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A Rutgers expert discusses how to negotiate with your children successfully

Negotiating with your kids
Rutgers Business School professor Terri Kurtzberg says parents should choose the right strategy for the right moment when negotiating with their children.

“Why is it that people who can execute multi-million dollar deals, who can persuade colleagues of ideas or who can handle conversations about raises and promotions with ease, stumble in negotiations with their kids?” asks Terri Kurtzberg, a professor at Rutgers Business School–Newark and New Brunswick.

Kurtzberg says that according to an informal survey of 2,000 parents, negotiations with their children occur on an average of six times a day, lasting about eight minutes each, or 24 hours a month.

The co-author of Negotiating at Home: Essential Steps for Reaching Agreement with Your Kid says even though these interactions may require the same skill set, the know-how that flows freely at work doesn’t easily cross the threshold into the home. Kurtzberg shares tips for managing tough conversations with children while at home during the coronavirus pandemic.

Why do parents have trouble negotiating at home?

My co-author, Mary Kern, and I found there are four key differences in negotiating with kids at home compared to colleagues at work.

  • Repetition. At home, we end up engaging in the same conversations repeatedly and thus may fall into patterns with the ways we respond. Parents also don’t always learn from our experiences in part due to inertia and because even when we succeed or fail, we don’t necessarily know what specifically contributed to that outcome. Was it a smartly chosen strategy or was it just the right time of day to broach the topic?
  • Carry-over. At work, situations are generally more independent and tend to have more definite starting and ending points. At home, we do not have one negotiation but a series of linked negotiations that vary in magnitude across the day or even the decade. 
  • Emotion. At work, you may disagree with a colleague and get upset about the interaction, but for the most part, the problem itself is contained and task-based. Even better, you leave at the end of the day and hopefully put the whole thing behind you. At home, we allow ourselves more freedom to express emotion than we might in a more professional relationship.
  • Multiple agendas. There are always at least three levels of negotiations going on at the same time at home, including:
    • There is the specific issue at hand. Is there an actual solution available, and how will we both feel about it? 
    • There is the concern for the long-term effects of the decision itself. Am I setting a problematic precedent here? 
    • There is the concern for the long-term effects on your relationship with your child. Will this decision have spillover consequences for us?

What are common tactics kids use for getting what they want?

As kids grow, they master the subtleties of persuasion and learn the connections between what they do and whether they get their way. Kids regularly use common psychological tactics (because they work!), including charm, meltdowns, threats, guilt trips, promise for future behavior and playing one parent off the other. They will try to wear you down, make you think it’s all your fault, second-guess your decisions and back you into corners, among other things. The science of decision-making (through an understanding of biases such as the escalation of commitment, reactive devaluation, overconfidence and anchoring) can help to label these tactics and mitigate their effects.  

When should we negotiate and when should we not?

Every executive knows that some battles don’t need to be fought at all, some might be strategically postponed and others need a firm decision from the top down. Parents similarly would benefit from choosing the right strategy for the right moment instead of engaging thoughtlessly. The same approach might land very differently as your kids grow up (or even based on whether they’re too hungry at that moment!). Sometimes total disengagement is the right answer. And while “Because I said so!” is the ace up your sleeve, if used too often, our kids start to tune it (and you) out. Explaining how decisions get made and addressing fairness issues can greatly increase compliance and goodwill. 

What is the 3-Question Checklist and how can it help?

Everybody, including experts and novices alike, needs to spend time preparing to negotiate successfully. There are moments in life when we may have the chance to think things through in a careful way before acting, but in the world of parenting, many negotiations can erupt without notice and take us by surprise—much like stepping into quicksand. These three questions highlight the essential elements when this happens. Ask yourself first from your own perspective, and then again from your child’s perspective: 

  • What am I trying to achieve? What’s my “why”? 
  • What will I do if we don’t reach an agreement at all? 
  • What are my top priorities, and what are my deal-breakers?

Understanding these true motivations and parameters will keep the negotiation on track.