The Washington Post

Fruitless negotiations aren’t just for politicians

Lately, I have been ignoring “fiscal cliff” headlines, as I have a new goal to ruthlessly prioritize (hat tip to Marissa Mayer).

Sunday, however, it occurred to me that I should probably pay more attention to these negotiations. I desperately need help in how to, as so many of these parties seem to always be doing, “stand firm.”

I had concluded yet another morning defeated after tussling with both of my daughters over eating a banana. Or, really, not eating a banana. Or really, not eating a third of the banana.

It’s a morning ritual at our house (over fruit) and an evening one too (over vegetables). They refuse. I beg, yell, threaten, explain about nutrition and finally bargain. I’ve so weakened my position that we’re not talking fruit and vegetables anymore, we’re talking pieces of fruits and vegetables. Sometimes mere bites.

They are 3 and 5. They hold all the power. My attempts at negotiating, I’ve finally realized, are fruitless — in both senses of the word.

For help, I turned to Susan Stiffelman, the parenting coach and author of “Parenting Without Power Struggles,” whom I’ve spoken with before and know is adamant that parents not fall into the trap I’ve set for myself. I asked her: How can I break out of it?

“There are strategies that we can use to avoid many of the parent-child negotiations that often make us weary before our kids have even left for the morning school bus,” she said.

Here, Stiffelman lays out strategies:

Come alongside, rather than at, your child to avoid triggering resistance.

“One of the ways I teach parents to create less resistance and more receptivity in their children is to make comments or ask questions that elicit a ‘yes’ or a head nod: ‘You really don’t like to eat fruit in the morning; I get the feeling that you wish I’d stop putting it on your plate altogether; Sometimes I try to get you to do things that you really don’t want to do.’

“By giving a child the sense that you hear and understand her point of view, she will naturally become more open to yours.”

Don’t be needy.

“When we come across as desperate (as in yelling, begging and explaining), our kids immediately know that there’s a chance for some interesting ‘Mom TV.’ The less invested you appear to your kids about something you’d like them to do, the less you trigger their instinct to say ‘No!’ to watch the dramatic behaviors you — like all parents — resort to when you feel desperate and out of control.

“The worst words to begin a request with? ‘I need you to...’

“Better to show little interest in how much they eat to stop fueling this particular battle. If the fruit goes uneaten, try sneaking it into cereal or smoothies, or serving it later in the day as a snack for a while to short circuit the power struggle pattern you’re currently in.”

Build connection.

“Human beings are born with an innate resistance to being bossed around outside of attachment. This is actually a good thing in terms of survival (it prevents children from undue influence from those outside of the tribe) but highly inconvenient for parents trying to get their kids to put on their shoes or, in your case, eat a few bites of fruit.

“We can override that instinct by parenting from connection. Try cuddling for two or three minutes before breakfast, or sharing jokes at the morning table instead of monitoring their intake, and you may find your kids give you less push back about the fruit. You may even find that if the three of you have some fun cutting and arranging it artistically on the plates together, they’ll be more inclined to eat it.”

How do you avoid the negotiation trap?

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