Small wins: Or motivating kids to eat

High-stakes negotiations often go south when the parties perceive a lack of progress. Think trade-related brinksmanship, abandoned mergers, and athletes who walk away from failed contract extensions. In such situations, the absence of progress is decisive. For the same reason, though, the presence of small wins—tiny victories offering at least a glimmer of hope—can help avert disaster.

More immediately relevant to most of us, though, are negotiations that happen closer to home: negotiations, for example, with children who refuse to eat their darn food.

Here too, the lack of progress can lead to negotiation breakdown. And here too, the presence of small wins can make life negotiable. An anecdote to illustrate:

Suppose that I had two daughters and the younger of the two—let’s call her Penelope—was taking forever to eat her food and typically leaving most of it uneaten, day after day. Not that I do or she is. What would a despairing parent do?

Well, an increasingly insistent set of demands wouldn’t work: Penelope would just dig in her heels in the face of escalating parental frustration, trust me.

But what about creating some opportunities for small wins? What if Penelope, on a nightly basis, was actually failing to eat because she saw so little chance of finishing her entire meal and thereby getting the coveted cookie for dessert? Would small doses of dessert scattered throughout the meal serve as a stronger motivator than one big dose at the end?

And such I would decide to do with Penelope, if she was real and really resisting her meals. Specifically, I’d say that for every five bites of real food, she gets one small bite of the coveted cookie. And, lo and behold, it mostly worked…eh hem, would work.

Importantly, the strategy doesn’t involve any change in the reward structure—Penelope gets a whole cookie for a whole meal, regardless. So the strategy is less about upping the ante and more about instilling confidence in Penelope—specifically, the confidence that she can in fact make it to the next bite of cookie, seeing as it only lies three bites of pasta away, rather than a whole bowl.

Just as a president’s subtly positive statement can get a trade deal back on track, a subtly subdivided cookie can help avoid disaster at the dinner table—at least until the little negotiator requests the cookie after two rather than three more bites of pasta.

 

Are kids better negotiators?

Does older mean wiser and better? In negotiations, the answer is far from clear. Indeed, as most parents can attest, kids are often surprisingly adept negotiators, displaying a plethora of negotiation skills their elders have long since forgotten. So in hopes of making parenthood and adulthood more negotiable, let’s unpack some of the long-forgotten secrets of our precious little negotiators:

  1. Sticking to their guns: Most kids have shockingly firm aspirations. Come hell or high water, they are going to get that toy, eat that junk food, or watch that particular show. In other words, they know how to fixate on their aspirations until they win! Since fixating on firm aspirations is a foundational negotiation skill that most adults have long since suppressed for social harmony, kids often succeed where adults fall short.
  2. Asking open-ended questions: My six-year-old Petunia’s favorite word is “why,” and she often utters it immediately after a nonnegotiable decree: Clean that mess, put your PJs on, eat that cereal—now! But here’s the interesting part: I don’t always have a good reason why that mess, those PJs, or that cereal really requires immediate attention. And my Petunia’s “why” quickly surfaces as much, which she quickly exploits. Long conditioned to comply with authority, most adults quash their curiosity and suppress their open-ended questioning, thereby settling for a plethora of suboptimal situations.
  3. Bartering: There’s nothing more natural to a kid than trading their candy, swapping their chores, or bartering their Christmas presents. To their own tremendous benefit, kids innately barter. For some odd reason—probably the prominence of monetary thinking in our own adult lives—most adults have long lost touch with bartering, as well as the creativity it requires (as described in my new book). So, most adults ignore or never really perceive the possibility of many trades that would improve everyone’s lot.
  4. Understanding alternatives: Kids innately understand everyone’s alternatives, and particularly their relative strength. For example, they know that if they cause a ruckus in a restaurant, the parents’ alternative of paying for an uneaten dinner and settling for rotten leftovers is worse than their own alternative of going home for free and enjoying some Kraft. Put differently, kids inherently understand their leverage. Perhaps chastened for their overly aggressive maneuvers in the past, most adults don’t see or don’t act on the leverage they have.
  5. Developing alliances: Kids don’t see the existence of two parents as a hindrance; they see their dual counterparts as an opportunity to divide-and-conquer. They know which parent is more inclined to give them soda, less inclined to mind their sloppy homework, or more inclined to forgive their misdeeds. So they naturally build an alliance with the more conciliatory parent in a given situation, entreating that parent to convince the other. Adults, perhaps aware of the social and political risks of alliances, seem less comfortable in building them.

