begin.

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