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Negotiating With Kids is a Better Use of Time Than You’d Think

The armed forces go-to guy on how to start negotiating with your kid.

flickr / Anna Pruzhevskaya

Stuart Diamond’s negotiation tactics, laid out in his New York Times bestseller Getting More, are used by the U.S. Special Forces, Green Berets, Navy SEALs, and Marines. But one of Diamond’s most important negotiations didn’t happen anywhere near a battlefield. It happened at his home with his son. “We were lying on the floor,” he remembers. “And I tapped the palm of my hand once on the floor. He tapped his palm once. I tapped my hand twice and he tapped it twice.” High-pressure it was not — Diamond’s son was two-months-old at the time — but a negotiation it most certainly was.

“Negotiation is the basic process of human interaction,” Diamond explains. “It’s someone trying to meet their goals with someone else.”

Diamond treated tapping as a means of establishing communication. After that, the exchange of tap became a mutual goal. He and his son had an accord. Diamond was pumped then and he’s still riding that high. He frequently tells parents that the sooner kids learn to negotiate, the faster they learn to understand their own needs and then the needs of others. This is, he points out, the baseline of family communication.

“I’m always negotiating with my kids,” he laughs. “The question is whether I’m doing it well or badly. Therefore I’d better do it right or else I’ll screw them up.”

According to Diamond, the key to not screwing kids up with bad negotiation is to establish trust. And establishing trust means giving them real agency, which is a tricky move. “Kids have no power,” he says. “They know they have no power. Which is why they use all this emotional stuff on parents.”

Diamond flips that script by offering real choices. He notes that the nature of the choice is far less important than the scale of the choice. It shouldn’t be overwhelming. Once a child starts to make choices, Diamond explains, they come to understand their own abilities and respect the abilities of their parents.

The Three-Pronged Approach to Negotiating With Your Child

  • Establish trust with your child before your start negotiating. Kids have no power, and they know it.
  • Offer real choices and not tricks.
  • Negotiate terms that play to your child’s strengths and abilities. If a kid is reluctant to bathe, offer to sing their favorite songs as they soap up.

This creates opportunities to teach kids about what they value and what they value more. Diamond tells the story of a Navy SEAL who made a deal with his bath-averse 3-year-old. The SEAL convinced her to soap up in exchange for a bathtime serenade, her favorites songs played on an iPhone. “Within one minute she was in the bath,” says Diamond. “You gotta find the trade.”

More specifically, you gotta find the trade that plays into a kid’s natural inclination for incremental negotiation. “Kids understand that small steps are better, which is why they keep asking,” says Diamond. “So when parents are incremental, they get it. It becomes an ah-ha moment for kids when they understand their parent is speaking their language.”

Do they want a cookie before dinner? That’s a solid deal, but they’ll probably take a tenth of cookie and the rest as dessert.

All that said, Diamond recognizes that some parents may be reluctant to trade with their kids. After all, family life isn’t really a democracy and kids have very little power for a very good reason. He counters this line of argumentation by pointing out that it doesn’t misunderstand relationships, it misunderstands negotiation by assuming that it is fundamentally about opposition rather than agreement. He also frequently reminds people that negotiating may be the most critical life skill there is.

For Diamond the path of constructive parent-child negotiation begins with one simple question: “Since we love each other, how can I do more things for you that you like, and how can you do more that I like?”