My toddler STILL won’t eat their dinner! Timing your first offer

One of my first posts tackled one of the most intractable problems: convincing a toddler to eat dinner. In brief, it suggested making the first offer: approaching the toddler before dinner and offering a cookie if they eventually eat their meal. Not waiting for the meltdown and offering several cookies out of desperation.

As I said there and will reiterate here: getting a toddler to eat is not easy, but it’s negotiable! To make it negotiable, though, is to understand an important distinction in the advice originally provided: making the first offer does not mean making an offer first thing. It just means making an offer before your wily counterpart (in this case your toddler) does. As I said in the first post: “it’s generally a good idea to make the first offer—that is, to make an offer before the other side does.”

This distinction is subtle enough that it merits its own post. To see why, imagine that you implemented the initial advice by offering the toddler a cookie before they even approached the table. Specifically, you said: “Little Billy dearest, if you sit down at the table right now, finish your entire plate of broccoli, and don’t get up until you’ve done that, you can have one chocolate chip cookie. If you don’t sit down, don’t eat all of your broccoli, or get up from the table before eating all of your broccoli, you don’t get any cookies.” That’s a good first offer: it’s clear, it’s specific, and it preempts any possible protests by Billy dearest.

But it may also be premature. What happens if Billy sits down promptly, starts eating earnestly, but stops eating halfway through the broccoli? “Billy dearest,” you say, “remember what I said: You have to eat that whole plate of broccoli without getting up in order to get your cookie.”

“But mommy / daddy,” Billy protests, “I have to go POTTY!”

Now you’re in a jam. On the one hand, this is exactly the kind of bowel self-awareness you’ve been pining for. On the other, you made it perfectly clear that Billy would not get a cookie if he got up. Let him go potty and you reinforce his bowel self-awareness, but you also undermine your credibility and undercut your offer. If he’s anything like my toddler, he will suddenly find the need to go potty anytime he doesn’t want to eat something—then demand the cookie.

What happened here? You followed my advice and made a very respectable first offer. But you made it before fully understanding Billy’s situation. That is, you made an offer first thing, not just before Billy did. Had you asked Billy, prior to the offer, “Billy, do you have to go potty before dinner?”, chances are this particular jam could’ve been avoided.

So the general point is this: when negotiating with toddlers or anyone else, it’s best to understand everything you can about their situation—and make sure they understand all the critical aspects of your situation—before anyone makes an offer. Then and only then do you want to make a first offer, meaning the first offer that anyone makes in the negotiation. It’s not a risk-free strategy, but in matters of human interaction, those are few and far between.

How you ever made an offer too soon?

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3 thoughts on “My toddler STILL won’t eat their dinner! Timing your first offer

  1. Pingback: Negotiations across borders: To make or not make the first offer | Brian Gunia

  2. Pingback: The musings of 2015 | Brian Gunia

  3. Pingback: Negotiating with seatmates: Making flights negotiable | Brian Gunia

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