Stop wasting food! Kids and contingency contracts

The world sometimes seems populated with two types of children: those who refuse to eat anything you put in front of them, and those who want to eat everything in the fridge—or at least say so. Previous posts have considered the former type, but I haven’t yet considered the latter. In the interest of getting 2017 off on a negotiable foot, I thought I’d consider the overeager eater now.

Consider the following, common pattern—not that I’ve experienced it recently or repeatedly. A young child, say four going on five, is offered an array of dinner options. She responds by saying: “I want pizza, apples, and a hotdog.” Now, the child speaks with such confidence that you can see she’s certain she will consume all of these foods. But you know—based on many or even innumerable prior experiences—that she will not. She’ll get halfway through the apples, freshly heated hotdog steaming on her plate, and say, “I’m full.”

Faced with this situation, the common impulse is to argue. “You won’t eat all that, little Petunia.” To which little Petunia will surely retort: “Yes I will!” And thus begins a pattern of disagreement and dissension that will carry all the way through dinner, spoiling everyone’s meal.

Luckily, negotiation research offers a better way: the contingency contract. In plain English, contingency contracts are bets about future events—agreements to be settled when the fickle hand of fate eventually casts its die. Negotiators use them when they disagree about an uncertain future event—next quarter’s sales figures, perhaps, or the performance of a particular piece of technology being purchased.

But can’t you, the frustrated parent, also use a contingency contract to deal with little Petunia’s obstinate insistence on the three dishes? Can’t you say something like: “Little Petunia dearest, I’ll heat up the pizza and cut up the apples for you, as requested. And I’ll take the hotdogs out of the fridge and place them right here next to the microwave. If I see you gobble up the pizza and apples and hear that you’re still hungry, why, then I’ll happily heat the dogs. It’ll take just a minute. But if you start feeling full sometime before the dogs, then I’ll return them to the fridge for future consumption.”

Voila! Based on Petunia’s sheer certainty that she will eat all three items, she should be more than happy to oblige, sure as she is that this solution will result in her eating the coveted hotdogs. And, given your comparable certainty that the apples will fully satiate her, you should be more than happy with this solution too, sure as you are that the dogs will go right back in the fridge, unspoiled and unwasted. That’s the great part about contingency contracts: both sides think they’ll get exactly what they want.

Of course, they won’t: the fickle hand of fate will cast the die. Petunia will either have room for the dogs or she won’t, and she’ll get what she initially wanted or you will. So one of you will eventually have to admit you were wrong. Seeing as the consequences of that admission are either a comfortably settled stomach or a fully satiated child, though, neither of you should be particularly unhappy with that admission. And both of you should be happy that you avoided pre-dinner warfare.

In short, contingency contracts offer useful end-runs around debates about the future. Faced with differing predictions, don’t waste time and energy arguing—no one ever wins. Instead, let the fickle hand of fate cast a die, then agree to settle up later.

Have you ever used a contingency contract, with a child or otherwise?

 

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