In my opinion as a parent and professor, these are just a few of the many ways that kids tend to outperform adults in negotiations. Of course, adults generally have a good reason for their behavior: If they acted like a kid indiscriminately and across situations, they’d be kicked out of every social circle and organization. So the message is not to become a kid completely and at all times. It’s to recognize the true negotiations we face and use our cultivated wisdom to consider whether a small dose of childhood audacity might help.

Parenting by imposing a bad alternative: The battle of the stuffed pig

Parents universally struggle with fighting kids. Whether the battle concerns toys, TV shows, or name-calling, bickering opportunities about.

Faced with fighting kids, many parents detect two unappealing options: Take a side and appear to arbitrarily play favorites. Or avoid intervening and hope they figure it out. I’m here to suggest a third way that can make such situations more negotiable: imposing an unappealing alternative.

To see why that helps, let’s analyze the situation: When two kids bicker, a nearby parent becomes an obvious third-party. By imposing a decision, the parent becomes a particular type of third-party—an arbitrator—and may therefore be seen as arbitrary. By avoiding the issue entirely, the parent becomes a different type of third-party—an observer—hoping beyond hope for a cooperative solution that may never arrive in the presence of a seemingly costless impasse.

But a third type of third-party—a mediator—is probably better suited to solve this problem than either of the previous options. And, while there are many ways to mediate, a common mediation strategy is to highlight or even impose a bad alternative.

Let me illustrate with a story—not that it happened to me last week. Imagine two young children who both simultaneously demand the incredible opportunity to cuddle with a particular stuffed pig. As any parent can tell you, this situation could turn ugly quickly. But what if a parent suggested that, should the kids not identify a fair solution themselves, the pig was about to cuddle with the parent instead, perhaps permanently?

Since the parent hasn’t made a decision about the pig’s status, this approach avoids the adverse perceptions associated with arbitration. And since the parent has motivated cooperation by raising the costs of impasse, it’s considerably more potent than silent observation.

If this whole situation had happened to me, not that it did, the kids would’ve quickly seen the need to sharpen their conflict resolution skills and come up with a solution. Indeed, they would’ve rapidly surfaced the obvious idea that the pig could cuddle with one kid one night and the other kid the next—obvious, but invisible and impossible for two angry parties who attach no obvious costs to impasse.

The point is that parents naturally become third-parties when their kids go to war. Imposing a solution makes them an arbitrator; avoiding the issue makes them an observer. Better yet is a mediator, and parents have the ability to act as a high-powered mediator who not only encourages agreement but motivates it by altering the alternatives. Do that, and the most intractable conflicts we face—battles with the gravity of a stuffed pig—suddenly become more negotiable.

Assurances from an adult: A stopgap strategy for negotiating with kids

I’ve written often about the importance of trust in negotiations. Unfortunately, little children don’t always display an abundance of it—for example, when a sibling or friend wants to play with their preferred toy. To make the lack of trust negotiable, we need something more. Luckily, there’s a device that can help at least on occasion: assurances from an adult.

Consider the following three examples from my own household:

  1. Whenever my younger daughter is playing with something and I ask her to do something else like brushing her teeth, she reliably responds: “But someone will take it!” And, with that prospect looming, good luck getting the teeth brushed. Indeed, the teeth might have remained forever coated in plaque had I not discovered a way of offering an assurance—and bear with me because it sounds stupid: “hawk eyes.” I offer to watch her toy with my very own “hawk eyes,” at which point I dramatically widen my eyes and focus them on the toy in the manner of a deadly serious hawk. Somehow, it seems to work.
  2. The same daughter, while dilly-dallying at the end of a restaurant meal that lasted 12 times longer than any dinner should, expressed disdain when we unilaterally decided to box up her food. “But someone else will eat it!” she insisted. I should’ve seen that coming. While the hawk eyes might have worked in this case too, I decided to try something new: borrow her crayon and write her initials on the to-go box, such that no one else would even dare to dip their paws in her mac ‘n cheese. It calmed her down, eventually.
  3. Finally, my older daughter sometimes worries when leaving for school or summer camp that the younger one will play with and proceed to lose or warp her puzzle pieces. It’s only when I personally promise to preside over the puzzle, placing responsibility for the pieces squarely on my own person, that she musters the will to leave.

