I am not a parent, but I was a rebellious teenager. My father was from the autocratic school of parenting, “I am the authority and you will obey, no questions asked.” I constantly questioned not just his logic (one of the reasons he encouraged me to become a lawyer), but also his right to rule, and I was rarely satisfied with his canned “Because I said so” response. As a result, we argued… a lot.
In my defense, when I understood both the rules and their rationale, I followed them. My parents explained that if I said I’d be home at a certain time, they expected me to be home at that precise time, or I had to call to re-negotiate, no matter how late. Otherwise, they would consider me missing and contact the police. We lived in Manhattan and they didn’t want to worry needlessly. Because I valued my freedom to wander the city at night with friends, I followed that rule religiously. And it wasn’t easy, in the days of telephone booths on the corner.
What I’ve learned about negotiation is that built-in power imbalances must be addressed, whether it’s a boss and their employee, or a parent and their child. We start with a shift in attitude. Children are not problems to be solved. Punishment is not always the correct response to misbehavior. When a child is reluctant to do something (or refrain from doing something), the first step is to ask why. And then really listen to the answer. Don’t stop until you get down to the real reason. Have compassion for this human being struggling to develop a sense of self. And have compassion for yourself, for your parental struggle to know when to release this being you’ve created (and/or raised) who is asserting him or her self.
Once you fully understand the why from your child’s perspective, it’s time to move from domination to collaboration, from “I” to “we.” It’s time to share your why, maybe even to share your feelings, and solicit your child’s. And then engage your child in a problem-solving exercise. Talk about solutions that work for both of you, but remember to be flexible. Ultimately, you are not imposing your will; you are cooperating to build trust, teach respect, and ensure compliance.
When things don’t go smoothly, remember to breathe. If things get heated, try using a phrase to side-step negative energy. I recently gave a parent advice on how to deal with her adult child who harbored resentment. He routinely used harsh language and belittled his mother, and she didn’t know how to get him to stop. I offered the phrase: “I hope your child never talks to you that way.” He was a father, and those words made him stop and think. And maybe that cycle will be interrupted.
The moment you treat your negotiating partner as an equal rather than misusing your power or perpetuating conflict, you have transformed the negotiation, and the relationship.