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Direct bargaining—“I’ll give you this if you do that”—can be useful in a negotiation, but it’s also something to be cautious about. Wheeler told a possibly apocryphal anecdote about Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in which Kissinger watched Nixon use a treat to coax his Irish setter off a chair in the Oval Office. Kissinger supposedly told Nixon that the lesson the dog had learned was not that he should stay off the chair—but rather that if he got on the chair, he’d get a treat for getting off it. (In some tellings, the problem behavior was chewing the rug.)
Regardless of whether this actually happened, Wheeler’s point about negotiations was this: “You need to be careful, I think, as a parent [about] setting a precedent where you’re unwittingly creating an incentive for the behavior that you want to deter.”
Wendy Thomas Russell, a co-author of ParentShift: Ten Universal Truths That Will Change the Way You Raise Your Kids, echoed this idea. “Bargaining in this way teaches kids to cooperate only when there’s something to be gained externally, rather than because it feels intrinsically good to find solutions that work for everyone,” she wrote to me in an email.
With that in mind, Russell proposed a slight adjustment to Wheeler’s suggestion, pointing out that the element of choice could be introduced as a way of altering what happens during the activity in question, instead of what follows it. Maybe: “It’s time to go. Do you want a piggyback ride to the car, or do you want to race?” Or if a child declines to get dressed, the parent might ask him whether he wants to pick out his own outfit.
No matter the specifics of the negotiation, Wheeler also advised that parents step back and think carefully about the process. Negotiating parties are constantly defining and redefining the terms of their communications, he said, but this frequently plays out implicitly, in conversational or physical signals. “Oftentimes that ought to be more explicitly discussed,” Wheeler said.
For example, when a child flat-out refuses to do something, Wheeler says it might be good to have a meta-conversation instead of engaging with the refusals. He mentioned a Harvard colleague, Deepak Malhotra, who had advised on the peace-brokering process between the Colombian government and FARC rebels: “His advice on ultimatums—take-it-or-leave-it kinds of statements—is to ignore them. If you ask people, ‘Do you really mean it?’ the answer you’re going to get is ‘Yes.’” Which will probably only make a child more intractable.
Instead, Wheeler says, the response might be, “Maybe that’s how you feel right now, but let’s talk about what we’ve already done together.” This could be followed by a walk-through of progress made in the negotiation thus far, a recap of previous successful agreements, or something like, “I’ve seen the family across the street try such-and-such solution. Do you think we should try that?” Or perhaps: “We were able to figure this out yesterday. What worked then?” “So, moving away from the particular issue at stake to the process,” Wheeler explained.