And so, when trust is lacking, assurances can offer a powerful stopgap—in the case of toys and food and puzzles but really in any case when a kid distrusts someone else’s intentions. Of course, none of this is to undercut the importance of trust itself; assurances offer a supplement rather than a substitute. But it’s a supplement that may well prevent WWIII.

Many negotiations in a Mexican restaurant

It never fails to amaze me how many of our daily interactions involve negotiation. Such is the point of this blog! But a recent trip to a Mexican restaurant really drove home the point, so I thought I’d relay it in the spirit of making life negotiable.

Consider the following five negotiations, all from a single Mexican dinner:

  1. With a busy host: On our way into the restaurant, I saw a sign offering free bowling coupons to patrons. But I saw no bowling coupons upon entry. So I had to negotiate with the host by asking where I could find the elusive coupons. And the harried host looked none too pleased to track them down. But eventually, we got them. And this illustrates the principle: if you want something, ask for it!
  2. With a busy waiter: In the process of scarfing down her chips, my younger daughter seemed to get a crumb stuck in her throat. It was nothing major, but she did feel uncomfortable. So I had to flag down the first waiter I saw for some water. Unfortunately, he was carrying seven margaritas at the time. And he looked none too pleased at my interruption. But he brought the water, and pronto, when I explained. This illustrates the principle: don’t back down from your most important needs.
  3. With my older daughter: My older daughter, during the chip incident, had gone to the bathroom with mommy. That left daddy to order the drink I thought she’d like – a delicious cup of apple juice. But inevitably, daddy was wrong. What she wanted was pink lemonade. Of course! So I decided to suggest a contingency contract: If you’re still thirsty after the ginormous apple juice, I’ll buy you a lemonade. (Inevitably, she wasn’t.)
  4. With both daughters: Both daughters like to put 12 shakes of salt on each chip. Unfortunately, that’s a ticket to the cardiologist. So I had to negotiate over the salt, specifically by promising to dispense a moderate amount of salt over the entire chip basket if they would promise to drop the salt shaker. This illustrates the topic of concessions: I was willing to make a small concession in service of a greater good (my daughters’ long-term health and wellbeing).
  5. With my wife: I wanted a second margarita, as I usually do. My wife didn’t want her first, as she usually doesn’t. But I forgot my wife’s preferences and started to order my second. Luckily, she interrupted my order by offering hers, thereby illustrating an integrative solution: she saved us $15, and I got entire margarita minus one sip.

Through these somewhat silly and mundane examples, I hope you see how common negotiations can be. While few of our meals involve five negotiations, most of our lives involve negotiation in some way or another. So here’s to making life negotiable!

“No conditions on hugs!” Three situations that don’t call for concessions

Let me introduce you to one of the world’s best negotiators: she’s five and sleeps across the hall. Why does she qualify as one of the world’s best? Because she always knows exactly what she wants and takes every—I mean every—opportunity to ask for it. In particular, she sees all of my requests as opportunities to extract concessions.

“Can you please eat the rest of your dinner?” “Only if I get an extra piece of candy.”

“Can you please brush your teeth?” “Only if I get an extra story.”

In the interest of supporting her budding aspirations as a negotiator, I sometimes play along, adjusting the initial offer accordingly. Knowing she’ll request an extra piece of candy to wrap up dinner, for example, I initially offer one rather than the allowable two.

But more often than not, I don’t play along. And this aspiring negotiator would do well to learn why. Indeed, every aspiring negotiator would do well to understand the underlying lesson: that many situations offer opportunities to extract concessions, but some just don’t. And understanding which is which is crucial for making life negotiable.

