As parents, we need to be aware of the importance of thoughtful negotiations in our family relationships. The objective in relationship negotiations is: Everyone walks away a winner. You want both sides to feel satisfied and fulfilled so the relationship can continue successfully. In a relationship, making a deal that totally favors you and ignores the needs of your partner or children may seem like a good idea, but it will never last.
All relationships are mutually defined, and the definitions you reach are a product of the negotiations you conduct with each other. You teach people how to treat you, and this includes the way you relate to your children. If you don’t like your relationship with your child, you need to renegotiate it.
The following are key steps, techniques or principles for successful negotiation:
1. Narrow the area of dispute.
It can be very helpful to first identify everything the two sides agree on. Oftentimes, we make the mistake of thinking we’re totally at cross purposes with the other side, when, in fact, the areas of dispute are rather isolated. By identifying what you can agree on, positive energy is injected into the situation and some bonding occurs. For example, say your child wants a one o’clock curfew instead of a midnight curfew. You could simply say no, or you can discuss it openly, identifying some things you both agree on. Maybe you can begin by saying, “Can we agree that the number one priority here is for you to be safe?” Once that’s agreed on, you’ll have a starting point for your negotiation.
2. Find out what they really want.
Your child may say, “I want to stay out until one o’clock,” but there is a need
behind the request. What does your child hope to accomplish by staying out? It may be that all the cool kids are able to stay out until one o’clock, and she doesn’t want to lose her “cool” status. Whatever the itch is, you need to determine whether there is a safer and more mutually agreeable method for satisfying it.
3. Work hard to find a middle ground in which both sides give a little and get a little.
Maybe there are some limited risks you’re willing to take, and maybe there are some concessions your child is willing to make. The potential problem with negotiations is that they can degenerate into ultimatums and hardheadedness, and then you get nowhere. So, look for that middle ground. One a.m. socializing might be a lot more palatable if it occurs at someone’s nearby home.
4. Be specific in your agreement and the outcome of the negotiations.
If there are behaviors you feel are important for the child to exhibit, describe them in detail so it's easy to measure whether there's been compliance. Don't simply tell your teenager, "I want you to be more respectful to me." State specific examples like, "When I say take out the garbage, don't say 'Later.' Say 'Okay,' and do it immediately."
5. Make negotiated agreements, shorter term in the beginning and longer term after a period of adjustment.
You might negotiate a new curfew for two weeks, and agree that it will be revisited at the end of that period to see how things are going. Then, you might want to revisit the policy in 30 days, and then six months. Remember, children typically don't take a long view of things. They want what they want, when they want it. If you want to motivate them for change, then appeal to that hedonistic impulse. Use it to your advantage in negotiations by catering to their short-term vision and building long-term behavior patterns.
Adapted from Dr. Phil's Seven Tools for Purposeful Parenting, Tool 3: Parenting by Negotiation. For more information, see Chapter 9 of his book Family First: Your Step-by-Step Plan for Creating a Phenomenal Family.