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.”

Toddler girl

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.

Toddler boy

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!

Cheryl is a seasoned educator and writer, having worked in the field of education for over 25 years. Cheryl has taught high school and college courses and has also served as an elementary school principal. Most recently, Cheryl retired from her full-time position as Manager of Teacher Preparation for the corporate offices of KinderCare Education in Portland, Oregon. There she developed training for over 25,000 early childhood teachers that KinderCare employs nationwide.
Cheryl and her husband now reside in Boise, Idaho, where she is a mom; a grandma; and an active author, speaker, and early childhood consultant. Having suffered the loss of a child three years ago, Cheryl’s passion is to use both her personal and professional experiences to provide hope and inspiration to families and teachers working with young children. She believes that the best vehicle for helping children… is to look through their eyes.

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