Just a few days ago, a memory from seventeen years ago came to my mind. Back then, I was a relatively young mother, who was still partially figuring out what kind of a parent I wanted to be. As an elementary school teacher, I had worked out which rules apply to having a classroom full of 6 year olds as opposed to a classroom of 10 year olds. As a foster parent of a little girl I had—through trial and error—worked out what she needed during those four years that we fostered her. She needed so much more of everything parents can give: more reassurance, more consistency, more love. What I hadn’t worked out, yet, was a conscious awareness of needs—mine and other—and negotiating true compromises.
At that time, I was witness to what struck me as a very odd scene between an Egyptian friend of mine and her 17-year-old daughter. The topic of the conversation was the daughter’s curfew on a Saturday night. The daughter suggested 11:30. The mother countered with 8:30 which resulted in a dramatic response from the daughter. So the mother went to 9 o’clock and the daughter countered with 11 o’clock. Half an hour and several more outbursts of emotions later, they ended up with 10 o’clock. The daughter was pleased as punch.
When the young girl had left the room, I turned to my friend, who had made a big show of having given in, and said, “What was all that about?” She smiled and said, “I knew we would end up with 10 o’clock. She will be exactly home at the time I wanted her to be home.”
I was flabbergasted, especially as I was a “no-negotiating-by-any-means type of parent” back then. The bargaining or sometimes blackmailing that they seemed to be doing on a regular basis in her family around her three children’s needs seemed unnecessarily exhausting to me, but most of all inauthentic.
Now, there is bargaining and there is mitigating everybody’s needs. The difference between bargaining and negotiating compromises is tremendous.
What values and beliefs are we teaching our children by bargaining? They are learning that their needs are not worth being met without a fight. We are teaching them to be deceptive instead of open with what they want and need. We are teaching them to think of how they can win, rather than how everybody can win.
Negotiating means finding a compromise to meet everybody’s needs. Negotiating is not about who wins and who loses. Negotiating is about being creative in finding a win-win. We are teaching children that there is a way to have your needs met and that everybody can have their needs met. We are teaching them to express how they feel, to honestly ask for what they want or need, and to trust that a creative solution can be found. We are teaching them to collaborate rather than to compete for their individual gain.
I used to think that the parent has to be the boss and makes the rules. I still believe we have to remember that our child is not the boss of us but that a democratic boss opens up some decisions for discussion. When we refuse to acknowledge needs and refuse to negotiate to find compromises, we are teaching the next generation that they can never get in life what they truly want. The outcome of those experiences are grown-ups who don’t know what they want or need and don’t even attempt to express their wishes. We raise pleasers who are only able to follow the wishes of others. We raise people who feel their only strategy to get their needs met is by lying, being secretive, or being manipulative. They have no concept of living from integrity, their own personal integrity. They learn that they cannot be their authentic selves.
Over Easter, we were spending time with friends and family. The more people are in the mix the more needs are sometimes colliding and need to be negotiated. One child ended up crying because she had hoped for a particular activity. The response of the adults present was mixed. The opinion that she should not get what she wanted because crying is not an adequate way of expressing your needs was voiced. The parent of the child felt she was trying to manipulate her way to what she wanted through this behaviour. That parent would have been me 15 years ago! I was an “I don’t negotiate” kind of parent. I strongly believed children shouldn’t get what they want by crying, sulking or throwing a temper tantrum.
Today, I believe that it is important to differentiate. There is more than meets the eye in a situation like this. If a child chooses to sulk, cry or get angry, we have to understand that they have already learned this is their only option. There certainly are more appropriate ways to express one’s needs. They might also truly just be expressing their sadness, disappointment or anger. We have to teach children that their needs and feelings matter and that they will be met if it is at all possible. They have to learn how to arrive at compromises to have everybody’s needs met. Life is about win-win, not about how to achieve a win over others.
When our children are getting emotional, let’s sit them down, help them to express how they feel, for example “disappointed”, “angry”, or “unimportant/like I don’t matter”. Let them know they have a right to feel what they feel. Then put everybody’s needs on the table, for example: “You want to play this game which takes an hour, Anna wants to watch this movie, Mom has a headache and wants to take a nap, Dad has to start cooking dinner, the dog has to go for a walk and Peter needs a ride to work. We have two hours left. What do you suggest?”
Then sit back and trust them to be creative to work out a compromise which is a win-win situation for everybody. Let them be the problem solvers. If they are struggling to come up with ideas at first, make suggestions. Negotiating teaches them to truly listen to others and to care about everybody. Our job as parents is it to be a role model and reminder of non-violent communication and to hold the knowing that a peaceful solution can be found.
The more compromises the children get to create when they are young the more we can count on them growing-up to become balanced adults who know what they want, who believe that their needs matter and who naturally are striving to create win-win situations in all areas of their lives. After all, our children are the leaders of the future who need to be able to negotiate peace for our world.
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