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Teaching my daughter the art of negotiation


Here is a scene that recently played out between my 9-year-old daughter and me one lazy Saturday afternoon in late December.

Her: Mom, can I have a treat?

Me: What kind?

Her: This piece of candy. (She holds out a Kit Kat impossibly left over from Halloween.)

Me: Okay, sure.

Her (after leaving the room and coming back): Can I have this lollipop, too?

Maybe all children do this. But it was at this point that I started to lose my patience, and she knew it, too. This is not an uncommon practice for her to ask for more when I’ve already said yes to something else lesser and thought the deal was done. I favor people being up front with what they want; give me the true starting point from which we are going to discuss something. I’ve long tried to instill this very notion with her, to be direct and not slowly circle in to what she’s really asking for.

In that moment I thought back to my law school negotiations class where we devoured Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, and the methods colleagues and I later used in mediations and negotiations within our litigation practice. Neither side is likely to get everything they want — though they may try to start there, and often should — but somewhere in between. Moreover, it is usually a poor strategy to start negotiations with the absolute minimum you’re willing to accept and then try to work your way up. You’d certainly never try to sell a home that way.

Without any siblings, my hope is that my daughter is learning peer-to-peer negotiation when she plays with other children, and I don’t want to meddle there. But this was different, and I realized she doesn’t really know how to negotiate with people in positions of relative power. After all, she’s 9 and, for the most part, various adults have held the balance of control during her life. Teachers, swim instructors, parents and caregivers all pepper her life with nonnegotiable tasks and rules. However, within the parent-child dynamic, children begin to learn what is negotiable, though they may fight against it when it does not go their way. Showers? Nonnegotiable. Wearing sunscreen? Nonnegotiable. A treat on a Saturday afternoon? Negotiable. And while asking for a couple of sweets is not necessarily a true conflict, my potential response might result in one.

Here is where I see an opportunity for her to practice skills for the future, a time when she will probably want to negotiate curfews, hourly rates for babysitting and increases in her allowance, and, further down the road, compensation and benefits within her career or when buying a home. By occasionally allowing her to negotiate some things with us at home, we open the door for her to learn how some negotiable situations can yield positive outcomes for her, and some will not.

Similarly, it allows us a chance to model what flexibility within power situations looks like; if we can move from our position on some things, she will come to anticipate not only that others might, but she must, too. She can also discover that some aspects of life are not ripe for negotiation (like chores), while others may be (time for completion or payment for chores beyond her usual list), the very kind of scenarios that could play out later during her professional life. In small ways, she begins to differentiate between a good deal and a bad one, when to yield, or simply walk away.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation (PON) supports the idea of parents and children resolving some disputes and conflict through negotiation. Advice in a recent post includes three basic principles of “persuasive parenting” when negotiating with children. First, get your own emotions under control and “consider your child’s perspective” before sitting down to talk. Next, “prepare for your child’s emotions and help her cope with them.” Even if your child is still disappointed by the outcome, you’ve “create[d] a safe environment for emotional growth.” Lastly, and I think most key, engage in “active listening.” When you do this, “you learn about the other party’s interests rather than his positions.”  In the same vein, PON also reminds parents to resist “the urge to jump in with solutions and judgments.” Additionally, as noted by PBS Parents, another key point to remember is that you are not “giving in” or trying to win (or avoid losing) when you negotiate; you are bargaining.

My guess is that this perspective may be challenging to accept with some styles of parenting, but I firmly believe in the trade-offs; children can only benefit by the exercise of negotiation while on their way to adulthood.

I didn’t let her add on the lollipop that day, and instead as she ate her Kit Kat bar, I gave her a crash course on how to better negotiate for herself the next time. The lesson must have stuck. About a week later my daughter asked me if she could have three cookies for a treat a couple of hours before dinner. Knowing she would get too full to eat enough of the good (nonnegotiable!) stuff later on, we settled on two.

Kristen M. Ploetz is a writer and former land-use lawyer living in Massachusetts. You can find her on the Web ( and Twitter (@KristenPloetz).

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