Three situations in which it’s probably not appropriate to request a concession:

  1. When a concession would devalue the discussion: In keeping with her strategy, my aspiring negotiator often seizes on the request for a bedtime hug by saying, “Only if you sing another song!” Setting aside the potential merits of another song, a father-daughter hug is sacred rather than transactional—sanctified rather than commoditized. And treating it as a commodity to be bought and sold only serves to devalue the discussion. “No conditions on hugs,” I say.
  2. When you already owe a concession. My little starling—hard as it is to believe—doesn’t spend every last moment having stellar behavior. What five-year old does? And when I observe the non-stellar behavior, it’s incumbent on me to communicate as much. “We don’t throw markers on the floor,” I might say, “and now we need to have a timeout.” “Ok, but only if you let me watch a movie,” she might respond. But wait—it’s me who deserves a concession in the form of time served out—not she who deserves a concession in the form of cinematic magic.
  3. When the same concession request has been denied a hundred times before. Typically, at the end of a school day, I ask my starling to tell me anything interesting or important that happened that day. “Ok, I’ll only tell you two things,” she might say. “No, I’d like you to tell me anything interesting or important,” I always say, after which about ten things spontaneously pop out. But my aspiring negotiator, not to be deterred, requests the same concession the very next day. Now, the best negotiators are certainly persistent in the face of adversity, and they certainly try again when their first attempt is denied. But after the hundredth denial, they also conclude that they need to focus their concession requests on a more negotiable issue.

In sum, my five-year old is a master negotiator in many senses of the word. But she has yet to learn one of the most important lessons, as have many people who rank themselves among the world’s best negotiators: there’s a time and place to request concessions, as well as a time and place to accede to other people’s wishes. Identifying and accepting the latter situations can make everyone’s life more negotiable.

Convincing kids to do things, part II

Last week, we considered convincing multiple kids to do things, characterizing the whole process as a multiparty negotiation. This week, let’s consider convincing one kid to do one type of thing: something good for them but not particularly appealing. For example: eating their veggies, getting their flu shot, or making some form of physical contact with the ocean during an expensive and time-consuming beach trip (not that the last holds direct personal relevance).

In my experience, a few simple, research-based tips can make these beneficial but fear-eliciting requests a bit more negotiable. For example, you might try to:

  1. Make an aggressive but justifiable first offer: Do you actually hope they ultimately eat but one veggie? I’d suggest starting by asking them to eat all their carrots, broccoli, and spinach. Then, when you eventually back down to carrots, you’ve become a reasonable and accommodating parent rather than an intransigent and annoying one.
  2. Plan for judicious concessions: I wouldn’t recommend jumping right from all of all three veggies down to the carrots alone. If you do, they’re likely to try and nix the carrots too. Instead, I’d suggest an initial concession of half the spinach, most of the broccoli, and all the carrots (or something like that). Then, make smaller and smaller concessions as you approach all the carrots, thereby signaling to your aspiring negotiator that you’ll go no further.
  3. Ask why: The most powerful word in the negotiator’s dictionary is “why.” Why? Because it often paves the way toward a creative solution. Perhaps it’s patently obvious they’re afraid of the ocean because of its immense waves. But then you ask why and hear something about its probably chilliness or sharp shells—problems you could solve by asking them to submerge a finger or wear their water shoes.
  4. Treat it as a multi-round negotiation: Supposing your aggressive first offer doesn’t work, you could always try the reverse: a multi-round negotiation in which you ask for a little and then progressively request more. Will your nervous daughter perhaps dip her toes today, wade to her waist tomorrow, and catch some crazy surf the third day? (For more on #1 versus 4, here’s a good reference.)
  5. Introduce new issues: Let’s be honest: there’s very little to like about a flu shot (other than avoiding the flu). Even you don’t even like it, so your kid won’t either—and you won’t get far by touting its benefits. In that case, you might consider adding an issue—namely, an issue that your kid will find more appealing than the shot, like stickers or lollipops. Introducing one of these possibilities upon the successful completion of the flu shot could spell the difference between a meltdown and mature acceptance.

In sum, adults know they have to do things they don’t much like. But kids often don’t, necessitating a creative and thoughtful strategy on behalf of their parents. Here’s hoping some simple tips can make these fearsome situations a bit more manageable.