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.

 

Why won’t they eat (sleep, use the potty)? Making the first offer to a toddler

Why not start with one of the toughest problems of all—convincing a toddler to do what you want them to do? If you have kids, you know that this problem often seems insurmountable. From eating, to sleeping, to using the potty, your priorities for toddlers only occasionally correspond to their priorities for themselves. Not that I’m speaking from experience.

Yet, this problem is not insurmountable. It’s negotiable.

Now, negotiations with toddlers could fill up a book or two, and chances are that future blog posts will take up the topic. But today, I’ll just touch on one research-based negotiation principle that I consider useful for this situation: making the first offer.

Negotiation research shows that, with a few notable exceptions that I will probably discuss in the future, it’s generally a good idea to make the first offer—that is, to make an offer before the other side does. Why? Because doing that focuses their attention on what you want—your goals—rather than what they want. Focused on what you want, they adjust their own goals.

This principle applies to toddlers in many ways, but let’s discuss just one, in the context of convincing a toddler to eat their dinner. If your toddler doesn’t like to do that, the typical evening probably looks something like this: you sit them down in front of a lovingly-prepared plate. They stare at it dubiously while you eat your own food, all the while imploring them in increasingly frustrated terms to eat theirs. Eventually, the pot boils over and someone gets upset—either they or you. Either way, the toddler throws a tantrum and refuses ever more strenuously to eat. Eventually, perhaps, you give in and offer them an array of goodies—a cookie, Sesame Street, a new toy—whatever will quell the rising storm. They demand TWO cookies AND Sesame Street; exhausted, you agree, and they win.

There are at least two problems with this approach: you give them more than the one cookie you really wanted to, and you reinforce the idea that temper tantrums “work,” thus creating the impetus to throw another one tomorrow. On the basis of negotiation research, how about trying this instead? Before even sitting them down at the table, say something like: “Now it’s important to eat our dinner. If you eat all of your dinner tonight, you can have one cookie. If you don’t eat all of your dinner, you can’t have any cookies.” No guarantees with a toddler (to offer one would be the height of foolishness), but mine often smiles and digs into dinner.

Note what you’ve done here: you’ve made a clear first offer, on your terms. You’ve focused the toddler on your goal—eating the dinner—while offering them something that satisfies their own goal—getting a cookie. In the process, you’ve avoided throwing in the second cookie and Sesame Street, and you’ve also avoided setting the precedent that bad behavior gets rewarded. Family serenity prevails.

I consider this an effective strategy, but also one to use sparingly. Just like you don’t want to reinforce tantrums, you don’t want your toddler thinking that the only reason to behave well is an extrinsic reward like a cookie. So this is a strategy that I’d recommend using occasionally, if and only if you’ve got a problem with your toddler’s behavior. But it is a strategy, and that’s better than a dinnertime meltdown.

What do you think? Have you used a similar approach, and if so, how did it go?