Convincing kids to do things: On multiparty negotiation

Convincing multiple children to do something—anything—is a multiparty negotiation. Coming out of the bath, putting on their shoes, going to bed, you name it: it’s a multiparty negotiation (I’m told.)

Given the complexity of such situations, wouldn’t it be nice if negotiation research could help? It would, and it can. Negotiation scholars have surfaced several important principles that can make this and many other quasi-conflicts with multiple people more negotiable. Particularly relevant to parenting:

  1. Set the agenda: In any multiparty setting, research emphasizes the importance of setting the agenda—that is, dictating what will be discussed and when. So if you want your multiple kids to get out of the bath, and they also want to discuss the possibility of a nighttime snack, make sure you dictate the order of the topics. For example: “I can only discuss snacks with dry people.”
  2. Clarify the decision rule: In any multiparty setting, research also emphasizes the importance of setting the right decision rule and conveying it clearly. If it’s you and two small kids, will we decide whether we’re going to bed by majority rule or consensus? Either way, no one will ever sleep. Difficult and cold-hearted as it might seem, parents at least occasionally must remind their aspiring negotiators that the parent gets the final say.
  3. Form an early coalition: Research emphasizes the importance of forming and managing coalitions carefully. With experience, parents typically develop a refined understanding of their potential coalition partners. They know that when they want their two kids to get their shoes on, one will probably comply more readily. If so, then they might consider convincing that kid to act before making the broader appeal, thereby creating a sense of momentum moving in the direction of the front door.
  4. Break unhelpful coalitions: Perhaps you weren’t quick enough to form a stable coalition. Perhaps your two kids have conspired against you to never leave the bathtub, come low or high water. In that case, you might have to break the coalition, often by offering an inducement. “Whoever gets out of the bath first gets the monkey towel!” Just watch the coalitions shift.
  5. Emphasize ties that bind: Lest all this coalition building and breaking threaten to isolate one of the kids, it’s important to frequently reaffirm the broader identity and goals that bind the whole family together. “We all want to have fun at the amusement park tomorrow, Suzie-Q and Billy-Boy. So let’s all work together to get enough sleep.”

None of these strategies is rocket science, and anyone with kids can tell you that none will always work. In combination and with repetition, though, these strategies should start to make the multiparty negotiation of parenting at least a bit more negotiable. Good luck!

 

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