If your child is somewhere between three and four years old, you have probably noticed her newfound negotiating skills. Maybe your first clue was a bedtime conversation like this:
“Let’s get your pyjamas on and I’ll read you a story.”
“Two stories – I want two stories.”
You’ve always had a deal – pyjamas go on and one story is read. But suddenly you’ve entered the preschool courtroom where all routines and requests are challenged with another option.
As comforting as it may be to know you have a lawyer-in-the-making, the constant rounds of negotiations can be exhausting. And as children get older, their language and reasoning skills improve, upping the ante at the bargaining table:
“I’d like you to eat your vegetables.”
“No. One carrot.”
“I’d like you to eat at least two carrots and all of your broccoli.”
“No. One carrot now…broccoli tomorrow.”
Why is your formerly compliant child now questioning all the sealed deals? Well, as children grow from toddlerhood to their pre-kindergarten years, they become very aware that life provides options. Until now, most decisions have been made for them. But they are discovering a sense of pride in having some control in their world – and part of that control involves negotiating deals.
Now, not every situation is up for negotiation. Safety and health situations require an adult decision-maker. But for minor battles, allowing children to do a little decision-making and negotiating will boost their self-confidence and equip them with important social skills that will allow them to compromise and play cooperatively with other children.
To give your three or four-year-old a little control (but not too much), consider the following ideas:
- Offer open-ended choices. Knowing she has opportunities to make decisions will lessen the need to negotiate. You might ask, “Do you want to wear the green shirt or the blue shirt to school today?” This allows your child to step into the lead and make an empowered decision.
- If the situation is not open for negotiation, make that clear. “Our safety rule is that you hold my hand when we cross the street.” With consistency and clarity, children will quickly learn what the non-negotiables are.
- Set up a win-win. Ideally, entering a negotiation with your child will provide a win for both of you. You can help guide your child by saying something like, “That sounds like a great win for you. I would also like a win. Can you think of a way for both of us to win?” Bonus: This process gives your child practice in important critical thinking skills.
Sure, your little negotiator may be wearing you a little thin with her constant attempts to put every option on the table. But you really can’t blame her for trying, right? After all, negotiating is her way of beginning to assert her newfound independence!