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I Tried Negotiating With Kids Like Dutch Parents and It Worked

American parents vacillate between dictatorial and subservient when making decisions with their kids. A more combative approach actually alleviates stress.

fatherly logo The Experimental Family

I never thought teaching my kids to negotiate was an important parental duty. Who wants kids making counter-offers on bedtime? Who wants kids leveraging competing allowance offers? My baseline assumption was that my kids should accept what they are given. My outside hope was that they might say thank you. Now, I’ve changed my mind and my life is more complicated.

I blame the Dutch.

Tonight, my two boys are in their own room, sleeping in a megabed (their two twin beds shoved together ). It’s bulky and dumb-looking and it makes their bedroom look weird and crowded. But the point is that they are sleeping. Moreover, they are not in my room, crowding my wife and me to the edges of our own bed.

I’d like to say I came to this solution through some brilliant stroke of genius, but I’m not that smart. We arrived at megabed through a negotiation process I kicked off after reading an article by Rina Mae Acosta, co-author of The Happiest Kids in the World: How Dutch Parents Help Their Kids (and Themselves) by Doing Less.

Acosta notes that Dutch kids are consistently ranked by Unicef as the happiest in the world. (Granted, a lot of this is due to the fact that the Netherlands has subsidized childcare, paid parental leave and a paid family allowance). Dutch parents, Acosta claims, negotiate with their kids all the time. This isn’t, she adds, for the faint of heart, but pays dividends by ensuring kids feel heard and allowing them to define their own boundaries.

My kids could use some boundaries and, like any dad, I desperately want to make them happier so I figured I might as well give it the old Dutch try. So, on a Sunday night, I demanded my children’s attention (the negotiations hadn’t started yet) and told them that for the next week. They could negotiate anything I asked them to do. My sons looked at me blankly for nearly a minute before I realized that they didn’t actually know what a negotiation was. It was a complicated thing to explain to a 6-year-old and 8-year-old, but we got there by using examples. After all, negotiation is inevitable.

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“Okay, so let’s say you want to get 4 pieces of candy,” I said. “And I don’t want you to have any candy.”

“Can we have candy now?” the kindergartner asked hopefully.

“Hold on,” I said. “To negotiate you would try to get me to give you more than zero candy. You might ask for three pieces. Maybe I’ll say no and come back and say you can have one piece and then maybe you say how about two pieces and maybe I say okay?”

“Can I get two pieces of candy?” the kindergartner asked, not really getting it. I gave him two pieces of candy anyway.

The 8-year-old, however, understood the idea, though he was slightly dubious about the change. I asked him about his wariness and he suggested it was one of my “Poppa tricks.” I assured him I was not joking and made a mental note to consider what he was talking about.

The first big test came around at dinner. Now I understand from talking to childhood nutritionists that parents should not negotiate at dinner. But given how healthy the meal was (baked chicken, salad and extra veggies) I had two options: I could either let the 8-year-old eat nothing, or I could encourage him to maybe eat something. I told him it was time to negotiate.

“I want you to eat all of you your chicken and salad before you have a popsicle,” I said.

“How about if I eat this leaf and one bite of chicken,” he lowballed.  

“Half the chicken and half the salad,” I retorted.

“Half the salad and these five bites of chicken,” he said.

Sold.

And then he started eating. Before the negotiation, he addressed his plate as if we’d placed a severed head on it. Now he ate his chicken as if it were the most natural thing in the world. These negotiations continued at bedtime. Lights on for 20 minutes of reading? How about 15? Done. The following lunchtime we revisited candy negotiations. He came away with three pieces.

It wasn’t natural. Not by a long shot. And I often remembered the only after I’d issued a command. On Wednesday night, the old ways came back with a vengeance. The 8-year-old wanted to watch a movie. I did not want him to watch a movie. And as our power-struggle escalated, he melted down in spectacular fashion and I followed suit.

It wasn’t until I was fuming on the couch with a red face while he slammed his door and screamed that I realized negotiation may have kept us from getting to this point. I felt ashamed of myself and I felt bad for my kid. It was stunning to think that we’d become so set in our ways that power struggles had become our default. Because, of course.  

Maybe the Dutch were right after all.

As for the Kindergartner, I was worried he’d never get it. But then, he pulled off the greatest negotiation of all. This brings us back to the megabed.

He had been insisting for some time that he needed to be in his brother’s bed to sleep. This had been causing problems for months. He would keep his brother up with activity and noise and ultimately that would drive the older boy into my bed. It couldn’t go on.

The negotiation was brokered by my wife. As the kindergartner continued to insist that he could only sleep in his brother’s bed, my wife, mindful of the Dutch, decided to stop saying no and reach for a solution. Could he start in his own bed and move to his brother’s bed later? No. Because he didn’t like where his bed was, but maybe if his bed was someplace different. Could he switch beds with his brother? No, because his brother didn’t like where the bed was either, but maybe if they had a different bed — a bigger one. Could they try pushing the beds together? That way they could be close without really disturbing each other? And so megabed was born.

Can I say that the experiment of allowing my children to negotiate made them happier? I can’t say that’s the case for the long term. I do know that in the moment they climbed into megabed for the first time they were happier, for that moment. So were we. I don’t know if that happiness will last. Does any happiness really last?

But there was a success. In looking at a different way to interact with my kids, and in letting them show me that they were flexible, I discovered that my old way was not the best way. I’m not sure I will let my kids negotiate all the time. Sometimes they just have to take a damn bath when I ask the first time. But I am making negotiation a part of my tool kit as a way to increase happiness in discreet and necessary moments. I’m willing to take all the happiness I can get in my family. At least until I can score that 29-hour Dutch work-week.