How To Negotiate With Your Toddler By Not Actually Negotiating

Negotiate by not negotiating

Originally Published: 
toddler negotiating with father
flickr / Kourtlyn Lott

As a kid gets older, they start to develop a sense of what is best in life. Their priorities may differ slightly from yours: It’s more likely eating sweet stuff, not wearing clothes, and watching Bubble Guppies (and sometimes crushing their enemies and seeing the lamentation of the women.)

But, you’re the grown-up. You know what is best in life isn’t necessarily best for them, by Crom! That will put you at odds for many years to come. Here’s how to negotiate with your toddler while they’re still young — by not really negotiating.

Toddler Tactics

A toddler has a limited set of tools that they can use to make you give in to their demands. It generally includes repetitive questions to wear you down, screaming, going limp, and their finishing move: the tantrum. It’s as brutal as reaching in and pulling out your still-beating heart, but it’s almost the metaphorical equivalent.

Your goal as a parent is to simply not enter this cycle if at all possible. If you do get trapped in the cycle, your goal becomes to find an exit as soon as possible. Once the meltdown comes, you’re just going to have to ride it out until you find a break in the storm.

The Art Of The “Deal”

When you hear the word negotiation, you’re probably thinking high-pressure boardrooms where massive real estate deals are being hammered out. Those are more black and white negotiations. This is more subtle.

You understand that there is no way in hell your kid is going to have ice cream for dinner. But, putting your foot down is no way to get things done with a toddler. The trick is to give them the appearance of pulling one over on you, because kids are kinda dumb (but not yours, obviously).

Here’s how to get it done:

Offer Empathy

There’s a trick people who negotiate for a living use when lives are on the line. As your kid escalates their demands, start by listening instead of reacting. Show them that you understand their feelings (“Ice cream is better than rice pilaf.”) and why they’re feeling them (“You think I’m a dinner-time tyrant.”). Don’t let them know you too would eat ice cream for dinner if it wouldn’t eventually kill you.

Give Them Options

Whenever possible present them with options, whether it’s what they’re going to eat for dinner, what they’re going to wear that day, or where you’re going to go play that afternoon. When you give them a choice, it create the opportunity for them to make up their own mind and feel empowered, rather than forced into doing something. They’ll think they pulled on over on you by deciding to wear their green pants today. They won’t realize you just tricked them into wearing pants at all.

Offer Concessions

The option you offer may be a logical extension of what you want them to do. The more they abide, the better the reward. For example: They eat a bite of vegetables, they get a couple of spoonfuls of ice cream after dinner. They eat all the vegetables, they get a small bowl of ice cream. Eventually they’ll grow the vegetables themselves, move into their own apartment, and buy all the goddamn ice cream they want.

Exit Strategy

The thing about having a conflict with a toddler is that nobody “wins,” and you’ll beat yourself up for making poor choices. There are a couple of things to remember in these cases:

  • It’s Okay: A couple of defeats does not an awful offspring make. If you’ve screwed it up, brush it off and prepare for the next time.
  • GTFO: If things have escalated to flailing on the floor in the cereal aisle, just leave the cart and go. It’s totally fine. Sometimes it’s a better solution than continuing to fight and taking it out on the cashier.
  • Some Things Aren’t Worth It: There are some circumstances in which giving in is the right move. Your pride is the only thing at stake. And which do you want: Eating shit for a minute, or ruining a perfectly good day?

The fact is that it’s important for you to show your little Conan what is best — and it’s definitely not going through life like an unreasonable barbarian.

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