How a Negotiation Expert Would Bargain With a Kid

Some tactical suggestions for managing volatile, sometimes nonsensical negotiation partners

A child in a suit shakes hands with an adult businessman.
LightField Studios / Shutterstock / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

One common feature of negotiations is that each party has the ability to walk away. Don’t like the offer the car salesperson is making you? Drive another five minutes to the next dealership. Don’t like the terms a business partner presents you with? Get in touch with another supplier.

But every day many people find themselves sitting across the table from a negotiation partner they can’t abandon or replace: their kids.

How might parents manage these often fraught, exasperating conversations in which their counterpart, lacking self-awareness, sometimes seems to think it strategic to respond with complete non sequiturs? I posed this question to Michael Wheeler, who has been teaching the principles of negotiation at Harvard Business School for more than 25 years. While he’s never seen a corporate executive throw a tantrum mid-negotiation, he has some experience with noncompliant parties—he’s a father and a grandfather.

One tactic he suggested is carefully structuring the choices kids are presented with. He imagined a situation in which a child refuses to leave the house, and said that instead of trying to persuade the child to get into the car, the parent might say something like, “It’s time to leave, but when we get there, tell me what you’d like to do, and we can do something special for five minutes.” The enticement might vary, but the key is allowing the kid (or any fellow negotiator) to feel a sense of agency over some element of the decision and save face. That way, Wheeler said, “they don’t feel as if they’ve been browbeaten.”

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.

In a similar vein, Russell recommends trying to assess why the child is being noncompliant in the first place. She reeled off a list of possibilities: A request might be refused because it is unreasonable (“Two-year-olds can’t be expected to share”), because the child’s emotional needs haven’t been fully attended to (“Children may lack attention, or connection, play, or power”), or because children are at an age when it’s healthy to assert their agency (“All four-year-olds engage in power struggles”).

“Children sometimes have legitimate beefs with the limits and expectations their parents have laid on them,” she explained. “And in those cases, negotiating mutual agreement is our ace in the hole.” One important part of those negotiations (or any negotiation), she said, is empathizing—“allowing ourselves to just sit with our children in their feelings,” without agreeing or disagreeing, applying logic, or attempting to lift their spirits. “It’s only from a place of calm that children can negotiate in any real way,” Russell noted.

Participating in decision making can help kids become independent, as opposed to merely obedient, according to Sharna Olfman, a professor of psychology at Point Park University in Pittsburgh. “Toddlers, for example, can decide whether they would rather have pears or apples for dessert,” she said. “An elementary-school child is ready to participate in choosing extracurricular activities.”

And once children can listen and speak, they benefit from hearing the rationale behind what parents think is important. “For example,” Olfman said, “if parents say ‘Brush your teeth’ and children ask ‘Why?,’ the response ‘Because I say so’ sends a meta-communication that it is an arbitrary request and obedience is the desired outcome.”

When it comes to reaching desired outcomes, Wheeler says that ideally, he prefers to negotiate with someone who has “a broad view of his or her interests” and possesses “a high degree of self-awareness.” These are not most kids’ fortes. “It’s amazing how intelligent [children] can be, even when they’re preverbal. But that said, there are many things that they don’t understand,” Wheeler said. Kids might not be ideal negotiation partners, but then again, many adults aren’t either.