Bedtime bargaining: Getting your child to sleep without sacrificing your sanity

Children are remarkable bargainers, especially as their bedtime approaches. And the outcome is critical indeed, as a bad bedtime bargain not only guarantees a crabby morning; it also leaves parents frustrated in the face of their own weakness.

Willing an unwilling child to bed is tough. But it’s negotiable!

Today I’ll discuss a seemingly trivial but actually essential strategy for any negotiation: managing the focus of your attention. So imagine that tomorrow’s a big day at preschool. To be fresh, you’d love Suzie to snooze by 7:30 (your target); to be honest, you’re willing to settle for 8:00 (your reservation price). Most nights, Suzie’s reasonably cooperative; tonight, she must have downed a Red Bull.

We’ve already talked about making the first offer, and making it a little more aggressively than your target. So you might tell Suzie that 7:15 is the right time to drift into dreamland. But the question is what time you THINK about—in your own head—as the bedtime bargaining unfolds. Do you focus on your target or your reservation price?

If that seems trivial, consider negotiation research suggesting that it’s anything but—that the number in your head is actually a great predictor of the number that you ultimately obtain. So what do you think (quite literally) in the bedtime negotiation—should you focus on your target (7:30) or your reservation price (8:00) while Suzie pleads her case?

Definitely your target. Research shows that negotiators who think about their target are much more likely to achieve it than negotiators who let their mind wander back to their bottom line. So despite Suzie’s protestations, and despite any concessions you might make to appease her, you should continue to imagine a giant, neon, flashing 7:30 sign in your head—focusing on that time and trying to attain it. File away that other, later time—whatever it was—in the back of your brain.

But don’t forget it! Because there comes a point when remembering your reservation price is crucial: at the end of the negotiation. To see why, imagine that Suzie’s hard bargaining has resulted in a final offer of 7:45. Is that an offer you can accept? Without comparing it against your reservation price, there’s no way to know. Being earlier than 8:00, 7:45 sounds acceptable (if not ideal).

But there’s another, equally critical reason to recall your reservation price: to evaluate how you’ve done. Sitting on the sofa, with Suzie thankfully asleep, how would you evaluate a 7:45 agreement? Quite negatively, if you were comparing it against your target, but very positively if you were comparing it against your reservation price. So it’s also important to remember your reservation price AFTER the negotiation, in order to relish in the additional 15 minutes that your own hard bargaining attained.

So the general point is this: Before a negotiation, define your reservation price and target. During a negotiation, focus on your target and temporarily forget your reservation price. Only when evaluating a potential final agreement or an actual final agreement should you recall your reservation price, forgetting your target and focusing on the future.

What do you “think” about this strategy?